Chris Boden looks at Burnley’s return to action and the incident which brought shame on the town and the club
The great Bill Nicholson once said: "We must always consider our supporters, for without them, there would be no professional football."
And while professional football is currently going ahead, at least in the top two divisions of the game, it isn't football as we know and love it, not without the colour, the passion, the energy from the stands, and, in many games, the small percentages which can push teams on to pull out a result against the odds.
But while there are no fans at games for the time being, we could all do without the sort of so-called ‘supporter’ who made us sick to the pit of our stomach at the obnoxious stunt around kick-off at the Etihad.
Someone who brought shame on the town and the club, and visibly upset the players.
While the ignorant message flown on a banner by a plane, just as both sets of players were taking a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, was no excuse for Burnley’s comprehensive defeat, to see the embarrassment of skipper Ben Mee at full time was upsetting.
Mee came out afterwards to front up, and didn’t need asking about the incident, saying, unprompted: “I'm ashamed, embarrassed that a small number of our fans have decided to put that around the stadium.
“We have a group of lads in there who are embarrassed.
“These people need to come into the 21st century and educate themselves. They completely missed the point and don't represent what we're about. It's a small minority of people.
“It's not right, I totally condemn it. Hopefully these people can be taught on what the Black Lives Matter is trying to achieve. We want equality in society, in football, everything.”
Unfortunately, you only have to scroll through the comments on stories about the plane, about the players taking a knee, to see some people can’t be taught.
I don’t know how hard it is. I tweeted a placard I had seen on twitter which makes things very easy: “Let’s be clear, we said Black Lives Matter. We never said Only Black Lives Matter. In truth, we know that all lives matter. We’ve supported your lives through history. Now we need your help with black lives matter, for black lives are in danger.”
Some people never learn though, and one man could set back the reputation of Burnley significantly - a town stained by race riots in 2001, which, Stan Ternent claimed cost him the signing of Peter Crouch.
It was where the British National Party made their first electoral breakthroughs, leading to the unwanted tag of the “racist capital of Britain”.
Without getting into the Brexit argument, it is a town which voted by 66.6% to leave the European Union, which then voted in a Conservative MP for the first time in over 100 years in December - an area which “Tommy Robinson” saw fit to hold a rally last year.
The plane culprit, who will be banned for life by the club, is pictured with the far-right, anti-Islam activist, presumably at that rally, which says a lot about his leaning.
I’ve worked in the town since 1994, my mum trained to be a nurse here, I live in the borough, and know so many good people. I’ll always stand up for the town because I know the good work, the hard work, which goes on.
But, despite the club, and Burnley FC in the Community’s efforts over years, mud sticks unfortunately, not helped by ill-informed nonsense such as we saw from former England striker Darren Bent, who tweeted: “Strange considering Burnley have NO black players in there (sic) squad at all.”
Dwight McNeil countered: “As a player of BAME origin, I find Darren Bent’s comments tonight completely disrespectful, especially to my father, who is black and who has been a huge influence in my life and helped make me the person I am proud to be.“
You also get the ‘Brexit Burnley’ nonsense, with the club being the first since Middlesbrough in 2006 to have as many as 10 British players start a Premier League game.
I received an email calling Burnley “the pariahs of the PL. We all know your town is a hotbed of racial intolerance. The sooner your club is gone from the premier league the better. You make Millwall seem civilised.”
That’s just one email, but it hurts. Again, all because of one person.
Hopefully we won’t see that individual at a football game again, or those who think like him, when fans are allowed back in football stadiums.
And we need fans back in football stadiums.
At present, the game is still the game, albeit not at the intensity levels that match sharpness will bring.
But the whole experience is so hollow and lifeless without the lifeblood of supporters.
Everyone knew before Aston Villa kicked off Project Restart against Sheffield United, that supporters are the beating heart of the game, even in an era where ticket sales amount to a small percentage of clubs’ incomes.
But, actually being present at a game in the current climate, away from your sofa where even the canned crowd noise is not an option at your finger tips, underlines just what the masses bring to the game.
No one is sucking the ball into the net, as it can feel at times, willing their side to score, lifting the team when they need it most, or delighting in them delivering a performance to make them proud.
We’ve all been at games where there has been one man and his dog there - junior football, parks games, even reserve or youth team fixtures.
Indeed I remember one pre-season game at a somewhat sparsely-populated Bamber Bridge in the mid-1990s, as a fledgling reporter, when I put my head down long enough to write the details of a goal, to miss the fact it had been disallowed!
But this is another level altogether.
Sean Dyche often likes to review games back at the training ground without sound, taking the emotion out of it, to allow a more objective look back at what happened.
As a reporter, to sit there without company, just completely zoned into the game, it makes it easier to analyse, but the whole spectacle is hugely diminished.
We have to hope the authorities can relax restrictions to allow grounds to come alive again, in time for the start of next season, or the Premier League product will be a pale imitation of that admired around the world.
Obviously this is needs must, to compete the season both for sporting integrity, and, financially, to lessen any rebate to the broadcasters.
But even the rules have been adapted, to lessen the impact of three months away - with the use of five subs from nine, within three windows, and the introduction of drinks breaks midway through each half.
Dyche wasn’t in favour of bringing in five subs, and, before the wags start, not because he doesn’t always make use of his regular three.
The rule simply hands the bigger clubs another advantage, in that they can now make more use of their multi-million pound squads without weakening their side at all.
Dyche thought he would struggle to fill nine slots on the bench, and so it proved at the Etihad, on the back of injuries, and contractual situations.
He could only name seven, two of which were goalkeepers, and another three without a senior appearance between them, while Pep Guardiola could arguably put out two World-class XIs from his options available.
Burnley, despite competing well in the first half, were ultimately blown away, and life isn’t going to get any easier for Dyche without a number of key players, either injured, or out of contract.
We will sample Turf Moor in this new era for the first time on Thursday night, but, from Monday, it is clear every part of the journalist's ritual is different.
From travelling alone in your car - missing the pre and post-match takes of my colleagues Dan Black and Kelvin Stuttard.
To parking in a nigh-on deserted Etihad car park, rather than the hugely-impressive CFA complex over the road, and the imposing bridge which takes you across to the main stadium.
To having your temperature checked, and handing in the COVID-19 medical questionnaire to make sure you are fit to attend.
Usually there would be fans from both clubs milling around the bars and food outlets in City Square, but not for the foreseeable - just an eerie silence - a phrase that has cropped up in essentially every report I have read on the restart of football.
Reporting at Manchester City is one of the highlights of the season, despite never seeing Burnley win there.
You always get a warm Manchester welcome, and the delights on offer in the press room rival anything in the Premier League.
However, it is now a case of making your way through a gate and immediately up to the stand, maintaining social distancing, before taking your seat, which you are advised to stay in throughout, barring the need to visit the loo.
Here is where you do all your work, complete with PPE in the form of a mask - awaiting the team news an hour before kick-off, before watching the game play out against a backdrop of City flags and banners.
Then, no face to face contact with the manager to ask his thoughts, just logging into a Zoom chat, which serves a purpose, but takes away from the personal experience.
While reporters are hugely privileged to be allowed access to the games, as fans' season tickets go cruelly unused, there can be little enjoyment taken from a soulless experience, as, from a Burnley perspective certainly, we play out the season before we can return to some semblance of normality.