Manchester United have placed a banner directly behind the Stretford End goal where supporters would normally congregate.
It carries a quote attributed to legendary Manchester United boss Sir Matt Busby reading: “Football is nothing without fans.”
And on cold nights like this, with the passion removed from what is traditionally one of British football’s most intense occasions, the message carried even greater weight than normal as Manchester United and Manchester City played out a soulless, dismal derby deadlock at Old Trafford.
It was 279 days ago when United beat City 2-0 in front of packed, seething Old Trafford, inflicting decisive damage on their arch-rivals’ Premier League title aspirations last season.
This was yet another graphic example of how times have changed and there must be a measure of sympathy for players performing in such a sterile atmosphere instead of the pure theatre that was witnessed back on 8 March.
Even the addition of 2,000 fans under new rules has transformed the atmosphere inside stadia where they are allowed to attend, but with Manchester in lockdown tier three and no supporters allowed at all, this was enacted in front of vast empty stands accompanied by the soundtrack of the shouts of players and backroom staff from both sides.
Any fans who wished they could be here might have been swiftly put off by the over-cautious, cat-and-mouse approach from Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester City counterpart Pep Guardiola.
This was a game that started, finished and nothing much happened in between. Local honour was satisfied in a very unsatisfactory match.
There are bound to be games where fans are missed more than most – even the presence of a small number would have lifted the atmosphere and at least provided some positive urgings for two teams seemingly more intent on not losing than winning.
Supporters may just have provided that extra layer of inspiration, especially in some very uneventful closing minutes, but this is the current climate and ultimately this game got the result it deserved.
The final goalless outcome seemed inevitable for most of the second half, which was only lifted out of its torpor when referee Chris Kavanagh awarded a penalty after Kyle Walker’s lunge brought down Marcus Rashford.
If there was excitement for a few seconds, it soon ended as VAR intervened to rightly rule that Rashford was offside before being brought down by Walker.
And that was about it basically.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 12, 2020
Manchester United will be happy not to have lost after the error-strewn defeat by RB Leipzig sent them out of the Champions League in midweek.
Solskjaer can rightly point to a decent Premier League position but there is no doubt fresh, and perfectly understandable, questions about his management at elite level were being raised again following a shambolic performance in Germany.
This was a solid Manchester United display but one that lacked threat, one watched from the sidelines once more by £40m summer acquisition from Ajax, Donny van de Beek.
As United struggled for a creative spark and Solskjaer entrusted the midfield work to the likes of Fred, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay, he must have wondered what he has to do to get a start.
On the other hand, he might just have been glad to be out of it as this 90 minutes of dross unfolded.
Manchester City were clearly in no mood to be caught on the counter-attack, as happened when Solskjaer’s United did the Premier League double over them last season, but it took an edge off their own attacking efforts.
It resulted in a surprising lack of ambition from both sides, chances and quality almost non-existent, with even the probings of Kevin de Bruyne unable to fashion serious opportunities.
The final whistle sounded to some polite applause from observers and backroom teams but this was a world away from the usual sound and fury of a Manchester derby, a state of affairs reflected by the timid approach on the pitch.
United now stand only four points behind leaders Tottenham, hardly a position of crisis considering the criticism that has rained down on them this season, while City are a point and a place adrift.
This, however, was a desperately poor spectacle stripped of the sort of excitement associated with both teams in this fixture, and the lack of atmosphere and encouragement from the Stretford End and the rest of Old Trafford played its part.
The return of fans to some grounds only emphasised just how much they have been missed – their absence here for this dreadful Manchester derby rammed home the point.