Non-League football’s time may have arrived

WITH nobody allowed near a Premier League turnstile and everyone being advised to adopt a simpler, more fulfilling life while they refrain from breathing the same air as their neighbour, non-league football may have a golden opportunity to win more friends and influence for folk.

When a magazine like Monocle, a pretentious coffee table monthly (which I have subscribed to for around five years), recommends their readers – in pursuit of a gentler life – adopt their local sports club, then you know something is afoot. Monocle people, generally speaking, are about as far away from football fans as you could possibly be. Wild swimming, shopping for high end goods, sauntering down boulevards and loitering around kiosks and hopping on inter-city flights is more their game.

This is just one example of a sea change that is developing, for the football hungry public, desperate to feel the buzz and animal spirits of a match, may just decide the shabby non-league club across the common might be worth a visit.

There’s little sign that fans will be allowed back into top flight games any time soon, indeed if a second wave hits Europe, that will delay things even further. The fact is, nobody is going to allow 70,000 people into a stadium for a long time to come. But smaller crowds in a more restrained environment could be just the ticket – unless another lockdown comes along, of course.

This could be non-league clubs’ chance to show the uninterested and apathetic that this level of the game really provides a humane and personal option. Animal spirits are in short supply, and in this age of spectacle-misting masks and sanitiser, thank heaven for that. But it is not just the game itself that may attract people – in terms of quality, expectations certainly have to be lowered – it is also about being in a place where other people are sharing the same experience.

Don’t forget, when a crowd sings in praise of a team or player, they are singing, “We” all agree, not “I”. There are two teams on the field of play and another two teams of supporters.

In this strange and worrying time, being able to watch something like a football match and being part of an audience has suddenly become more than just sport. We have been shut away for too long and we still have no clue when the restricted life will open-up once more. It is a fair assumption there will be a “new normal”, we will not necessarily go back to how we used to live.

For example, who will want to be seated in a stadium alongside 30,000 other people? Who will ever look at a buffet in the same way? How will we feel when a crowded tube train taking us to the Emirates, Stamford Bridge or the London Stadium rolls into a station? The matchday condition once delivered a pot pourri of aromas – beer, cigarettes, sweat, urine, after shave/perfume, chewing gum, flatulence and halitosis. Now add to that the possibility of a life threatening illness. Does that sound a compelling proposition?

With social distancing likely to continue for some time, the average non-league stadium, which is invariably no more than 20% full, offers an escape route from all this. Admittedly, some youngsters who still believe they will live forever will ignore such advice, but when life is so fragile, why shorten the odds?

If football fans long for their Saturday afternoons to change, then they should stroll along to their non-league club this coming weekend. They probably won’t know the players, indeed squads change so much these days regulars will struggle to name their team, but step three might just be a tentative step back to something like normality. You never know, it may become habit-forming.

Around a year ago, I happened to mention that the non-league game had lost its magic for me, an admission that made me a little sad. Then along game the pandemic and I have to admit, I am so looking forward to Hitchin Town v Alvechurch this Saturday. With my mask on, naturally.

Photo: PA Images

@GameofthePeople

Bundesliga deserves our best wishes as the world watches

SOUTH KOREA and the Faroe Islands started the ball rolling, but the football world will be closely watching how Germany’s Bundesliga fares next weekend.

We want it to go well, if only because a setback – and the news of Dynamo Dresden’s isolation is a jolt to confidence – will send FIFA, UEFA and every major football association into mild panic. The people need football back, not because of selfish reasons, but for the morale-boosting effects the game gives to society. If it succeeds, we may start believing that “this too will pass”.

But we should not be surprised that Germany feels brave enough to start again. Let’s be clear, the Germans are relatively cautious people, but they live within a system that, by and large, works well and has a higher degree of community spirit and responsibility than many countries.  While the British use nostalgia and symbolic signalling as a coping mechanism, Germany seeks solutions and sets strict rules. It’s a standing joke, of course, but those that know Germany accept they get things more right than wrong. Germany’s virus stats show their health system and the attitude to regular medical treatment delivers results.

We admire German football because it hasn’t entirely sold its soul and we look at their pricing system, stadiums, fan culture and atmosphere as something to aspire to. The Bundesliga is the only league with higher gates than the Premier League in the world.

There will undoubtedly be some nerves about the reintroduction of football in the Bundestag and Chancellor Angela Merkel, while acknowledging some easing of restrictions, has said there will be an emergency brake mechanism should things not go as planned.

It will be interesting to see what the public reaction will be to the opening of the gates, will, for example, Dortmund get 80,000 to see them play Schalke in the Revierderby? The first round of games covers the entire nation, from Berlin to Bremen, Leipzig to Frankfurt.

The virus has sparked discussions about the structure of German football and, in particular, whether the 50+1 rule has been an obstruction in the current climate, although advocates of the system are vehemently against any change. Clubs were getting nervous about the lack of broadcasting money during the suspension of the Bundesliga, but these worries have now eased. Like all levels of professional football, however, the virus will surely prompt a close examination of the financial structure of the game in Germany.

For the time being, the Bundesliga will go ahead behind closed doors and players will be tested weekly. The rest of Europe, indeed the world, will watch with interest.

So what of the other leading European countries? In England, it does seem to be a game of cat and mouse, with the FA refusing to call time on the Premier League, perhaps waiting for a higher power to make that decision. While others have been more decisive, such as the Netherlands and France, how much of the procrastination is because the authorities do not want to face the abuse they will get if Liverpool are denied the title and others are relegated on the back of an incomplete campaign?

