A year without fans lays bare soccer's true soul
A year ago at The Shay, home to fifth-tier English soccer club Halifax FC, fans followed time-honoured traditions - they walked to the match from local pubs and queued for pie at half time.
Everton fans watch Everton's Jill Scott before a Women's Super League football match between Everton and Manchester United at Walton Hall Park.
But the 2,000 or so supporters also sensed things were about to change. While they could watch their team play that day, games in leagues above them had been cancelled across England as the coronavirus pandemic spread.
"I have a feeling this might be the last football match that takes place in the country for a good while," said fan Nathan Sinclair.
He was right.
Stickers to enforce social distancing are stuck on seats on the day of a Premier League football match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion at Molineux Stadium.
For over three months, there was no soccer of any kind in England, where it is by far the most popular sport.
The Premier League - the world's richest - and the Football League returned in mid-June, while teams like Halifax in the tier below had longer to wait.
Across the spectrum games have restarted on the field, yet stadiums remained empty barring a handful of exceptions in December, depriving the sport of its lifeblood.
Fans have been able to watch from home only, and what they have seen is a recognisable game in an unrecognisable context, despite efforts to compensate for the absence of crowds.
Clubs have covered empty seats with banners, flags, advertising and slogans, and in some cases cut-out faces of fans, while broadcasters use simulated crowd noise. But attempts to mitigate the lack of crowds can only do so much.
An Assistant referee wears rainbow laces as he makes his way to the pitch via the emergency gate, instead of the tunnel, on the day of a Championship football match between Stoke City and Middlesbrough at the bet365 Stadium. The tunnel is for the home team only, everyone else gets changed in different areas of the stadium. He's waiting for the away team who get changed in a temporary building in the car park.
Players have struggled as well as supporters.
"It's horrible to play without fans, it's a very ugly sensation," said Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, whose great rival Cristiano Ronaldo agreed.
"Playing without fans is like going to the circus and not seeing clowns, it's like going to the garden and not seeing flowers," said the Juventus forward.
BT Sport pundit Paul Scholes reacts after the side he used to play for, Manchester United, missed a chance to score during a Premier League football match between Leicester City and Manchester United at King Power Stadium.
For the small number of media allowed to attend games, the reality had been laid bare - a soccer match without fans is a soulless occasion.
Technique and tactics, endeavour and athleticism are there to be admired, but much of what makes a professional match special is strikingly absent.
West Bromwich Albion's Callum Robinson celebrates scoring a second goal in front of an empty stand on the day of a Championship football match between West Bromwich Albion and Queens Park Rangers at The Hawthorns. This game sealed their promotion back to the Premier League and would usually be followed by a pitch invasion, lap of honour and presentation but instead celebrations happened in the carpark with a few hundred fans.
It is not only the roar of a crowd when a goal is scored that is missing, but groans of frustration and applause of appreciation. The emotion has gone.
That makes life harder for the 22 players on the field and the support staff on the sidelines.
"Not seeing anyone in the stadium makes it like training, and it takes a lot to get into the game at the beginning," said Messi.
An academy player runs past Oakwell Stadium whilst the Barnsley and Bournemouth teams warm up inside, on the day of a Championship football match between Barnsley and AFC Bournemouth in Oakwell. Normally, at this point there would be thousands of people milling about but during lockdown the streets around stadiums are deserted.
For reporters, watching live soccer has been both a privilege and a stark reminder of what has been missing from our lives for the past 12 months - being together with friends, switching off from work and enjoying a drink, a joke, a celebration, an argument.
As the game in England prepares for the return of fans, their long absence might prompt the sport's administrators to reflect on what really counts.
The language of soccer is often that of a business - not surprising given it is a multi-billion-dollar global industry.
A portacabin toilet door is left open outside the bet365 stadium on the day of a Championship football match between Stoke City and Sheffield.
But the last year has shown that the sport has missed its passionate supporters as much as they have missed the sport.
English novelist J.B. Priestley summed up almost a century ago the escapism and drama that standing in the crowd can bring:
"...there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art."
PHOTO EDITING MARIKA KOCHIASHVILI; TEXT EDITING MIKE COLLETTE-WHITE
A steward guards an empty carpark before a Championship football match between Preston North End and AFC Bournemouth at Deepdale.