I would have loved yesterday’s game, the FA Cup is Boba Fett’s backstory in the battle for the empire; a short sidebar story in the season’s great odyssey. The curios of football’s backwaters going toe-to-toe with more established names. It’s a rare moment of character in an often sanitised and rational world.
But, yesterday was more than that, the setting was perfect; the sun shone brightly and the sky was blue, but there was a reassuring chill in the air. The weather is a big part of the season – the unbecoming warmth of the early weeks, going to evening games in short sleeves, gives way to a more familiar cooler temperature.
Once the clocks go back, the real business begins; the temperature drops, the big coat comes out. The occasionals who’ve been tempted to a game by the warm weather disappear. The real fans revel in the gloom as games finish in a half-light and then darkness. We are people of the gloaming, we live in the shadows. We revel while others hunker down seeking light and warmth.
Walking to a game, you might go to a shop for match supplies, you queue with people gathering treats for an afternoon in front of the TV. We buy the same things, but we know we’re bounty hunting, seeking out another three points to bring home.
I love that people don’t understand why we do this, why we sit for two hours on an uncomfortable plastic seat in the cold. Weekends are precious and there are so many better options out there. I love the fact it’s too complicated to explain.
The autumn gives way to Christmas and we’re re-joined by the occasionals; family members and extended hangers on returning home for the festive period. It’s nice to see them and the dark and cold is pushed back by the light and warmth of that communion. Christmas offers a brief celebration before the New Year comes and then we’re truly into the depth of winter and the grit of the season. Games are postponed, cup competitions disrupt the rhythm, injuries mount up, it’s a chaotic, ramshackle reckoning. The weather is grim; gloves, hats, coats, layers and layers and layers.
When the players come out there’s not the same crispness of applause, more a whumping sound of gloved clapping. The most dedicated battle their way up and down motorways, we meet in service stations; not just our own fans, but that wider national network of people like us. There’s a sense of mutual respect as we queue for a coffee or a lunchtime KFC. At the game we endure a deepening discomfort as the cold grips the fibre of our bones. Respite only comes afterwards, when you’re back in the car; the heating finally kicks in and the radio picks through the bones of the day’s events. Your fingers thaw, you can feel your toes, your humanity returns.
And then, as the games tick by, the sun appears again, order is restored, for most, their fate in the cups is decided and there’s a league position to secure. The maths simplifies, as you edge towards that pivotal game, the six-pointer that’ll decide, finally, whether the season will end in promotion, the play-offs, relegation or nothingness. As we get to May, the warmth returns and the tension is released. At least usually. The giants of the game resolve their differences in the FA Cup, Champions League and so forth. And that’s it, we go into a reverse hibernation, away from the sun and warmth, pleading for the new season and cold to return.
Except, not this season, of course, we aren’t getting to sense the seasonal shifts, the big coat doesn’t get its ceremonial debut, the temperature stays artificially constant. I was not the slightest bit concerned about yesterday’s game. It was unfortunate that we’d drawn the best team in the competition who we’re very familiar with anyway, but it feels like we’re trying to get this season out of the way as quickly as possible. Like clicking continue on a game of Football Manager without changing anything because you’ve lost enthusiasm for your team.
The usual defensive frailties aside, we seemed to play OK, but this must be what it’s like watching training; good movement, passing, plenty of effort, but the goals at either end are of little consequence. I’m quite glad we’re out; it just allows us to get on with picking our way through the league season without distractions or even the disappointment of a big name draw that we can’t go to.
Looking at the optics, the prospect of getting to a game this season feels pretty low. It’s hard to see cases dropping to a level where the government will confidently allow fans back in before the spring. The current lockdown seems principally to allow some kind of normal Christmas to happen, but surely caution will remain through January and February at least.
Maybe by the spring we might edge towards something, part test event, part PR stunt, if cases are falling or the prospect of a vaccine becomes a reality maybe there will be a will to return. But, by that point, the season will be mostly spent. The warm weather at the end of season usually feels like a reward for our perseverance through the harsh winter months and the elation and despair, the wasted energy of an away defeat or the rare reward of a 96th minute winner. That moment where you want to tell your non-supporting friends and colleagues you were there, but they’re not interested, so it just lives inside you to be re-run in your head when things feel bleak.
The league, of course, will determine where we start next season when, maybe, things are closer to normal. The priority has to be not to be any lower than we were when this whole thing started. As dislocating as this season has been, we can’t lose sight of that necessity. The cups, on the other hand, with all their self-contained beauty are an irrelevance or a painful reminder of what we’ve lost. I’m kind of happy it’s already over.