It turns out we can be there after all. Season ticket holders who wish to do so can sign up to have their names appear on the LED screens at some point during the remaining home games.
I shot my application back straight away. Proud to be a part of it and to be able to contribute at least something to the atmosphere on the day.
Frankly, I didn’t even pause to find out how it’s going to work. Those LED screens, we know, are capable of all kinds of movement, from petal drops to drive-bys. So many variables. Do we come and go? Are we up and down? On and off? Are we static?
Or are we journeying around the pitch? I hope so. Finally: an opportunity after all this time to show exactly how fast I can get down to the by-line.
Of course, we’ll all have ideas, too, about when we can most effectively be introduced. Personally, I reckon if I can get on around the 77-minute mark, when legs are tiring and we might be looking for something, I might be able to do some damage. But obviously I’m leaving all those decisions to the guys in charge. I’m just happy to be involved.
No doubt when some other clubs eventually borrow this idea, they’ll find some way to monetise it: it wouldn’t surprise you to read that fans elsewhere were being asked to pay a little extra and get their name in a larger font; or maybe to go for the Naming Rights Platinum Package and have their initials flash on the way around. So pleased that our club is not that kind of club. So pleased that, instead, our club is the kind of club whose Women’s team gives its £100,000 title-winners prize money to Refuge.
Anyway, here we are: 10 days to go before the season resumes at Villa Park, and less than that before some other clubs play. We are all now on the brink of an experiment to find out what happens if you introduce a three-month hiatus into a competition which has only just, and reluctantly, got to grips with the concept of a winter break. (How we complained, some of us. If only there had been someone around who could have said, ‘I wouldn’t bother. You wait until you see the size of the break March has in mind.’)
I Googled the Premier League table just a few moments ago, and I swear I had to wipe a thick layer of dust off it. And here’s what I fear we’re going to struggle with: the idea that this is a resumption, a continuation, rather than the beginning of some altogether new and separate chapter.
It’s going to feel like the start of a new season, isn’t it? Not the end of an old one. So many of the usual signifiers are falling into place – the things which unmistakeably shout ‘new term’. We’ve had the publication of the new fixture list. All the players are going to have new haircuts – or rather new lack of haircuts. We’re going in with no new signings, just like last summer. Why, we’ve even just beaten Reading in a pre-season friendly, exactly as we did back in July when David Luiz was still a Chelsea player.
Moreover, there’s that new-season sense that nothing is predictable – that we’re entering a period of potential randomness where assumptions from last time out won’t necessarily apply. And that’s the most worrying thing.
It’s all right for these other clubs, who can just see themselves as re-assembling now for a bit of a summer jolly – a feast of live television to restore the blitzed schedules and ‘lift the spirits of the nation’, in the preferred, if entirely simplistic, formulation of the politicians. (The notion that football automatically ‘lifts the spirits’ is not subscribed to by anyone who actually supports a football club.)
It’s fine for all those mid-ranking clubs with (and I say this with the best will in the world) nothing to play for: your Burnleys, your Evertons, your Tottenhams. Let’s face it, there’s nothing but fun and frolics lying ahead for Arsenal for whom the rest of the 2019/20 season might as well be an extended office coach outing to Southend. Ditto Manchester City and Leicester, frankly – in fact, even more so.
It’s probably unusually gratifying for Crystal Palace, too, bang in the middle there, and safe from triumph or tragedy alike. When in their history have Palace ever been asked to step up and play the role of a footballing Vera Lynn, and without any risk attaching? I’m sure they’re thrilled.
We, on the other hand (and one can’t say this often enough) are one of a small handful of clubs for whom these nine games, so gleefully arranged to provide a national valve after three months with all the pubs shut, have real consequences for next year and beyond.
Right now our situation could be said to justify the term ‘delicately poised.’ Indeed, we’ve been ‘delicately poised’ since March and it’s starting to ache. We take a three-point lead into the contest to finish fourth, and a five-point lead into the contest to finish fifth (which could be as good as finishing fourth this season, given UEFA’s current dispute with City, though nobody ought to be banking on that, clearly). And those leads, while reassuring, are nothing to be feeling comfortable about – not least when so much about what we’re going to find in these nine games remains so uncertain, and when some of it, even including some of the rules, is actually entirely new.
If ever there was a time when one would have wished to be there in something more than name alone. But it’s something.