Asked a few weeks ago what I missed most about lockdown, my answer was immediate and easy —football. I love football, I said. I love watching it, talking about it, thinking about it. I have done since I was a child. But the sudden loss of football to Covid, and its return in a very different guise, has made me realise, it is not strictly true. I love a football club. I love Burnley.
That doesn’t mean that I won’t finish the book I’ve just ordered about the Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp. Nor does it mean I won’t check the results across Europe, and I will always pride myself on knowing trivia about every League club in Scotland and England, at almost all of which, the English ones at least, I have seen Burnley play. I’ve seen them in Scottish grounds too — a friendly last year at Rangers, an anything but friendly in 1978 at Celtic Park, last year a Europa League tie at Aberdeen. I flew back from holiday for that one. My partner Fiona, who tolerates my obsession but doesn’t understand it, has known plenty of holidays affected in that way.
It is frightening to think that it is almost 60 years, ten years before current manager Sean Dyche was born, since I first caught the Burnley bug, but I still have it badly. I have followed them from the very top to the very bottom, League champions in 1960, near exit from the Football League a quarter of a century later, now back close to the top again. I barely missed a game this season pre-lockdown.
But because (or so I thought) my love was not just for Burnley, but for football, some Sundays I would happily sit/lie on a sofa, watch a Scottish Premier League lunchtime kick-off, a couple of English Premier League games, channel hopping with the Bundesliga, and Spain’s La Liga in the evening. I’d try to take in France too. Marseille is my French team. You’re not allowed two teams in the same country. It’s a rule. But if Burnley played Marseille, no contest. Burnley every time.
So I shared the desire of every football fan that the game would emerge from lockdown sooner not later. As in so much in this crisis, Germany — they have even been back playing cricket since late May — showed the way. The novelty had me hanging in there for a few games, not least because Bayern Munich play beautiful football. But I started to realise that whereas my love for Burnley is unconditional, my love for football is actually a love for football matches — with atmosphere. It’s why I have a fondness for Celtic, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Feyenoord, Galatasaray and Boca Juniors.
Aston Villa v Sheffield United was the first game once the Premier League re-started. The silence was awful. The fake fan noise worse. There was also something depressing, for a country already getting global attention for its woeful handling of Covid-19, that the main talking point was a failure of goal-line technology.
Soon it was time for Burnley’s first game. Bad news on the pitch — we lost 5-0 to Manchester City. There was worse news off it — a plane flew overhead dragging a banner which said: “White Lives Matter Burnley.” It’s because I love the club so much that I felt sick, knowing that yet again Burnley would be associated with racism. Thankfully our captain Ben Mee did a brilliant interview, the club handled it well, the damage was contained.
Then we went on a great run, beat Watford 1-0 at home, Palace 1-0 away, drew 1-1 with Sheffield United, all this despite a squad depleted by injury to several key players. But at the end of the Sheffield United game I realised two things. First, it was the first and only game I watched from start to finish all weekend. Second, I felt I had to get to see a game in the flesh, or else, I feared, even my passion might start to wane.
I am an occasional (very biased) co-commentator on the club website, Clarets Player, so I volunteered for action at West Ham last night. We won 1-0 again, which was great, and it was a really good game, but when I got home and Fiona asked how it had been, the single word “weird” popped out.
So much of it was weird. It was weird to walk from the station to the ground and count more stewards than non-stewards. Weird having to fill in a health form before entering the stadium. Weird getting a temperature check. Weird having no food or drink around the place. Weird having to sit yards apart from my co-commentator, Phil Bird. Weird feeling I had to keep my voice down, in case I annoyed the print journalists in front of us. Weird not to go absolutely mental when we scored. Weird to see the game stopped for a water break in rain so heavy that Sean Dyche was actually wearing a coat. Really weird to see a top level professional game played in near silence.
I knew it would be different. But I was taken aback by just how different it was.
