Mark Carruthers: When will normality return? One year on from South Shields’ home clash against title rivals FC United of Manchester
This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the last North East non-league fixture to take place without restrictions or limitations on the number of supporters in attendance.
It would be safe to say that there was a strong sense of anticipation surrounding South Shields’ home clash against Northern Premier League Premier Division title rivals FC United of Manchester.
The two heavyweight step three clubs were sat in the top two places in the Premier Division table and the Mariners held a nine-point advantage over their visitors.
A home win would take Graham Fenton and Lee Picton’s side a long way towards securing promotion into the National League North and setting up possible North East derbies with the likes of Gateshead, Darlington and Spennymoor Town.
However, there was a notable air of uncertainty at Mariners Park as football slowly started to come to terms with the looming impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There were visible signs of doubt as supporters straddled both sides of the mask or no mask debate as they milled around the ground, some at a social distance, others in the more traditional sense of togetherness.
An ever-so-familiar aroma of burgers, hot dogs and beer lingered, and the noise of pre-match chatter was combined with the newly arrived echo of the slap and squelch of hand sanitiser.
Players and coaching staff of both clubs swapped pleasantries with an awkward mix of old-fashioned handshakes, fist-bumps and the then-curious sight of an elbow bump.
The high-profile fixture was always expected to attract attention from the non-league press pack – but there was a notable increase in the number of local and national media around the ground as North East football took its first steps into the Covid-world.
After all, the Premier League and EFL were on hold, the Northern Premier League ploughed on for one last hurrah before lockdown was imposed and the controversies that were to follow drew ever closer.
On the pitch, the two sides delivered something of a football feast before the famine that was to follow over the coming months.
Goals flowed with regularity, defending was an abandoned theory and supporters of both sides were treated to an eight-goal thriller as thoughts of a tight and nervy top-of-the-table clash went out of the window.
South Shields always looked the more likely to come out on top and two goals from former FC United striker Jason Gilchrist and one from Josh Gillies gave them a healthy lead at the interval.
The visitors responded well after the interval as the in-form and ever-dangerous Tunde Owolabi briefly reduced the arrears before another former FC United player – Nathan Lowe – restored the Mariners three-goal lead.
Owolabi would go on to complete his hat-trick with two clinical finishes that would help him on his way to subsequent moves to SPL side Hamilton Academicals and League of Ireland club Finn Harps.
But any thoughts of a miraculous comeback had already been ended after on-loan Sunderland youngster Bali Mumba grabbed the only goal of his all-too-temporary stint with South Shields.
A buzz of electricity and excitement surged around the ground as any thoughts of the pandemic were cast aside in preference of the extraordinary events that had taken place between the white lines.
Full-time brought the usual roar of approval from the home faithful as the media pack swapped notes on what had been a remarkable 90 minutes of non-stop action - but just days later, the action was brought to a halt and, it is yet to resume in the traditional form.
Supporters have remained at a distance as live streams, limited attendances and frustrating postponements became the story of the current season.
That season is all-but-over now, with only the tick-box exercise of a ratification from the FA Council needed to finalise the curtailment of a second consecutive campaign.
Thoughts have already turned towards a return to normality and just when the gates will be opened without limitation on the number of supporters that will make a joyous return.
When will the unrestrained joy and embrace of post-goal celebration be free of uncertainty on and off the pitch? When will supporters stand or sit side-by-side without taking into account social distancing?
When can clubs reopen vital revenue streams such as merchandising stalls and food and drinks outlets that have been cut off for best part of a year?
When will normality return and will it even resemble what went before in a pre-Covid world or will the lingering impact of the pandemic remain in place?
The government have suggested that there is a best-case scenario of supporters returning without limitation from the middle of June in a welcome boost for clubs that have struggled throughout the last year.
That would mean we could or should look forward to next season with reinvigoration of the joy, passion and anticipation that are staples of any “normal” matchday.
There should, of course, be lessons learnt from the last year and caution is always required before we get too carried away.
These are “best-case scenarios” but there can be no doubt that we are heading towards the return of supporters to non-league grounds around the region.
How that will look and when it will happen is still uncertain but let us never take for granted the eager anticipation of matchday and relishing the time we spend side-by-side on the terraces and stands at the clubs we all know and love.