“Do you actually like football? Or do you just fancy the players?”
Traditionally this question has been the province of male football fans disturbed by the presence of women at matches or pubs showing matches. The assumption being that watching men run around a field for ninety minutes couldn’t possibly be interesting in itself and we must therefore be motivated by other forces. What they failed to take into consideration is that few women would put themselves through the trauma of standing in the tightly packed away end of a third tier football ground with gangs of swearing blokes brandishing cups of hot beef juice, just catch a glimpse of the centre back’s arse.
Happily, we now have 4K TV, so it’s less of an issue.
Just lately though, this moribund opening gambit, or at least the first part of it, has been occupying my mind more frequently. Even before COVID-19 forced the changes to football we’re all enduring, it would occur to me while a television, radio or podcast pundit expressed their rage about how shit the modern game is, VAR, referees, how players don’t know they’re born and are paid too much anyway. ‘Do you actually like football?’ I would wonder. ‘Because it feels like you’ve spent the last hour and a half expressing your disdain for anything and anyone associated with it.’
That’s normal though, isn’t it? Only when you love something as much as we do are you qualified, required even, to point out the flaws. We’re the guardians of the game.
Hence why the announcement that the Premier League season would be finished ‘behind closed doors’ was received with assertions that it wouldn’t be the same. Fans are an essential part of the football experience, everyone screamed. Amid the mad panic, Liverpool’s title win was awarded an asterisk in the history books before they’d been written, and, like proper English people, we prepared to bask in the authorities’ glorious failure.
Then the Bundesliga started. We laughed at how daft the empty stands looked on the telly for two days, opined as to whether players were observing proper social distancing in celebrations, hoped someone would wave a purple dido on the Zoom fan pages and then the novelty wore off. The Premier League restarted. Some people like the piped in crowd noise, some didn’t. VAR was still an absolute farce. It was fine.
Maybe we were just glad to have it back, in whatever form. Maybe we’re easily pleased, but in recent weeks a contingent of journalists and summarisers have persisted in ploughing the ‘football is nothing without fans’ furrow. Some, with half an eye on the desperation of clubs whose resources were exhausted before the pandemic, saw it as a much needed reassertion of the true power structure in football. Money can buy you everything, it seems. Except the lifeblood of the club. The ones who move the turnstiles every week and are their club’s ‘twelfth man’. Who are there on the freezing Carabao Cup nights in January and the glorious Champions League nights in May.
There’s an argument to have there, I agree. An empty arena is entirely at odds with anyone’s experience of sport at a high level. The roar of the fans being piped into stadia can never replace the sound and movement of a crowd reflexively responding as one to a goal, a great challenge or a ref stacking it in the centre circle. Football, by its very nature, brings us all together.
If you started going as a kid with your dad and then your pals, say. If you remember standing and part of the excitement of going to the game was the hubbub of the crowd, the sense of belonging, of pushing your way through to your seat, only to be swept twelve rows to your left when a goal is scored and losing a shoe. Pub before. Pub after. Brilliant.
This is ‘the’ football experience for many. It forms part of who we are and makes us feel warm and fuzzy, like the music from Sports Report and Grandstand. Eating hot chips with freezing fingers and promising your dad your won’t tell your mum. No wonder some of us fetishise it and can’t help but view the time that’s passed since as a corrosive force.
That’s how relatively rational people end up unleashing a tirade against English football on the basis of a player’s haircut. That’s why the ‘The Magic of the FA Cup’ has become such a well trodden path to misplaced nostalgia. Yes it was brilliant when it was on telly and the BBC devoted an entire day’s coverage to it. Now we play the semis at Wembley and it’s become an exercise in corporate hospitality. The optics are poor at face value, but in focussing media attention on this and other complaints, we’re excluding the football experience of everyone who was born after the year 2000. They don’t care about Wimbledon 1-0 Liverpool or Coventry 3-2 Spurs. They barely remember the ‘Gerrard final’, although they’ve probably watched the goals on YouTube or Tik Tok, or whatever the hell they’re doing today.
It’s so easy to let personal experience shape our opinion of something bigger than we are. Football is particularly notorious for its failure to leave the past behind. Different voices are appearing slowly, but as a generation of football writers, broadcasters and fans move towards middle age, it’s imperative we don’t slip down the ‘It were better in my day’ route.
There’s no right or wrong way to support. What about the kid who saw Thierry Henry score while he was at his mate’s house and became obsessed but could never afford to go to the Emirates? Or the fifteen year old girls who wanted to go see Chelsea more than anything but the first time they went, some blokes were hostile in the stands so they felt unsafe and didn’t go again? The gay men who have to stand silently and listen to their ‘friends’ shout homophobic abuse at players and the ref, to the point where it’s better to watch the game at home. Are they not ‘proper’ football fans?
It’s 2020, people. We haven’t been able to stand up at a Premier League game for twenty six years now. Lovely Des Lynam hasn’t done Match of the Day since 1999. Boy George hasn’t scared anyone’s Nan on Top of the Pops for thirty odd years. Some devoted fans of Real Madrid have never been to the Bernabeu but their love of the game isn’t less valid than someone whose had a season ticket at The Den for three hundred years and regularly phones 606 to tell them all about it. We’re all vulnerable to nostalgia and a fear that our relevance is dwindling. Now more than ever. The kids don’t care what we think, but accelerating our own irrelevance feels self destructive at best.
There are some genuinely talented and insightful writers and summarisers out there. Loads in fact. It’s unfortunate that some with huge platforms choose to perform a sort of football based midlife crisis upon them, failing to realise that they’re merely demonstrating an inability to apply critical thought to their own role in the game. In the current climate it feels almost irresponsible to opine about when things were better when an open mind and willingness to embrace those traditionally excluded could make a real difference.
There’s a place for football nostalgia. Arguably the game is built on it. But if we really are guardians of the game, don’t we have a responsibility to celebrate everything that’s good, instead of amplifying the same tired stories time and time again because it makes us feel relevant?