The London Stadium, scene of some of my best sporting memories — when the Britain of the 2012 Olympics felt so different to the Britain of Covid, Brexit and Johnson — is vast. Our commentary box position was around seventy yards from the pitch. Yet when England’s best goalkeeper Nick Pope (the stats prove it beyond doubt, Gareth Southgate) came off his line to catch the ball from a corner, shouting “leave it!” at our centre-backs, I could not only hear him, I could hear midfielder Ashley Westwood shout “good catch Popey” from the edge of the box. When striker Jay Rodriguez was bundled over by a defender at the far corner flag — we are talking over a hundred yards away now — you didn’t need a pitch-side microphone to pick up the F-words that followed.
There is a novelty value to that, I guess, but even during intense passages of play it sometimes felt like you were watching a friendly or a training session. It certainly didn’t compare with the noise and passion of a crowd.
One down with five minutes to go. The West Ham manager David Moyes was doing his best to get his team driving forward, but when they got a corner, without that special crowd noise you get late on in a close game, it was no different to any of the earlier corners. I felt no fear. Normally, at an injury time corner when we are protecting a one goal lead away from home, I am a nervous wreck, hanging on to poor Phil Bird’s arm as if my life depended on it.
In previous outings in the commentary box, I have left Phil bruised and battered by leaping all over him to celebrate goals. Confirmation is widely available on Youtube. My excitement at the Chelsea away win in 2017 had “real journalists” complaining to the club! Richard Keys and Andy Gray did an “analysis” of my commentary for Bein Sports, suggesting I needed to extend my post-goal assessments beyond endlessly repeating “yes” and “get in.”
But when Rodriguez scored the only goal last night, I was happy, glad we had taken the lead, delighted to use my favourite fact of the day — it made him our first ever player to score for Burnley in every calendar month. But if I was out of my seat, it was for a nano-second. I wasn’t doing my usual charging around screaming with joy, hugging stewards, feeling my heart rate soar. Because nobody else was. It really was, as away fans like to sing when the home fans are quiet, “like being in church.”
So what did I think at the end of it? I thought my love for Burnley will never die. But it’s a love not just for a football club, but for a football experience. It’s the travel; it’s the logistics; it’s the meeting people; it’s the friendships, the banter, the memories; it’s the rituals; it’s the totally losing yourself in elation — with others; or consoling yourselves in despair — with others. You need the others to be there for that. It is definitely, definitely, the crowd, the atmosphere, the tension, the songs, the noise.
You can’t fake it and I wish the sports broadcasters wouldn’t bother trying to. I know they want to make the armchair fan feel it is a more “real” TV experience, but it only cements the weirdness, and the unreality. We should not try to pretend it is normal, for if we do, there is a risk we think this kind of football experience is OK, when it’s not.
West Ham got special health and safety dispensation to have their famous pitch-side bubble machines spew out bubbles as the teams came out. Why? Because their song is “I’m forever blowing bubbles.” But the players don’t sing it. The press don’t sing it. The blokes disinfecting the balls and the corner flags don’t sing it. The bubbles, without fans to sing the song, looked frankly ridiculous. The players looked bemused. The bubble machine is a device to help the atmosphere. But you can’t have atmosphere without a crowd. Burnley defender Phil Bardsley bursting a bubble with a neat little headbutt as he walked on was my favourite pre-match moment.
TV is what provides the big bucks and last night’s game, like every Premier League game, would have been watched around the world. But I would be amazed if viewing figures are not dropping everywhere. That has consequences. Meanwhile lower down the football pyramid, there is a very different dynamic to worry about… no crowds, no season tickets; no season tickets, a big revenue stream gone. In some cases that’s an existential threat.
It goes without saying that without the players and the coaches and the people who run the sport and the clubs, there is no game, and what I saw last night was high quality professional football, as the Match of the Day pundits acknowledged. (Alan Shearer in particular raved about our performance.)
But it is a very limited sort of football, and very, very weird to hear the final whistle go, to wrap up the commentary, walk out of the ground, and count five people between there and the station.
Weird, and actually, a bit depressing. Most depressing of all, having seen all that was required to get 300 people inside, even with Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak trying to fill the pubs and restaurants, I couldn’t quite see how we get back any time soon to football with fans present in their tens of thousands. During that time, a lot of love for the game could die, and some of our clubs, especially the smaller ones, could die with it. For all manner of reasons, football needs the fans back. Soon.