Some commentators believe France may have acted too hastily and could regret announcing the season’s end, with Paris Saint-Germain awarded the title. Some clubs are in denial, while others, such as Amiens, are extremely upset at being relegated with 10 games to go.

Spain still hopes for a return in mid-June and their 20 La Liga clubs have resumed training. Real Betis have just announced that members of their squad have tested positive for the virus, joining others at Granada, Real Sociedad and Atlético Madrid. Meanwhile, Real Madrid’s players are taking a further 30% pay cut, which highlights how fragile club finances are, even at the very highest level.

In Italy, the government could yet declare the 2019-20 season is over if a medical protocol is not agreed upon soon. Clubs are set to return on May 18, but one wonders if that gives the Italian federation enough time to get the protocol agreed. In every crisis, there is an opportunity and private equity firms CVC Capital Partners and Blackstone have been eyeing possible investments in Serie A clubs.

The start of the Bundesliga may be a pivotal moment in the Coronavirus story. If it is happening too soon, the implications could be devastating for European, indeed world, football. If it works, Germany will have shown the way forward. We should wish them good luck and watch the body language as well as listen to the rhetoric.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

Football in the post-virus environment: Old habits disappearing?

FOOTBALL’s enforced absence may seem trivial compared to the losses and suffering endured by people at the sharp end of the pandemic, but the crisis has the potential to transform the industry and leave it compromised by a wave of economic destruction.

If it was just about the financial damage, then the game undoubtedly has the power, popularity and eco-system to stage a recovery. However, the real cost of the Coronavirus could create a very different game in terms of spectator behaviour and the business models of clubs.

People are at their most vulnerable from threat when they are gathered in crowds, making them easy targets for terrorism, aerial attack, bacteria and civil disturbance. Crowds in confined spaces are the worst places to avoid infection and ideal places for contagion to take root. A crowd of 20,000 people pressed into an area no bigger than a big office complex or housing estate, can be lethal in circulating disease.

This is the sort of story that provides film-makers with a guaranteed audience. An outbreak of a rare or unknown disease, an ignored scientist who has warned for years of the menace and the consequences of meddling around in labs, a hero (usually American, usually with issues) and a bit of love interest thrown in. We usually watch in a state of mild horror, but the current situation is rapidly becoming our own sci-fi production. A vaccine will arrive at some point and life will go on, but our confidence in modern-day medicine will have been shaken.

Confidence will be at the root of the recovery mode and whether fans return to football matches with gusto. Look how quickly the country has gone from business as usual to tumbleweed junction: mass shutdowns, economic statistics plummeting and everything grinding to a halt. Our streets are deserted, goats are coming down from the hills believing  the human race has disappeared and the skies are empty. Those that live around airports cannot believe the roaring silence – the biggest things in the air at the moment are birds of prey who also cannot figure out why the volume switch has suddenly been turned off. They are actually flying lower in curiosity. Neighbours of football clubs have surely missed the fortnightly glow in the evening sky that – if you live close enough – enables you to turn off your lights and bask in the glow of a bank of floodlights.

When the all-clear is sounded (well, we are comparing it to wartime even though there’s scarcely a man or woman who now remembers WW2), will it signal a stampede back to the ways we took for granted for so long? Will we pack-out football stadiums, for example, greeting our season ticket neighbours like long lost pals? Does the prospect of cramming onto a tube train, experiencing the alcohol and nicotine-tinged breath of fans up close, seem as attractive as it once did? In our sanitised, toilet roll-free homes, will we have become comforted by antiseptic environments and frightened out of our skins by the continual news bulletins and alarming statistics? And do we want to sit, buttock-by-buttock with the man whose dry cough and troubled brow just might indicate he is carrying something that is going to lay you up for a fortnight in bed? Will we want to eat and drink in a stadium that has so many “hot spots” when it comes to infection? Furthermore, the stadium toilets, although a marked improvement on the 1970s and 1980s, are still a pot pourri of bacteria and stale urine.

All joking aside, we may find that our willingness to go through the old football experience may have been diminished by the Coronavirus, that we will want to adopt a more hygenic approach to everyday life and also keep our distance. The age of hugging and kissing, tactile relationships and group eating may, for the time being, become passe.

Where does this leave football? The communal element of the game has always been one of its crucial selling points. Being part of something and expressing satisfaction, grief, frustration and ecstasy has long defined what the fan is all about. This could have been severely damaged but hopefully not eradicated by the virus. If we become hung-up on social distancing beyond the virus, and it is a possibility because who will wave the flag that says it is safe to go back into the water once more?, the whole concept of a large crowd watching sport will be under threat.

It may take time, longer than some clubs may have as the crisis decimates their balance sheets, but football has to accept that the audience returning to the game post-virus may not have the same level of tolerance or appetite for standing cheek-by-jowl with fellow sufferers. The answer could be to restrict crowd numbers, but if this is a extended or even permanent change of habit, then football could have a huge, possibly insurmountable problem ahead of it. Implementing social distancing at a football ground could mean cutting attendances by two thirds, a draconian measure that may kill clubs who have a substantial reliance on gate money.

On the other hand, perhaps nothing will happen and the crowds will flock back, more enthused than ever. Will government officials, football administrators and the clubs be happy to say that the doors are open and everything is fine? In this age of mass communication, litigation culture, career politics and social media dissection, it would seem unlikely.

 

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA