Mrs Football Nerd and I were among the chosen ones to be able to get tickets to go to a real live football match last Tuesday: an EFL Trophy tie between Leyton Orient and Bristol Rovers. While the social distancing measures, compulsory facemasks and most importantly the pubs in the surrounding area and concession and bar facilities being closed, meant that it wasn’t quite how we remembered it, it was really good to be back into the routine of watching live football once again. To be able to watch the game across a full pitch and not on a screen along with the spontaneous singing, cheering, moaning and jibing at the officials were both reassuringly familiar and yet somehow strangely unfamiliar.
Our luck has held and given us the double bonus of going back on Saturday afternoon where we have already booked a two hour slot in our favourite pre-match pub so that we are able to enjoy
as many pints as we can possibly squeeze in a suitable substantial meal to keep Boris, Matt Hancock and their associated Government and NHS cronies satisfied that we are playing our part and sticking to the rules. The match being a Saturday 3pm kick-off with 2,000 other live football starved supporters, will no doubt further enhance the feeling that we are on our way back to some kind of normality.
I wrote on these pages last month that I feared that the ongoing lockout from football grounds was changing, perhaps forever, the relationship we have with our clubs (Football Nerd Weekly Ramblings: Is the ongoing lockout from football grounds changing our relationship with our clubs?). In essence the thrust of that piece, written before the promising news about effective vaccines, was that we might never get back to our normal football-watching routine and that would in all likelihood change our relationship with the game that is so central to our very lives. A football match is so much more than the ninety minutes played out on the pitch, it is about the routine and structure that it gives to our lives, the habits, the rituals, the travelling to matches, the socialising element, a distraction away from the more mundane elements of normal life. If I am brutally honest about my life, the next game I am going to has always been the main focus of my week, I have often pseudo-jokingly stated that only reason I show up at work is to kill time between football matches!
During the ongoing lockout I have watched every game Arsenal and Leyton Orient have played as well as countless others from the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and beyond, but the build up to each hasn’t been the same. Nor has the feeling after the game, the elation of a win is distilled by the fact that you are in your own front room, not with similarly minded others enjoying the moment with that unavoidable inane grin of joy. Defeats are easier to take as you can simply distract yourself by doing something else within a matter of minutes, rather than stewing, sulking or getting downright angry or despondent about how your team is doomed forever as you travel home. (Ed’s note: that has probably been a good thing for my state of mind given Arsenal’s recent ‘performances’!).
For some time, even before Coronavirus changed the world as we know it, I felt myself becoming more and more disenchanted by the Premier League and its relentless commercial greed, and by association Arsenal. Even fourteen years after its opening the Emirates is still a stunning sporting venue, but it still doesn’t feel like home, it lacks the idiosyncrasies that make football grounds unique and special places. Don’t get me wrong, I am of course way too obsessed with football to even think about packing in my season ticket, especially given how much they owe me for games I have paid for but not been allowed to attend! In many ways it is this feeling of alienation that probably led me down the road to following Leyton Orient as often as I could, as that feels more real, more like the football that I fell so hopelessly in love with as a young kid.
As I wrote in that piece last month: “The matchday experience made us put up with so much…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 that we haven’t been able to go to matches for such a long time, I am starting to see football at the very top level for what it has become: a TV-based live action drama and a vehicle for commercial interest where the target audience is the global TV market not the fans who used to be allowed to attend matches. Now that those of us who are ‘lucky’ enough to live in Tier 2 areas in England, for the time being at least, are allowed to watch matches in very limited numbers I have to confess that endeavouring to get one of the precious 2,000 tickets for a Europa League dead rubber last week didn’t appeal, nor did I greet the news that I wasn’t one of the chosen ones for Sunday evening’s game at home to Burnley in the graveyard slot, with the usual gnashing of teeth and anger that I would have in the past.
I guess where I am fortunate is that Mrs Football Nerd and I chose, as much to support the club through these difficult times as for any match-going reasons, to get ourselves season tickets for Orient this season. If 2,000 fans rattle around the Emirates or any other Premier League ground, that number almost reaches half the usual attendance at Brisbane Road, so to be there tomorrow afternoon will feel much more like the game we remember before all of this. Assuming London isn’t put into Tier 3 and/or there isn’t another national lockdown, that should mean that we will be able to go to at least every other home game, if not more if capacities are allowed to increase as we approach the spring and the promised more normal times.
At the lower league level, the connection between club and supporters remains strong, the players are not paid at such eye-watering levels that they seem so far removed from us humble supporters. The communication from Orient’s owners and chief executive over these very tough months have been delivered with a genuine feeling of missing how things used to be and sincerity that they are desperate to welcome us back to the Brisbane Road, rather than looking to fleece us for the hard-earned cash that they haven’t been able to get from us for the best part of a year.
I have no doubt that when my number does come up in the ballot and I am chosen for a return to the Emirates, I will go with that familiar sense of excitement that I have always had, but that is likely to be one at the most two appearances before the end of the season unless there is a drastic increase in permitted capacities. Maybe things will be more normal next season once most of the population has been vaccinated and fans can attend in much greater numbers, until then though I am so grateful that I have Leyton Orient and Brisbane Road to sate my football obsession.