Football – we have been told repeatedly – is “nothing without fans”. On Wednesday they finally returned – evenly spaced in their tier 2 world. Such is the nature of how quickly we adapt to things, it almost came as a shock seeing human beings standing behind the goal as I watched Cambridge United’s 1-0 defeat to Mansfield on my laptop.
It was strangely emotional as the U’s walked out from underneath the main stand to generous applause. Within a minute of Carlisle’s game with Salford, fans were booing the referee. Perhaps it won’t take long to get back to normal.
If football is nothing without fans, by definition it is everything with them. So what exactly is it with a small number of evenly spaced ones who are allowed to deliver chants only in spoken word form, and quietly at that? At what point does a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone go from rousing anthem to performance poetry?
This is not to underestimate the quite incredible work done by clubs to get even a tiny proportion back. From the Premier League down to League Two – it isn’t making them money. The symbolism of their return is huge. It means something.
This week on TalkSport, I interviewed someone from a company called Movement Strategies – a crowd dynamics consultancy. They have helped clubs get fans back in, by going into forensic detail – down to working out exactly how long it takes for a Charlton fan to go to the toilet at half-time.
They also worked with Cambridge, helping just under 2,000 fans get into the Abbey Stadium. It was probably a happy medium – looking socially distant and busy enough at the same time.
And while it feels like a significant moment in the journey back to normality, I do understand those fans who don’t want to return until it’s exactly as it was before the pandemic.
Going to football means different things to different people – inextricably linked to family, friends, company; defined as much by your journey, your pre-match ritual, your post-match pint as by the game itself.
And at the heart of any match is the goal. The rare moment of joy. Football is great because goals don’t happen that often. Without trying to sensationalise things, they are really quite an important part of the whole affair. And for the same reason we should dispose of VAR because of its impact on that single moment, celebrating a goal in a socially distant manner just doesn’t feel right.
I vividly remember a game in February 1994 – mid-table Cambridge taking on play-off-chasing Port Vale in Endsleigh League Division 2 (now League One). It was snowing. There was an orange ball – in an age where an orange ball was an event in itself.
I have no recollection of the first 90 minutes. But in injury time, a 19-year-old Gary Rowett slammed one into the bottom corner. What I do remember is the celebration. The unhinged delirium behind the goal. Screaming, jumping, bundling. The technical term these days is #limbs; hugging people you barely know, suddenly face to face in the melee with a stranger, you embrace – and then return to your spot as if it never happened.
In between those moments of ecstasy, hours of very little – of meandering conversation punctuated by the occasional bout of frustration at a missed chance or a refereeing decision or the silent pain of conceding.
I have quite often got mind-numbingly bored at football. In the early days I’d play “guess what advertising hoarding I’m thinking of” with my mates. “Arbury Fastfit” and “Castle Flooring” were two favourites. On evening games I would start gazing at the silhouette of the tree behind the Habbin Stand while a white Mitre Delta would occasionally come into my field of vision as it was hoofed this way and that.
But there will always be goals. And there will always be celebrations. Now settled into middle age – where social distancing becomes a life strategy – I might not want to bundle into people next to me, but I don’t want to have to think about not even mindlessly high-fiving a stranger. And I want someone to talk to in the downtime.
Until then the closest I get might be collapsing in disappointment on an exercise bike in my spare room as Barrow head a 96th-minute equaliser. or yelping in relieved joy as Paul Mullin scores our last goal behind closed doors at Cheltenham. I don’t know
And will we miss the tiny silver linings the absence of a crowd has brought? The sound of a beautifully struck ball, a post being smacked, a net rippling. Should we be grateful that nobody had to endure Brighton 0-0 Burnley? Will 2,000 fans be enough to drown out Rob Holding yelling “brick shithouse”, and the subsequent commentator apology? I hope not.
I feel guilty for occasionally getting swept away in a game during this period and momentarily forgetting there were no fans there to see it. I feel guilty for preferring the fake crowd noise to real life. I don’t want the Premier League to sound like my amateur football team. It has been a release and a distraction to the monotony of not being able to plan further than a week ahead. But it has also felt depressingly transactional.
Lockdown hasn’t proved that match-going fans matter to me. I knew that already. Football fans knew that already – regardless of whether it’s every game, home and away, or just the odd one every season.
The real question is whether lockdown has proved that match-going fans matter to the people who can actually make a difference – the ones who move kick-offs around at the last minute, who charge too much for tickets, who don’t check the last train back to Manchester.
A pandemic meant every Premier League game on TV, no 3pm blackout, proof that the games can happen without fans. Hopefully a vaccine means football goes back not just to normal but it listens to the people who matter the most – the ones with the quietest voice, even when they’re allowed to sing and shout at their loudest again.