At 7pm, a referee named Ben Speedie blew into his whistle. Lewis Alessandra of Carlisle United passed the ball from the centre spot back towards Aaron Hayden. Finally, in the gentle breeze of a late summer night, football returned to Brunton Park.

This simple but weirdly historic moment came 175 days after a ball had last been kicked at Carlisle’s ground. Who would have anticipated a year where consecutive games would be played on the dates of March 10 and September 1?

Welcome, once more, to 2020. The nervous reawakening of the game at this old, familiar place came in suitably modest circumstances and, given the oddness of the general climate, those of us fortunate to be there had to remind ourselves that this was indeed the real thing: competitive action, back before our eyes.

Other clubs higher up the chain have got used to this now: meaningful games behind closed doors, sanitised through necessity, watched in person only by Covid-tested squads, coaches, officials and carefully-shepherded media. This EFL Trophy group game, though, was Carlisle’s first proper fixture of the coronavirus world. 

The Blues, like their peers, have had to clear many hurdles just to get this far. The financial and safety challenges of the pandemic, the requirement to build a new squad for a campaign like no other, the logistical efforts needed simply so football could happen again. 

Here, though, we were: a success in those fundamental respects before considering the detail of the game: a 3-1 victory for Fleetwood after Gime Toure had opened the scoring for United, the Blues man then receiving a straight red card shortly before the end. 

It all happened, naturally, without fans. Supporters will be the last people allowed back into grounds, which is hardly the way the game of the people should normally be. We are still a while from that, though, so these early outings of 2020/21 will have the soundtrack of players’ shouts and managers’ instructions in an otherwise barren place of echoes. 

However many people would normally have been here for a game in this contentious, unloved competition is another matter, but it’s probably safe to assume there was more curiosity out there than normal towards United’s first activity in the Trophy. 

To some this will feel like the natural conclusion of a “B Team” format which has alienated many fans of lower-league clubs: barely consequential fixtures now rattling around actual empty stadiums.

The obligations of Covid-19 have forced the doors shut this time. This game, in northern group A, was in many ways a test case both for United’s ability to get the general planning right, and also how their new team might operate over the coming months. 

As with a number of their friendlies, it was League One opposition first. Chris Beech’s first selection saw seven debutants, two other new signings on the bench and a cluster of young players too, with one or two absent (Joshua Kayode the latest to be injured). Fleetwood held one or two of their bigger names back but there was still ample League One pedigree in Joey Barton’s opening offering of 2020/21. 

Fleetwood exited the tunnel first; a minute later, Carlisle emerged. There were small ripples of applause from the directors’ area and the usual public address announcements – and then, at the toss, total silence, which was eventually broken by United keeper Paul Farman slapping his gloves together and shouting.

Before kick-off, every player took a knee. A few moments later, we were under way, Carlisle in a 4-3-3 line-up and trying to figure out a first way forward in this belated season. Fleetwood’s football was the brighter initially, Wes Burns driving into their left side and James Hill missing a free header from a corner.

Carlisle, though, gradually found their sea legs and some more energetic pressing and sharper passing led to a deflected Danny Devine shot and then two real chances at both ends. First, Josh Morris pipped Jon Mellish to a clearance and saw his shot parried by Farman, giving Callum Camps a chance the midfielder failed to take. 

United then launched a sudden riposte which saw a Fleetwood corner worked away and up the pitch as Toure barreled through, only for Joel Coleman to save, as the keeper did again when Gavin Reilly launched the rebound towards the target.

Carlisle had certainly discovered a snappier style around the midway stage, Toure showing some outbreaks of skill on the left and Joe Riley the next to have an effort blocked, and while it did not particularly yield lots of chances, nor did Fleetwood’s swift and persistent attempts down United’s right, Harvey Saunders slicing wide after Burns had crept to the byline. 

There was a degree of fear that Barton’s side would make one raid too many down that side but Rod McDonald restored some composure with a classy dispossessing of Saunders, and a few minutes later United took the lead: Coleman tipping over a deflected Nick Anderton shot, and the resulting corner finding its way in instalments to Toure at the back post, the new signing eventually managing to flick it over the line. 

Carlisle could not, alas, sustain their lead to half-time, a result of Fleetwood’s Danny Andrew finding a world of space in United’s vacated right-back area and crossing for the accomplished Camps, who arrived into generous space with perfect timing and passed the ball smoothly into the bottom right corner. 

It looked simpler than it probably was, and the same went for Fleetwood’s second, which came after a decent start to the half from Carlisle that saw Dean Furman involved as a half-time sub. Come the 57th minute, Burns’ cross led to a corner, and the deep delivery from the left cleared everyone except the unmarked Saunders, who stooped to convert a diving header. 

It was a serious set-piece malfunction and interrupted United’s attempts to unseat their third-tier visitors. Fleetwood duly put their feet further to the floor and when another cross came in from the left, Saunders was strongest in the air and powered the chance past Farman.

League One superiority was now on clear enough show. The way Carlisle conceded gave Beech plenty of grounds for work. The ever-dangerous Saunders almost nabbed a hat-trick at the back post and there was little sign, in the closing stages, of Fleetwood surrendering their composure, even though Toure did well to create himself a chance which ended up being deflected behind. 

The forward’s night then ended prematurely, as he kicked out frustratedly - and, it looked, aimlessly - after losing a decision against Burns; the swipe too close to the Fleetwood player for the officials' taste, Burns appearing to maximise the situation on the floor, and the red card eventually appearing from the referee’s back pocket.

Speedie then blew a last time, and that was that. Fleetwood had won, Carlisle had lost. The game, at this strangely silent scene, was back.