As ‘Project Restart’ draws ever-closer, columnist Paul describes the ups and downs of being a football fan, even when there’s none on.
I thought I would really miss football. In the week before it was all called off, I went to three games, following my team Norwich City. The games encapsulated our season: a 1-0 win at home against a high-flying Leicester side, a captivating penalty win at the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium in the FA Cup 5th round and then a back-to-earth-with-a-bump 0-1 defeat at Brammall Lane against an organised Sheffield United outfit.
Despite that defeat, my thirst for football was still high. As the week moved on and Mikel Arteta and then Callum Hudson-Odoi were diagnosed, and we knew very little about coronavirus, I started becoming edgy about attending the Southampton game at Carrow Road the following weekend. I had only decided the day before that someone else could borrow my season ticket when, at the 11th hour, the weekend’s fixtures were called off. A ball hasn’t been kicked since.
When the season resumes next week, it will have been three months without any action. Now, usually, we have a 2 to 3-month gap between seasons anyway, but this was a different period of time. No major tournaments to keep us engaged, no transfer rumours to get excited (or worried) about.
To be honest, I didn’t care.
Until the players stepped back into training, any interest in football had gone. There seemed more important things to worry about – the health of my family, whether I would still have a job (I didn’t as it turned out…) and the chemical balance in my newly acquired hot tub. I actually forgot about football for a while, and as it turned out it wasn’t a bad thing. No VAR to vent at, no misery as my team ‘play well again in defeat’ and no forking out hundreds of pounds which I now didn’t have following them up and down the country. I would have been happy for the season to be voided, whether that meant Norwich being relegated or not.
But football was still there…lurking in the background like a creepy man called Keith from the end of your road. And when the players returned to training, following football again felt like an ex-girlfriend posting new pictures of herself on Facebook – I didn’t quite feel the same about it, but it brought back some good memories.
A week or ten days later and I find myself scrolling through the photos of the players on the training ground, naming each one in every single picture and judging their new haircuts out of 10. I’m lying in bed at night naming my starting XI (and subs) in about 3 or 4 different formations. I’m looking at our fixtures and pinpointing just where we will get the 15 points or so we need for survival. I doubt even Daniel Farke is that obsessed. The ex-girlfriend is back, and we are having a full-blown orgy.
There are many people saying they can’t get excited at the prospect of playing behind closed doors, and I get it. What is football without the fans? It won’t be as good, for sure. I will miss my 6 pints of real ale at the Ribs of Beef and the sun-soaked, beer-hazed stroll to the ground on matchday, the chance to meet up with mates and, win, lose or draw, be up for the same ritual the following week.
However, I am pretty determined not to let the situation completely chew up the atmosphere. It’s great news that all 92 games will be shown live on TV. As someone who normally gets to around 4 or 5 away matches a season, it is a chance to watch them all live. For those who don’t have Sky or BT, some of the matches will be free to air, which should be applauded.
And to that end I have bought myself a TV bracket and a waterproof TV casing for my external garden wall. When the games are on, I can invite a couple of mates round with beers to sit at a 2 metre distance, create a bit of a buzz and watch the footy – with a fridge about as socially distanced as we are from one another. The addition of ‘crowd noise’ on the TV should add a little something. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a garden of their own, but at least many people should be able to watch some of the football one way or another.
The final debate is whether or not it is safe to restart the season. It is fantastic news that there were no positive coronavirus tests in the most recent round of testing, and only one in the previous two rounds combined. With players under orders to maintain social distancing rules at all other times the rate of infection should stay low if not obsolete. Those players who have tested positive have largely talked of very few or no symptoms. Of course, money talks and we all know that the season is resuming to prevent the hugely damaging effects of clubs returning TV monies, but we always knew that would be the case. It seems the measures in place are sensible to ensure the season is finished in the fairest possible way.
With the country at loggerheads over politics and racism; the usually madcap world of football may just give those of us who love the game a little light relief and ‘normality.’