We all know stories should have a beginning, middle and an end, but they also follow a common pattern of symmetry/asymmetry/symmetry. A great story will begin with a period of stability; of normality, a sense of what is about to be lost by what’s to come. There will then be asymmetry or instability, a disruption, something ultimately to be resolved. The characters then work to re-find symmetry or stability before the story closes.
It’s such a compelling structure, we seek it in real life. Take the pandemic, we’re looking for something to switch it off, to re-establish stability. There’s a fantasy that a vaccine will be discovered and in no time at all people would be returning to their normal, perhaps better, lives. That’s what would happen in a film, there’d be no ongoing post-trauma, no gradual resolution, no long term repercussions or rebuilding.
Our own stability was ended on the 13th March when professional football effectively enforced the government into action against the growing threat of coronavirus by postponing all fixtures. You know when something as attention seeking as football seeks to hide away that something is up. I remember The Fence End Podcast talking about focussing on that feeling when things would be resolved and we’d all be back in the stadium. I thought that too, when the pandemic’s over, the doors would be flung open and we’d flood in. Imagine what that day might feel like.
But, pandemics don’t work like that, we won’t have our coronavirus VE-Day celebration. It won’t end just like that – even the war didn’t end just like that, though that’s how it’s characterised, it took three months between VE Day and the surrender of the Japanese. Then there were decades of rebuilding. We’re still dealing with the aftermath now, for some English national football and Brexit is just a continuation of the war effort.
So, in real life, any return to symmetry would be messy and gradual but the first step was the announcement of fans returning to the stadium after the second lockdown. My reaction was… ‘Oh, so soon?’.
Is it Stockholm Syndrome? Have I fallen in love with my captors? My world has shrunk, I’ve done 60% less mileage than last year. Football used to be the thing that straightened me out after the week had messed me up. I valued the routine and singularity of purpose against the discord of a working week. A week ago I had a day off, it made me more anxious than a routine day working from home. My symmetry, returning to football, seemed to have become my asymmetry.
I hadn’t planned to watch the Hull game anyway, I’ve seen every league game this season, it’s chained me to my settee. Weekend routines became moulded around kick-off times, but the experience was sanitised and underwhelming. Only by consciously doing something different would I be able to break that sequence. In normal times, I would have been away during this weekend, so it seemed to make sense.
But, following the announcement, I could have re-arranged, I could have argued how important it was to go to the game. But I simply didn’t feel it. I knew that demand would outstrip supply and financially it wouldn’t make any difference, I was inconsequential and decided not to join the scramble for tickets.
I imagine if I’d been alive on VE Day, I wouldn’t have been in the streets sexually assaulting any passing filly, I’d have stayed in and watched whatever the 1945 equivalent of Come Dine With Me was.
I had flashbacks to the opening of the Kassam Stadium, that feeling of a new dawn, then getting to the ground to see it unfinished and covered in dust, my seat so low in the East Stand I could barely see what was happening. I thought we’d sell it out, but it was just over half full. The weather wasn’t even great. Then we lost because the new surroundings didn’t give us the new stability we craved, it was the same old chaos we’d left behind the previous May.
I feared going back to the stadium, buoyed by the sense of renewal and enduring a miserable defeat. It was always possible, particularly against the League leaders, and my first trip back to the stadium when it happens will still suffer that jeopardy. But, I didn’t need it, not at the moment.
I wasn’t sure I could join the chorus about what a spiritual experience it was to get back to a game. How 1,000 fans would sound like 100,000. Like telling a bride at a wedding they’re the most beautiful you’ve ever seen and that the day has been perfect, when that’s probably, objectively, not true. I mean, that’s not a time for personal critiques, it’s not about your opinion, of course you just go with it for the greater good. The person on the radio who complained that wearing a mask would steam up his glasses was the kind of person who thought the bride’s dress made he look a bit hippy.
Perhaps you went and had that very feeling of renewal and redemption, perhaps you even wanted to read something which tried to articulate that feeling. This is probably not what you were expecting.
Of course as the game approached kick-off it was nice to see the pictures being posted on Twitter of people in the ground, I felt a little bit jealous, a little bit out of the loop. Like those times when I passed up an away day only to regret not putting in the effort. I was pleased there was a goal and a good performance and the day worked out well.
But, this was something for the whole, not the individual. I will apply for tickets to our next games, my diary is clear and I want to get back. I’m just not sure I wanted that first experience to be ruined by teething problems or an abject performance. The Hull game was symbolic of a move to something else, a chapter in a much bigger story. It didn’t switch off the asymmetry and bring us to resolution. And it didn’t need me telling people that.
In the end, the point was a very good one, the logistics seemed to work well and everyone seemed happy. It should open the door to a bigger crowd next time, which is good. Our league position remains grim, but the re-connection of fans and club will hopefully act as a reminder that there is a reason to do this. This, along with a clean sheet, acts as a balm on the wounds inflicted last Saturday. The return to symmetry will be gradual, and will likely be different to the one we left behind, we may never realise when we achieve it, but that’s how real stories work.