Liverpool v Leeds was excellent. The sort of game that got us all hooked on football in the first place. Unpredictable, exciting, dynamic and full of drama. Those two superb and timeless strikes from Mo Salah and Mateusz Klich will live long in the memory.
Such great football only made the melancholy of playing without fans all the more intense, knowing that if Anfield was full, it would have been an absolute rip-snorter.
Instead, with silence greeting even these most outrageous skills and thrills, it felt unreal or imitative. As wonderful as the play was, it felt as though we were being asked to pretend salad was steak. The removal of fans doesn’t just take away noise; it takes away almost everything but the actual football. It isn’t just one element that is missing; almost everything is missing.
This was a movie set being taken for reality. It was miming rather than singing. It looked like a great game of football and it was a great game of football, the skills on show were impressive, the cut and thrust of unfettered attacking play, thrilling. But there was a ghost at the banquet. 50,000 ghosts, perhaps. The empty echo where noise should be; the vacuum of absence profoundly troubling, its quietness shouting so loudly.
Anfield was like an abandoned circus, defined not by what it is, but what it used to be. A zombie friend that looks like your old pal, but has died and no longer has blood in its veins. The game was like looking in the window of a normally warm, inviting, busy restaurant, with waiters carrying great steaming plates of delicious food to tables, but with no-one there to eat. It looked great, but looking was all we could do and if all we can do is look at food but never consume, it cannot nourish us.
Yes, we can still analyse the art and the science of the game, still appreciate how Klich teed up that volley and buried it, but we cannot properly feel it and football without feeling is more exhibition than competition.
So although Liverpool v Leeds was without doubt great football, it just made the hole feel even bigger. We can argue the value of playing without crowds and why it is happening, argue about whether it is better than nothing, or worse than nothing, but since football returned, a sadness pervades and a hollow feeling is ever-present, so that no matter what happens on the pitch, it feels like habit and convention has taken the place of reaction and spontaneity.
But there was no time to dwell on it because in these endlessly priapic football times every game is on TV, so without appreciation that we all need a football refractory period, West Ham’s game quickly kicked off.
It was the same empty hollow feeling all over again. But hold on. Something weird was going on.
Unlike at Liverpool, the new reality didn’t feel any different to how it normally felt watching West Ham play at home.
This was what the London Stadium and watching David Moyes’ team was always like. Although empty, it felt unchanged from the norm. If anything, this was even more disturbing than Anfield. Whereas Liverpool’s game felt like it had been unplugged from the football grid, the London Stadium had never had any electricity in the first place and so was unchanged.
The club is housed, seemingly in perpetuity, in a sporting mausoleum where there is a palpable sadness for the lost ground, the lost club even. It is in the DNA of the building. For those who can still hear the echoes of Upton Park’s chicken run, it must feel like they have been forced to live on a new, barren planet and are a long, long way from home. While there were no fans present to witness David Moyes once again throwing himself on the barbed thorns of his own words ‘that’s what I do, I win’, it made no difference. They lost.
The soulless, zombie parallels between how West Ham is and supporterless games more broadly was irresistible. That feeling that something fundamental, something axiomatic to club, to game and even to life itself, had been robbed out and disposed of, is inescapable.
Where once a vibrant local East End football club existed, carved from local self-identity and forged out of the spirit of the people, now there was nothing. Even when full, it is somehow empty. Football was happening there and that was about as much as it was possible to say about it. That which made West Ham United what it was, has gone. Like fanless football, it is a bloodless imitation of the real thing.
I do understand that some have adjusted well to this new reality and fair enough, we all make our fun where we can. Some think it is better than nothing and some actually prefer it. And I can still get a thrill from Mo Salah belting the ball into the roof of the net, it is important to say that. Football is not dead. But even so, something profound is missing from every game. It won’t be dismissed or ignored, and it won’t get better with time. Quite the reverse, if anything.
Every game, everywhere, now feels like watching West Ham at home. That’s where we’re at. God help us all.