Yesterday here in England we entered the inevitable second national lockdown as a result of the ongoing (worsening?) Coronavirus pandemic, following the lead of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and many other countries in tightening the restrictions on our daily lives in a renewed attempt to bring down the surging infection rates and the quickly increasing number of cases. This time around elite football has been spared suspension… for now at least.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has attempted to assure the nation that things will go back to a tiered regional approach from the 2nt December, although I think you would be hard pushed to find too many people who believe him. Some believe it is likely to be extended while others feel that we might be allowed to enjoy a semi “normal” Christmas before being locked down again.
Whatever you believe, it seems any hope we have of being allowed back into football grounds, even in limited numbers, this season is far from likely. Some might suggest that even a return at the start of next season is optimistic at best. Which means that for the foreseeable future we will be confined to watching our football at home.
Already we have reached the seven-month mark since we were allowed to do one of the things that we enjoy the most to go and watch our teams play, and while I continue to watch every game that Arsenal and Leyton Orient play, as well as a hell of a lot of games that involve teams that I don’t have a particular affinity towards, I can’t escape the feeling that the connection that fans feels towards the game is changing. In an excellent piece in The Guardian newspaper last Monday, Jonathan Liew suggested that rather than asking what football without fans is, “The more unexplored question, to my mind, is what is happening to fans without football?”.
As the piece goes on to suggest, back in the days before Coronavirus (remember them?) it was an easy enough question for us to answer. It was our routine, a structure to our lives, a distraction, an escape from the routine of life, a chance to meet up with our mates, have a beer or several, eat over-priced and usually far from gourmet food, to travel around the country, or continent, the world even, meeting up with other like-minded
fools people on a shared adventure. Now, stripped back of the associated facets, rituals and habits that make it more than simply watching a match, it is oh so very different.
The matchday experience made us put up with so much, especially those of us who continue to follow our ever-increasingly money-oriented elite clubs. We have put up with fixtures rearranged at short notice for TV scheduling purposes, attended matches that are completed after the last train home has left, used precious annual leave for purely football reasons, tolerated the seemingly never-ceasing price rises and so much more simply because not being there isn’t an option for us hopeless football obsessives. Now though we have no other choice but to watch the games at home.
When football returned from its suspension, initially in June for the major leagues across Europe, and then with the start of the new campaign for those lower down, it was greeted with a tangible relief for football fans who had become desperate to watch matches where we didn’t know what was going to happen. An appreciation that nearly three months without live match action gave us a sense of reassurance when it came back. Never has the old adage of not appreciating what you have got until it’s gone rung so true. It was also however something that gave us hope, that it might take a while, but things were started to move back towards normality once again.
Once again however we find ourselves even further away from normal life, but worse the sneaking fear that there may never be a return to the way things used to be before the pandemic, football sadly, like so many other parts of the way we used to live, won’t be able to escape the impact.
Worryingly we have already been given some insight into how some of the big clubs might already be adapting the way they view the future of the game and their relationship with us the paying customers. Project Big Picture a powerplay disguised as a rescue package for the clubs in the lower leagues, the renewed push for a European Super League and the Pay Per View shambles which has seen fans wanting to watch their team fleeced for a further fee on top of the subscriptions we have to pay, all hint at a future vision of a TV-based game where access will only come at a premium price. Who needs to even consider the matchday fans when there aren’t any?
Thankfully the situation in the lower leagues in England is somewhat more fan-friendly in that the cost to watch the matches is much more reasonable. However, we know that this is a situation that is a short-term fix, to try to tide clubs over until fans are allowed back into the grounds, it is not a sustainable situation by any means. What if fans can’t come back next season? No club at that level can continue to operate at a loss for very long and it seems inevitable that many would fold unless they can start to generate their previous levels of revenue and soon.
For now, I guess we have to try to enjoy watching the matches even if it isn’t the same when it is played out in empty stadiums and hope there is a way back to the way things used to be. As the saying goes without hope what do any of us have?