THESE past few months have been a challenge for everyone and even the return of Oxford United to action is bittersweet.

Cameron Brannagan’s winning penalty in the play-off semi-final should have been accompanied by one of the loudest roars in Kassam Stadium history.

The release of nervous energy would have been huge, but there was only a muffled cheer from the centre circle and directors’ box.

Instead, the delight – and, let’s be honest, sheer relief – was divided among thousands of living rooms across Oxfordshire and beyond.

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As one of those fortunate to watch it in person, the occasion was totally surreal.

But while the fans could not pack the stands, they were still everywhere you turned and it was a reminder of what a club is supposed to be about.

In these unfamiliar circumstances the United community did what they do best.

Looking across to the North Stand you could see a display of banners, sent in from across the country and carefully laid out by volunteers over the weekend.

Dominated by the huge tribute to Jim Smith – who, given his success at Portsmouth, was the one man who could not lose – there were dozens of smaller flags, proudly backing their side.

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In the stand unofficially named after the Bald Eagle were more than 1,000 cut-outs, many of them poignant.

The likes of Ricardinho, John Shuker and Simon Eastwood’s late grandmother had the best seats in the house for the shoot-out.

At the opposite end of the ground were two huge portable screens, displaying a Zoom call packed with United fans biting their nails.

Many other virtual meetings were set up to keep supporters connected and it added up to a collective presence which was far greater than it had any right to be given the empty stands.

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Karl Robinson’s heart resides on his sleeve most of the time, so there was little surprise he felt the emotion so keenly afterwards.

“I know what it means to a lot of people and it really does touch you,” he said, before going on to suggest Boris Johnson changes the government guidelines before Monday to allow a crowd at Wembley.

He was only half-joking.

If anything, the final will even stranger with 90,000 empty seats, but if the past few days have taught us anything, United fans will find a way to make their mark.