For almost a year now, football has been hollow, lifeless, clinical and cold. Practically, it can be argued that the role of supporters has been proven secondary in terms of its necessity to the sport’s continuation, but in almost every other sense, they play a vital role. There has been a ‘make do and mend’ attitude towards worldwide society in general for a very long time now; recent months have been a time to cling on to what there is to be thankful for.
Any football at all is worth celebrating — even if it it feels like a completely different sport — especially considering the growing possibility of an enforced break in an attempt to stem the surge in COVID-19 cases at different clubs across England. It is needed more than ever right now, but not, it must be said, if it puts the players, coaches and officials in any significant danger
With acceptance, however reluctant it may be, comes apathy. It has been so long since stadiums were full that it has become difficult to imagine anything else but emptiness and echoes from every corner. Supporters have shown themselves to be the key ingredient to football; it can continue without them, but it is difficult to watch without yearning for the noise and is impossible to enjoy on the same level as before. The senses they brought to the spectacle, even for those watching on TV, were taken for granted; positives are in short supply for football and life right now, but the idea that the sights, the sounds and the aura will one day return is getting through every dull match-day, when each 90 minute encounter blends into one.
There is the feeling that some games can deal with the lack of fans better than others; the Premier League is ticking over, waiting, but once the doors open, it’ll soon be back to normal. What now feels like an ongoing, never-ending nightmare will seem like a blip in hindsight. The same goes for regular season internationals, rarely enticing to a wide audience and littered with behind-closed-doors punishments for incidents of racism and violence. Yet, on FA Cup third round weekend, usually the most romantic and special event of the footballing calendar for fans, the real issue was laid bare.
Early in each January, the regular league format stands still and the national attention turns to what has long been viewed as the greatest domestic cup competition in the world. The ‘magic’ may have faded somewhat over the years and made way for some often rather cheesy cliches, but there is still something special about it. Small, semi professional clubs can come up against the elite, and their stories, while seldom different year-on-year, are memorable to their town and their community.
One match was steeped in cup narrative more than any other in history; on Sunday, ninth-tier Merseyside club Marine took on Tottenham Hotspur. It was the biggest gap between two sides ever in the FA Cup and one that surely would have sold out in minutes had fans been able to attend. The regular build up; cameras on the streets, vox pops with the locals and background research into the players, just wasn’t the same knowing that supporters wouldn’t be allowed near the occasion, and those who tried would be in breach of restrictions.
There were some who could crouch at the bottom of their gardens to watch the action, with their door numbers plastered on caging to signify where to retrieve any stray balls. Those residents could hardly get their heads around the fact that Jose Mourinho, Gareth Bale and Son Heung-Min were sat yards away from their hedges and washing lines, and it didn’t quite seem real that Champions League finalists were going head-to-head with PE teachers, bin-men and supermarket workers.
It was a quintessential FA Cup third round afternoon, the kind all fans hope for when the draw is made, but it was tempered by the fact there was a greater press presence than members of the region who have taken the team to their hearts. The fact that more than 30,000 virtual tickets were sold illustrated the buzz around the match, but also captivated just what was missing because of the current situation. Marine battled on and lost 5-0, but they had already won by kick off. Their ‘win’ would have been much greater had the world been normal.
Of course it isn’t right now, and nobody can do anything about that. But Crawley Town, who beat Leeds United 3-0 in arguably the biggest shock of the round, will never get that day back to celebrate with their fans. Players were emotional at full time, and they’ll never forget their achievement, but the whole experience was diluted. The same goes for Chorley, a non-league side who knocked out Derby County, and Louie Barry, who marked his Aston Villa debut with a goal against a strong Liverpool side. In both cases, it must be said, the situation aided them, as jarring as that sounds; Derby and Villa were both forced to play youth teams due to senior players self-isolating. Chorley quickly became favourites and overpowered the Championship side, whose average age was 19; Barry was one of the youngsters who otherwise wouldn’t have played at Villa Park.
As heartwarming as it was to see the family of Declan Thompson, a teenager who battled adversity to make his Sheffield Wednesday debut, watching on the TV, beaming and cheering with pride, they were robbed of the chance to watch him in the flesh.
For months, football fans everywhere have felt agitated, frustrated and lost without their weekend and occasional midweek ritual of watching live matches. The mental health consequences cannot be ignored either. But the FA Cup action really showed what is missing when fans aren’t there; some people claim the romance of this special competition is dwindling anyway, and yet some amazing moments felt that little bit tainted. Football is not all important, but it was robbed of the true role it can play over the past few days.
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