Lockdown wrap: Football – what now, what next?

Football. Is. Back.

Kind of. While the Premier League party got started on Wednesday, it feels like a welcome home celebration for someone back from a war. Everyone wants it to be OK, but you can’t fail to notice the rictus smiles and the slightly over-enthusiastic talk about how exciting it all is while the guest of honour stares vacantly into space, a shadow of their former self, haunted by its experiences, guilty that it survives while others suffer.

The return of football is more a cultural signal that things are improving than a genuine resumption in play. The postponements of games in mid-March shifted the national mood pushing us towards a long-overdue lockdown. Before that all the talk was about herd immunity and taking it on the chin; if the biggest beer monster at the frat party leaves because things are getting out of hand, you know it’s time to call a taxi. The re-start, like the re-opening of pubs and Primark, is a reassuring nod to normalcy. During the war, hope was signalled in a coveted pair of nylon stockings, during the pandemic, it’s a Chris Wilder glare during Aston Villa versus Sheffield United.  

The media understandably want to pretend its pretty much business as usual. Pundits talk energetically about tactics as though that’s always been the mainstay of the sport’s popularity. They talk about form like it’s been a week since the last set of games and not a quarter of a year. Whatever you do, don’t mention the crowd.

Above all it feels like what it is; the fulfilment of contractual obligations. Like an employee working their notice – present but disengaged. It feels like county cricket; there’s some kind of competition being played which is probably important to some, but nobody really cares about that; its presence is enough. 

I don’t mind the ambient noise played over the top of games to give them a sense of realism, although I watched some of Birmingham v West Brom on Saturday where they piped in a very distinctive chant on a loop which drew the noise into the foreground and became a distraction. But, it’s been quite some time since I last watch a Premier League game with any intent; normally, it’s on in the background and I glance up occasionally when the commentator’s voice rises. Like white noise played to get a baby to sleep; I’m happy for the faked noise keep me company and it doesn’t really bother me that the crowd isn’t there.

But, ultimately, it’s not the same. There are those who complain about that, unwilling to fully accept that we are not in the boss seat when it comes to dictating what normal is. As a result, everything is experimental – the giant video walls of fans watching from home, the cardboard cut-outs; some of it will work better than others, and hopefully it’s temporary. Even then, it may not be enough, someone once described football as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of excitement. The crowd tells the story of the game, without the crowd, those long periods of boredom are exposed for what they are. Without crowds the once-mighty football machine could yet dwindle into insignificance.

It’s hard to get a real sense of what football in this period is going to feel like when you’re actively engaged, though we’ll find out soon enough. Am I excited about the play-offs? Am I disappointed that I won’t be there? The truthful answer is that I don’t know. I’m restless for the season to conclude but generally a bit exhausted by the world we’re in; I want to see us play, win and be promoted, but don’t feel I have much capacity process it or energy to get excited by it. Less so when I have to generate those feelings on my own.

It is perhaps a good thing that we only have to deal with the play-off shoot-out – a winner-takes-all short sharp hit of endorphins. I’m sure that winning would be fun, but sustaining interest over a nine or ten games through poor or just average form could have turned the whole experience into an ordeal.

So, we can look at it for what it is; a novelty, like those terrible TV shows that everyone produces at the moment with their guests on Zoom, or the charity singles cobbled together remotely usually involving Gary Barlow. We can pretend they’re brilliant and just like the real thing, even if they’re terrible. Perhaps all the romanticism that surrounds our proud nation’s spirit during the war, was, in reality, just people pretending that things weren’t awful, because acknowledging that they were was significantly worse.

The club have also tried to resume normal business – season tickets are on sale and the player of the season vote is up and running. It’s got to happen, someone, somewhere has got to resist the inertia and inject the energy to get things started again. I said last year at our 125th anniversary, that in a world where organisations frequently don’t last a year before failing or being subsumed into something else, that an institution that has lasted so long and engages so many has to be protected. Once it’s gone, it’s not coming back.

But, let’s not pretend it’s easy. I had intended to write a post trying to encapsulate the previous paragraph, but found it difficult to muster the enthusiasm for a rallying cry. For all the emotive video of winning against West Ham, sticking six past Lincoln, or Josh Ruffels’ last minute goal against Shrewsbury, promotion, should it come, is never going to be the same. But then, I’ve been to big important games feeling like I don’t care whether we win or lose; my fight or flight instinct kicking in, preventing me from engaging until I absolutely have to. Once I’ve taken my seat, the feeling engulfs me, draws me in, and I’m there. I don’t feel it at the moment, but I’m open to feeling it as we approach kick-off.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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