As matters move on towards a resumption of Premier League football, columnist and season ticket holder Giles Smith gives his own personal view on whether he and fellow fans will be ready, and what form future phases should take…
Premier League shareholders voted this week to move the return to training into phase two, which, for those of us grasping at even the smallest signs of a return to normality, was probably this week’s most encouraging piece of news, especially taken in tandem with Nando’s reopening a few branches for take-away. Things do seem somehow, through all the enveloping chaos, to be beginning to travel in the right direction.In which case it’s probably now time for fans, too, to think about going into the second stage of our lockdown release schedule – the government-approved graduated recovery programme that we are all no doubt faithfully following to ensure that we are ready and able and in the best condition to resume as football supporters whenever it is safe to do so.Let’s be in no doubt, this is an entirely unprecedented situation for us all. None of us has ever had to stop going to football matches mid-season, in March, with nine league games still in the diary, and instead been asked to promise to stay in our homes for 10 weeks, except, obviously, for eye tests.And, similarly, none of us has ever then had to step back up and resume our supporting in some form in mid-June – a time when we would normally be resting and recuperating ahead of the August re-start. Who knows where we will be in terms of fitness levels, concentration, memory of where, exactly, Crystal Palace are in the table, etc. We’re in unknown territory here. (Although presumably we are all happy with our eye health.)
I was certainly happy to complete phase one of Project Restart for Fans this week – watching some German football. I had a few problems adapting, of course, but that’s only to be expected at this stage. Overall, as a light stretching session, it seemed to go okay.I also realised that although games without fans run entirely counter to nature, there is one thing even worse: games with mock, simulated or virtual fans positioned in the stands as if to somehow ‘make up’ for our absence.One understands that people are trying to be ingenious in extremely difficult circumstances and I’m sure they have the very best interests of the spectacle at heart. But none of these substitutes seems like a good idea – and the more innovative they are, the worse they seem to be.Cardboard fans? [As pictured top in the Bundesliga] It’s probably the least objectionable of the currently promoted solutions but, at the same time, you can get those on any normal weekend at QPR, and it’s never been an ideal backdrop for football.Screens showing actual fans, watching the game remotely, in self-isolation, and responding in real time? I don’t know how the players feel about it, but I find that even more depressing – eerie and post-apocalyptic and even a touch desperate. Football as Zoom meeting? No thank you.
Then there was that South Korean club who had to apologise for filling some of its seats with what we had better refer to here, on a family website, as adult products. That, again, we really can’t approve of. What kind of message does that send about fans?The game is better off not bothering, isn’t it? A large vista of empty seating has its own visual grandeur – and let’s face it, it’s a way of life at the Emirates. Better, surely, if we must go through this behind-closed-doors phase, to embrace where we are and just leave the stands vacant – an important reminder throughout of the one vital ingredient that’s missing, namely us.
And the same goes, definitely, for the idea of piping in canned crowd noise to fill the void. Surely if you’ve got a beating heart, the very thought casts a cold and clammy hand around it. Canned fans? I’d vote for piped-in vuvuzela noise before I’d vote for piped-in crowd sounds and I would rather have piped-in nothing. Think of it as a 90-minute silence in honour of the game’s lifeblood. Again, it wouldn’t hurt football at this time to be sending a clear message about the absence of flesh and blood supporters and how our return can’t come soon enough.Anyway, with Phase One completed, it’s now on to Phase Two. No contact-work at this stage, just a few light runs back over some of the basic details of the season as we left it – a refresher, if you will, to get the overall outline of the situation back in mind. We’ll be building up the work-load gradually, of course, and eventually doing full contact with some of the more obscure details pertaining to 2019/20 as we left it and as it remains. But in the meantime, going back to August for my initial researches, my eyes couldn’t help falling this week on a quotation from Chris Sutton, formerly of this parish.It was made after our defeat on the season’s opening day. Assessing the task facing Frank Lampard in 2019/20, and the players available to him, Sutton suggested it was ‘like going into an Olympic rowing final and being asked to compete in a dinghy.’Cruel, of course, to quote pundits months afterwards – and also, frankly, outside the spirit of the punditry game as we all understand it. The whole point of being a pundit is to know the glorious freedom of being able to say the first thing that comes into your head and then to be in no way answerable for it if it comes to make no sense at all at any point further down the line, or even seconds later, frankly.Remember, back in the days of Manchester United, when Alan Hansen said that thing about how you can never win anything with kids and was then rag-rolled for it for practically the rest of his broadcasting career? All that cheap joking and all those free shots did nobody any credit. It stops being fun if we start insisting this stuff has to contain durable truth.Still, all that said, in what already looks like his own personal ‘you’ll win nothing with kids’ moment, either Sutton entirely mis-assessed the scale of the job that the new manager signed up for last summer and the strength of our squad, or Frank Lampard is one of most remarkable oarsmen this country has seen this side of Steve Redgrave. Because according to my researches, the dinghy, where we left it, was on course to take a podium place.
How did the manager do it? I’m looking forward to digging down properly into the granular detail of that all over again – though only, of course, when it is safe to do so and as we move into Phase Three of Project Restart.