This season is a hard stool that must be flushed away…

Date published: Monday 22nd June 2020 9:24

Everyone has their individual take on the return of football without crowds and these are often quite polarised views. While I think almost everyone agrees it isn’t as good, the degree to which it has bothered people seems to vary from not much at all to utterly and totally. Some still find the football enjoyable while others can’t even watch it.

How you feel about this unsupported version of the game probably depends on the sort of football follower you are. It’s not often noted that the term ‘football fan’ is a broad concept which pulls together all manner of strands and degrees of passion and interest. All of them are as valid as each other. There’s no right or wrong in this.

The crowdless games have made me realise that actually what I enjoy about football isn’t the playing of the sport itself really, it is the people who gather to witness it. They invest everything with energy and emotion, even when bored or disinterested. They put blood in football’s veins. They make its heart beat. They make the game human. Without them it is a squeaky, plastic experience.

Strip away those witnesses, while the game itself looks exactly the same as it ever does, it feels like watching an imitation of existence, like mistaking a video game for real life, perhaps.

Previously, I hadn’t quite realised just how important the simple, basic principle of people being there really mattered to me as a TV watcher and radio listener, nor how much I took it totally for granted.

As Jordan Ayew scored Palace’s second goal on Saturday night with a beautifully crafted finish, I let out an involuntary, ingrained ‘oof, get in’ the way we all probably do when a good goal is scored. But there was no response to the goal, nothing, silence, which meant that the appreciation was gone in a second. It had no depth. It happened. It slid off the synapses. And that was it. Gone in an instant and deeply unsatisfying. Immediately I wondered why this was even happening. It brought nothing. It was nothing, It was vapid. Empty.

I have to say having listened to games on 5live and watching MOTD too, presenters and pundits have done a great job at pulling on the enthusiasm lever. And all the commentators have done a magnificent job, managing to keep the level of excitement and drive in their voices at the same pitch as normal, seemingly caught up in the action as much as ever, perhaps deploying some sort of aural muscle memory, or maybe just being very good at faking orgasms.

It is all initially comforting and familiar. The usual voices on the radio, the usual faces smiling back from the TV.

But as soon as the game starts it is very odd to the point of disconcerting, perhaps especially on the radio. Because it sounds like you’re listening to a normal game. The tone of the commentary keeps sucking you into thinking everything is as usual, but at the same time there is a palpable, emptiness behind their voices. A yearning, aching void where the thrum of humans gathered should be. Shorn of that, the games feel weird, hollow and pointless. Upsetting, almost, actually.

In the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, Philip Pullman creates a universe where your inner self manifests itself throughout life as an animal-shaped ‘dæmon’ settling on a specific form during puberty. It stays near at all times. To be shorn of or separated from your dæmon is catastrophic and all but fatal. I see now, supporters are football’s dæmon and without it, it cannot live in any meaningful way.

I always thought fans mattered and that we forget too easily that football only exists as a commercial proposition because of us. That’s why I keep banging on about us having all the power to effect change if we act collectively.

But what I didn’t realise was that actually my love of the game has been rooted, not in the football itself – though clearly you need it there for everyone to gather around it – but in the sizzle and roar of the souls gathered to watch it. The primary joy is in the community, not in the play.

It now seems obvious to me in a way that it didn’t quite previously, that supporters are football’s dark matter; invisible but making up 85% of the football universe. And yet the football machine grinds on, stripped of its humanity, soulless and incomplete.

 

Even though I am usually very much in Jean Paul Sartre’s camp that ‘hell is other people’ (especially those ones who never stop talking during a gig or hold up an IPad for the duration) I now realise what I love and have always loved about football is its human-ness. That is what I’ve fed off all these years and when it is taken away, I feel palpably starved. It doesn’t matter how many brave the elements to watch a game, 5, 500 or 50,000, it is they who validate the experience, validate the happening.

I realise not everyone feels like this and some would be happy to watch football in this denuded way for a whole season. If you just love the sport and how it is played, then in a way, I feel jealous of you. I envy the logic of that position. The ball is passed and kicked and saved in the same way it ever is. A good goal is still a good goal. A foul is still a foul. Tactics are still tactics. Coming from 1-0 down to win 2-1 is still a great comeback. Logically, yes. But for me, in isolation they are empty shells.

This isn’t just a mere preference. I can’t shrug and say well it’s football and some football is better than no football. It doesn’t feel like that.

This season just has to be voided from football’s body like an especially hard, compacted stool, or a jagged kidney stone. Just get it over and done with, flush it, pick up the money and sod everything else. It doesn’t matter to the league whether anyone watches or not, not yet. But next season is a different matter. Next season will start with crowds in stadiums to inject life back into the comatose sport in order to make it something worth paying to watch.

Because football is the People’s Game and without the people, it not only has no future, it has nothing at all, it is without meaning. Like a gallery with no visitors, a school with no pupils, a shop with no shoppers, it exists for no reason other than the fulfilment of contracts. That’s also why it feels so hollow and divorced from life.

Without the warmth of humanity present, it is like trying to fall in love with a blow-up doll; it’s a plastic version of the real thing. You can’t breathe life into it.

I don’t want that. I respect those who get something out of it, but if this is food, I’ll keep eating, but I will never be full.

John Nicholson

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