Football and the pandemic: Back in the grounds, maybe – but for how long?

IT still feels like something of a novelty at the moment, but the 2021-22 season has been quite enjoyable so far. It has been great to be back inside stadiums and experiencing a proper matchday atmosphere. But there is something of a darkening cloud on the horizon as we move out of autumn – government suits are on TV talking of a coming crisis concerning infection rates, deaths and precautionary measures. It’s time to rinse out those face masks and exercise some caution.

Covid-19 aside, we have been reminded that the football crowd has never been the land of milk and honey. The recent scenes in Budapest and Wembley were a throwback to the days when going to the match was laden with hurdles around personal safety. Despite the gesturing, PR campaigns and signalling, football remains a heady mix of tribal bonhomie, good-natured jousting, bad behaviour, foul language and, unfortunately, racism and bigotry.

Of course, we should not forget the Euro 2020 final, when we witnessed atrocious antics from fans making central London a playground for the drunk and disorderly. We should not pretend football life before covid-19 was perfect, but games were generally well policed, stewarded and administered. Britain made enormous progress in the late 1990s and into the 2000s around staging football and trouble was at a relatively low level. This environment dovetailed with the gentrification of the game, which certainly took a step backwards at Wembley in July 2021. It would be a great shame if all the good work of the past starts to unravel.

In decades gone by, following any outbreak of football hooliganism, there was invariably an overreaction, largely prompted by strong-arm shows of strength. This has changed significantly and the Police, among others, have far greater ability to know exactly what is going on before, during and after a game. At Wembley, the trouble should have been foreseen; you only had to look on the internet to see what was developing. Hopefully, this was an isolated event, although the fighting at the England versus Hungary game hints at a rising trend of disorder.

The pandemic has changed many things in our everyday lives and we are far from out of the woods. For all the rainbow drawings, clapping and good work done by volunteers, there are folk who seem to have adopted a “survival of the fittest” approach when it comes to food and fuel shortages. There’s also blatant disregard for precautionary measures among some groups, hence facemasks are almost totally absent from crowds and public gatherings and joyous celebrations are ignoring the concept of keeping safe. When it comes to the crunch, people will crawl over each other to gain an advantage… or some unleaded petrol!

Football stadiums are certainly more comfortable than they were in the past, but do we now have some psychological discomfort about being in a 30,000 crowd even though the chances of infection are lowered by being in the open air? Some of the animal spirits of the football crowd may need to be tempered as we move forward – cold weather is approaching and infection rates are rising once more. Britain will not easily deal with yet another lockdown, economically, mentally or physically.

If the pandemic recovery receives a major setback and is derailed, the government could be forced to take drastic steps once more. If that happens, football may find itself reduced to behind-closed-doors games again. The financial impact of this will be catastrophic for professional and semi-professional football in Britain, especially below the very top level. And this time, it may push some clubs over the edge.

Perhaps football should become more proactive in a bid to demonstrate it can act to head crisis off at the pass. Maybe insist on facemasks in some areas, reduce capacities to allow more breathing space and also more stringently control entrances and exits at grounds. If recent news is leading us towards a lockdown or lockdown-lite, football can play its part to ensure it keeps running. Instead of waiting for the government to shut it down, come up with an alternative that allows clubs to keep running, albeit at a reduced rate. Otherwise, it could be back to square one.

Is it unfair to ask football to entertain and be held to task?

WE LIVE in interesting times. This is often a phrase used to disguise crisis, restrain panic and, invariably, to paint a picture that, despite the rising tide of discontent, “everything’s ok”. Translated, “interesting” means “we are in the deep do-do”. It’s a sentence we’ve heard many times since 2008 and is frequently used in the world of politics, economics and, of course, football.

“Interesting times” in football is contrary to the very ethos of the modern game. It’s a black and white world where you’re either a success or a failure. There’s very little – if any – room for half-measures. The concept of gradual improvement is rarely entertained, by club officials, club owners and supporters. Everyone wants the manager who has a silver bullet in his top pocket, an instant answer to the club’s problems.

This “all or nothing” environment pervades almost every level of football in the 21st century. Just as we have seen in politics, the narrative today is “you’re with us or against us” – the forum for constructive debate about a club, a manager or a game is being driven out of the spectator experience, replaced by the anonymous cat-calling from social media and virtue signalling on a grand scale.

To some extent, we are expected to “support the badge/shirt/club/lads” come what may, blind devotion to the cause and a community where criticism is unfair, strong opinions are frowned upon and players’ feelings are more important than the views of the people who pay to watch the team.

Some clubs go to some lengths to curb opinion, using bully-boy tactics on some supporters or closing-off avenues of debate. Anodyne responses from clubs attempt to dismiss anything that crosses the line of “getting behind the team”.

Some clubs, effectively, use a form of emotional blackmail to head-off criticism at the pass, using terms like “loyalty” to hit at the dissident fan. Loyalty begins and ends with paying for your admission. You pay your money and take your chance, as they say, but you are surely entitled to then discuss if you feel you have value for money? In many cases, you don’t get value for money, but that’s football. One way of releasing the frustration of feeling let-down is to let-off steam about the game or your team’s performance. As long as everyone’s civil, there should be no problem.

Increasingly, criticism is treated like a treasonable offence, that you have no right to diss the lads wearing the shirt – lads, by the way, who would leave the club if a better career move came along!

But what is you are a neutral, or you have realised that the ups and downs of a football team, comprising temperamental young men, should not decide your state of mind?

The neutral attends football to be entertained, so he or she has a different type of expectation. While the die-hards tie their emotions to the ebb and flow of the game and the season, the neutral wants to see some quality and good, honest endeavour. The neutral is far more objective about what is presented and identifies the merits of both teams as well as the flaws. And that also comes with an honest assessment, one that is not clouded by the myopia of unwavering devotion.

Some levels of football, because of a lack of quality, are purely for the afflicted, the fans who will watch their team every week, pore over every detail and amplify the importance of the game. They so often overlook the shortcomings because it’s “United” playing and the result is all that matters. 1-0 is enough to satisfy their cravings in most cases.

This is a relevant observation, because some levels of the game, if they are to grow, have to offer a modicum of skill and a degree of passion, in order to attract those that have little or no interest and increase attendances. The die-hard will tolerate a lot because it’s in their blood, but in order to expand and create a platform for the often ignored aspect of fan succession, improvements have to be made on and off the field of play.

Clubs should welcome constructive criticism and encourage healthy debate and observations, along with regular interaction between club and supporter base. A lack of openness is tantamount to fiddling while Rome is burning, allowing problems to be ignored as the empire starts to crumble. Furthermore, to harbour a Pravda-style culture and a regime in which strong-minded individuals are finessed out of a club is not only unhealthy, but also reminds us what can happen in the broader world.


Photo: PA