Many (a few) people have asked me about the impending return of Premier League football behind closed doors. I have been an Arsenal season-ticket holder since I was 8 years old and have gone to away games regularly since I was 16. Going to matches has dictated my Arsenal experience for as long as I can remember.
In December 2018, I spent Christmas and New Year in Brazil with my wife’s family. That excursion broke a run that had seen me not miss a home game in just over 19 years nor a domestic away game in close to 17 years. Watching Arsenal in the stadium hasn’t just been a routine for me, it’s been a way of life.
I am glad I broke that run in advance of the suspension of the football calendar in March and the impending resumption. Not least because it would be an administrative nightmare to parse. Does it count as missing a game when it takes place behind closed doors? You may laugh, but these thoughts dog you when you are nursing an unbroken run.
You may notice that I used the distinction “domestic away game” in the second paragraph- I would estimate I travelled to about 85% of the European away games Arsenal played in that period. It’s already a technicality, but one that people are largely happy to overlook. Once you start throwing in behind closed doors games as an additional caveat, what you have is not so much a throwaway comment establishing your fan credentials and more a complex legal document that needs approval from the dubious games panel.
No sir, I am thankful to side step that particular minefield. I have written before about how Baku altered my relationship with my experience of elite level football for the worse. For the first time, this season I have actively chosen not to go to a handful of games due to fatigue over television rescheduling and the subsequent difficulties it creates with the UK’s declining public transport system.
Arsenal are scheduled to restart their season with a trip to Manchester City. Initially, the game had been rescheduled for a Wednesday evening at six days’ notice. Arsenal offered away scheme members an opt-out for the game, which I exercised. Watching Mikel Arteta’s Gunners take on City at the Etihad from the comfort of my sofa won’t represent a huge change in circumstance for me. [Manchester Settee!]
I think I am quite looking forward to the armchair experience in a way. The reasons for this are layered. Firstly, Arsenal don’t have an awful lot to play for in the league. If there was ever a run-in to sit out for an Arsenal fan, it’s this one. Were we challenging for the league title (lol) I would feel differently.
If I were a Liverpool fan, I would be feeling pig sick. Arsenal might yet win the FA Cup in front of an empty Wembley Stadium and I am sure I would regard that triumph as slightly bittersweet were it to eventuate. Fortunately, the Gunners lifting the cup in front of a packed Wembley has happened enough times in recent memory to abate some of the sense of anti-climax. [I would still far rather it happen than not!]
Circumstances are different for me at the moment too. My wife and I are expecting our first child in late July, so even if games had returned in front of crowds this summer, I would have been housebound in any case. In fact, the suspension of the football calendar has had its advantages in terms of the money I have been able to save on tickets, travel and, errrrrm, “refreshments.”
Anyone that attends every game will tell you that FOMO (fear of missing out) is an enormously motivating factor. Preserving an unbroken run of attendance is a motivating factor in itself, it’s the energy that propels you from your bed at 3am for a midday kickoff in the northeast. It’s the force that drags you home from the other end of the country in the wee small hours for a League Cup tie.
When you miss a game, it’s not the game you miss. In this day and age, it will be on television and in the rare occasion that it isn’t, you’ll be able to find a stream. If you’re unable to watch, you will be able to keep in touch via handheld technology. You rarely miss anything about the game in the proper sense of the word.
It’s everything around the game, the contours of the match day experience. Your usual spot in your usual pub before a home match, cracking open a lukewarm can of commercial lager on an 8am train, a chant that might go up in the concourse that you haven’t heard before. These are the things that you miss, that you think and wonder about when you’re not there.
In this scenario, none of that exists. You’re not there because nobody is there. You are helpless and so is everybody else and, besides which, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, which certainly hardwires you with additional perspective. The slogan “football without fans is nothing” has been used often in recent weeks as the spectre of behind closed doors football loomed.
Ironically, the phrase has been used to speculate on the televisual product. It cuts the same for some of the people that would fill those seats too. I would imagine that many match going fans feel the same as me- without the fans there, the FOMO is absent and the prospect of missing games is eased.
In the movie adaptation of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, the main protagonist, Paul, and his partner Sarah watch the grim scenes from the Hillsborough disaster unfold on the evening news. “That’s it, you can’t go anymore,” Sarah observes. “Of course I will!” comes the response from Paul. “How can you?!”
“Because everyone else will.” That’s the perfect distillation of the match day experience, that it’s shared with others and without everyone else, there’s not really anything to miss. Going to watch the majority of games is an exercise in project management now- closely monitoring the confirmation of TV picks, rushing to secure train tickets, for many, logging into the box office 1 minute before your credit window opens- it is an operation that requires a lot of administrative resource.
Stepping off that treadmill for a little while is not unwelcome (for me, anyway). And we know we don’t have to do it, not really. We do because, well, as Paul says in Fever Pitch, because everyone else does. While that is not the case and we’ve no choice in the matter, the armchair experience feels like a novelty. For now, anyway.