EPL fans won’t shout down Man City: Neil Humphreys
Return of supporters will make a difference, but not to title race
The weird training-like matches and empty stands are no more. English Premier League fans are coming home.
A level playing field, on the other hand, will probably stay away.
When the new season kicks off on Saturday morning (Singapore time), full stadiums are expected after the British government relaxed Covid-19 restrictions last month.
Every club welcomes the return of the 12th man, but they would be even better off with the dozen men - and more - that Pep Guardiola gets to play with.
A crowd adds to the occasion, certainly. But it can't take away the dispiriting deja vu that comes with Manchester City taking £100 million (S$187.9m) from petty cash to buy Jack Grealish, especially if Harry Kane heads in the same direction.
Of course, no one disputes the obvious positives of packed stadiums.
Last season had a whiff of the Tokyo 2020 closing ceremony, with everyone involved just relieved that the high-wire act came off with no lasting damage.
There were many inspirational moments played out inside ghostly venues, with vested interests eager to amplify their magnificence to justify the whole thing going ahead in the first place.
These days, a sporting competition played in front of no supporters to satisfy the unforgiving demands of big business feels like a win, as long as infections do not spike. That's where we are right now.
So the turnstiles reopening has to be a welcome development, a clear indication that we might be heading for a new day - or the old days - where things look almost normal. The fans only sing if we're winning.
And there wasn't much of either last season, not really. City won their third title in four seasons by 12 points. They also contested the first all-petro club Champions League final against Chelsea, a kind of exclusive oligarchs-take-it-all affair.
But did the EPL itself really win? As a one-off experiment, last season proved that any football is better than no football, obviously, but silent football is training-ground football played at a faster pace. Same faces, same skills and even the same tempo much of the time, but something was always missing.
Data suggested that the loss of the 12th man contributed to more losses at home and erratic results. Liverpool at Anfield, to use the most obvious example, looked about as intimidating as a kennel of puppies.
Even if the loss of Virgil van Dijk and the relentless demands of three seasons of gegenpressing in both the EPL and the Champions League on a smaller squad arguably had a more detrimental effect on the club.
On the flip side, West Ham United had long laboured in the volatile conditions of the unloved London Stadium. And then the stands closed, the anxiety vanished and the Hammers qualified for the Europa League.
Either way, the roar from within is a performance-influencing drug. It's a shot of adrenaline or a sudden laxative, an uplifting seal of approval or a final confirmation that a player is having an absolute shocker.
In a binary world of black and white, lies and mistrust, a crowd's response remains one of the few examples of absolute truth in a shared space - it's immediate, instinctive and honest. It's also often really funny.
Yes, we've even missed the banter.
But the fans may inadvertently underline another return to reality, one that never really went away. Covid-19 just provided a convenient cover for a bit.
The failed European Super League and Lionel Messi's teary-eyed departure from a cash-strapped Barcelona highlight the panic-stricken condition of too many greedy clubs that over-reached for far too long.
Only the richest will avoid the pandemic-accelerated, self-inflicted chaos of mismanaged finances. Only those backed by state investment funds are fully immune to all of the above.
In the EPL, there's only one.
Across their last four campaigns, City averaged over 95 points a season. They outscored everyone else in the EPL last term without having a recognised striker for long periods. They were without real weakness, even before Grealish joined. What difference will fans make?
Ruben Dias and John Stones will not fold to a feisty full house. A boisterous crowd doesn't curtail Grealish's improvisation any more than a loud away end silences Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne or Ilkay Guendogan.
The rest of the EPL may boast tens of thousands in their stadiums, but only City have the billions where it really matters.