There’s an iconic moment towards the end of Empire Strikes Back in which Han Solo is set to be frozen in carbonite. Faced with imminent peril, Leia rushes forward to declare that she loves him. He replies by saying ‘I know’.
For me, what makes that scene is not so much Solo’s hubris, it’s not a characteristic Solo joke, it’s the fact that knowing he is facing death, he is enveloped by calm and clarity. He dispenses with the norms, rules and the niceties – where he might reciprocate or deflect Leia’s declaration – because he doesn’t need those anymore. Between that moment and his very likely demise, he can simply play it as he wants.
It’s a similar phenomenon that Jon Ronson talks about in his interview with Louis Theroux on the Grounded podcast. A notoriously anxious person, Ronson has become calm in the face of the pandemic, almost as if his brain has trained itself to deal with these situations. He isn’t panicking about the future, he’s just dealing with the now and the now has no rules. Knowing there are no rules means you can’t break them and any anxieties seep away.
There’s a sense of calm descending over Oxford United at the moment. The normal rules do not apply. The immediate aftermath of the lockdown is over; the battle to resolve the league season is done and now we’re less than a week away from the play-offs. We have no idea when we finally engage with Portsmouth whether we’re ready. The last few weeks have not been pre-season; which prepares you for 10 months of games. There’ll no opportunity to put right a poor result, all the effort to get to this point, to make the play-offs, survive the lockdown, revive the club and prepare for the games could be rendered pointless in the blink of an eye.
We don’t know who will thrive in this situation and who will collapse; like the anxious Ronson being super-calm, perhaps there’s someone at the club who has underwhelmed in front of crowds, who will find they’re suited to this situation. Imagine Jamie Hanson weaving his through six players to score a last minute winner at Wembley.
We don’t even know what it’ll feel like when we do kick-off; what happens if we feel nothing? What happens if what we support is not so much the team, but the spectacle, the culture that surrounds it? What if the game of football, even when your team is playing in it, is simply boring? What then?
And beyond that; with no indication of when fans might be back, it seems unlikely that any club will survive unscathed. Not knowing which division we’ll be in is a big factor; not making the Championship might result in swathing cuts, we may be a shadow of ourselves in a few weeks’ time. The board may simply be thinking that they just need to keep running the club as they are for a few more weeks before a recovery plan needs to kick in. We may, of course, find ourselves in the Championship. It’s possible that we’ll face a number of lumbering beasts struggling with sack loads of debt and, as a leaner operation, we could actually thrive. Something will be different next season.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has warned that he expects coronavirus to be around for another year, though his voice is increasingly drowned out by the excitement of restrictions being eased. Like your mum shouting to ‘use protection’ as you head off through departures for seven nights in Magaluf. We know something bad could happen in the future, but we’re focussing on the here and now.
So in the face of such peril, we buy cardboard cut outs of ourselves to sit in the stands and renew our season tickets without knowing when we might get to use them. The players were pictured sitting in individual paddling pools recovering from training this week. They’re playing full games with tackling, perspiration and touching, while observing social distancing rules off the field. Nobody knows how to get a team ready for a play-off in July during a pandemic when you haven’t played since March. The normal rules no longer apply, so we’re making things up as we go along. We’re pretending these little absurdities are normal, because the prospect of what is to come is unimaginable; it might be great, it might be awful, worst of all, it might be nothing.
Like waiting for the second wave or a deep recession, we simply have to wait for the play-off to hit. In a few days’ time we’ll start to know whether the preparation has worked, whether watching football this way gives us the buzz we want. A storm is coming we don’t know how strong it is, we don’t know how destructive it might be, we may lose everything, we might not. There’s nothing we can do about it, for now, we wait.