IT’S curious how quickly we come to take things for granted. Sitting in empty football stadiums last season – as one of the privileged few to be granted access – you couldn’t help but pine for the return of supporters.

It has become something of a cliché, but Jock Stein’s immortal words ‘football without the fans is nothing’ really did hit home in those moments. Yes, the players and the supporters watching on from home on their streams still cared about it, but the heart and soul was missing.

What a relief and joy it has been then in these last few months to have the stands packed again, to hear the roar of the crowd when a goal goes in, the ‘oooohhhhhh’ exhaled as the ball whistles past a post, the howls of derision at referee decisions, even the disgruntled old timers venting their spleen about players who sometimes aren’t even on the field of play.

The former Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson told a story once about a fan seated in the Main Stand behind the dugouts at Fir Park, who gave him dog’s abuse for the entirety of a match one afternoon for his decision to keep midfielder Carl McHugh on the field of play, despite being – in the observer’s view – absolutely hopeless. Trouble was, McHugh had left the club some weeks previously.

Robinson told this tale not to have a go at the fan though. .It was relayed during lockdown, and he missed that back and forth with the crowd, for better or worse.

So, it is with some dread that football fans everywhere and all of those involved in the game – not least those who are tasked with balancing the books at our clubs – will have been watching the news this week through the cracks of their fingers.

The emergence of the Omicron variant has cast a shadow over the festive season, and we should of course acknowledge that the priority here is not only everyone’s health – particularly the vulnerable – but also protecting the already weary workers of the NHS from reaching breaking point.

What a blow it would be though to lose our access to football grounds once more, with the absence of that weekly ritual hammering home just how vital a part the sport plays in people’s lives.

Further down the chain too, the prospect of kids again losing their weekly game with their pals is also looming large, with many youth teams postponing all training now until the new year.

I can vouch for the impact the absence of such outlets can have on the mental health of a young person. Last March, just before the first lockdown, my own son played his last game for his team. Towards the end, he was weary but happy, coming off with a minute or two to go with his team a few goals to the good.

It was freezing cold, raining, and the wind would have cut you in two. But his smile was as wide as the Clyde. A couple of weeks later, he unfortunately suffered a spinal injury that still has him confined to a wheelchair, and there is no telling how long that may be the case.

Of all the things he has been denied during this excruciating trial, it is his football team that he misses most of all. The enjoyment of the game itself, of course, but also the social aspect of it. The common cause he and his pals were involved in together. And just having a laugh with them.

Of course, in that moment way back last March, you took it for granted. But not now. And while my son’s case may be an extreme one, the impact of lockdown denying football to so many thousands of youngsters up and down the country cannot be underestimated. It is why you too probably don’t take it for granted now if your son or daughter plays for a team, as you might have before.

That is also why the words of England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, during the week will have brought on a sense of foreboding.

"I think what most people are doing - and I think this seems very sensible - is prioritising the social interactions that mean a lot to them and, to prioritise those ones, de-prioritising ones that mean much less to them," Whitty said.

Yes, it is clear what Whitty would have meant. That Christmas gatherings with family would mean more than a work’s party prior to the big day, for instance. But this advice was extended also to football matches, which do mean so much to so many people.

All of those things that are true of playing youth football are true of the match-day experience too for thousands throughout this country. It’s their release, their social interaction. It’s not too dramatic to say that football literally saves lives.

But what can we do? Livingston manager David Martindale called for an immediate two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ yesterday, effectively extending the winter shutdown and postponing matches. The logic is sound in that already, we are seeing clubs struggling to cope with the effects of positive Covid tests once more.

Dundee United’s game against Rangers this weekend is in doubt as the Tannadice side struggle to cobble together a team, and St Johnstone striker Chris Kane missed his side’s trip to Ibrox during the week as his daughter had tested positive. The integrity of the competition – a thorny issue in Scotland at the best of times – is under threat according to Martindale.

The theory and the reality may be somewhat poles apart though. In an already congested fixture list, and with a winter World Cup to factor in for next season, quite when those games would be played is anyone’s guess.

Some stronger advice from those meant to be in charge would be helpful. Should fans go to games or not? It all rather seems like it is being left up to the individual, so that the public can be blamed if cases suddenly go through the roof. With football meaning so much to so many, thousands will continue to attend if given the choice.

We can only hope that the scaling back of social interactions at current levels is enough. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.