In his latest column, Chelsea supporter Giles Smith continues his mini pre-season and voices a view from the [virtual] stands as the potential season restart draws closer…
This week the conversation moved on to the possible dilemma of fixture congestion. An odd time to be thinking about it, maybe, when we haven’t had a fixture at all for closing in on three months. (It was 8 March the last time we played, if your diary goes back that far.) Have you ever felt less congested in your life?
But there we are. Fixture congestion is always a reliable red flag - and even during a global pandemic, it appears – and there seemed to be a bit of advanced grumbling going on at the clear prospect, within the proposed Premier League re-start schedule, of three-game weeks for some participants.Does anyone actually have a problem with that? At this stage in the lockdown? I certainly don’t. Even when the world is not in the throes of a socially and economically crippling health crisis, a three-game week is pretty much my idea of the perfect seven-day period. In the present desert, it seems like a mirage worth howling for joy at.Okay, there will be fitness issues. Not having gone at all since March, will I be ready, come a fortnight’s time, to go again two days later, and go yet again just two days after that? Ultimately I’ll take the medical team’s word on that, obviously, but I’m more than confident that I have the capacity, despite having had no match practice unless you count a bit of Bundesliga (which I don’t), and despite having done very little for the last quarter of a year altogether apart from sit at home and eat Digestive biscuits.
Of course, some will argue that it plays into the fans’ hands, stamina-wise, that we can’t actually go to any of these games and will be obliged to watch them at home on the telly instead. There seems to be a broad perception out there that this is a less demanding prospect altogether.I dispute that. Yes, you knock out some of the travel. On the other hand, I’ve always found watching games on television to be even more stressful than watching them in the stadium. That’s obviously the case, isn’t it? It stands to reason: if you’re in the ground you can influence what happens. If you’re in your sitting room, you’re utterly powerless. It’s all happening out there somewhere and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Stress only builds under those conditions.
And on top of that, if you’re not clever with the mute button, you’ll have to listen to someone like Steve McManaman re-explaining what you’ve just seen. Utterly enervating.So bring on the Premier League, then. I think we’re ready, three-game weeks or otherwise. And then there’s the FA Cup to incorporate. Remember the FA Cup? The world’s oldest football knock-out competition, first contested in 1871/72, but not heard of since the night of 4 March, and last seen in the Hillsborough area in the company of Chris Waddle and Martin Keown, who were dipping their hand into the bucket to bring us Leicester in the quarter-finals.
Anyone with news of the FA Cup’s whereabouts since then was invited to come forward, and now somebody has: the competition will resume on 27 June apparently, given a fair wind and a sufficiently low R-number. 27 June! That’s practically pre-season friendly time. Does the sharp end of the game’s most distinguished domestic cup contest become this year’s pre-August loosener? Talk about ‘the new reality’. Although maybe not if you’re Manchester United, who have been treating it more or less that way for years.
How will all this work, in the absence of us? That’s the abiding worry, isn’t it? Steve Stricker, the US Ryder Cup captain, made his feelings clear this week on the ever-nearing possibility of a closed-doors Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin this September. He didn’t hold back. ‘This event is made by the fans. If it was without fans, it almost would be a yawner of an event.’Maybe he’s right. The Ryder Cup is traditionally fire and thunder – or as close as golf gets to it. By contrast, the sight of a few people pottering about on a golf course in the absence of anybody else… well, the chances are you can get that right this moment, within a five-minute car ride of wherever you are now.
You would have to say also that Stricker’s sense of it ominously tallies pretty exactly with what we have seen so far of spectator-free sport in the lockdown. Darts? Sterling effort, definitely, and 10 out of 10 for ingenuity with those remote location head-to-heads. (Darts, and the PDC in particular, can fairly be said to have stolen a march on the entire sporting world with its reaction to coronavirus and the challenges of social distancing.) Yet at the same time… it’s a slightly sad watch, isn’t it? The core is missing. The heart doesn’t beat fast.German football? Again, brave attempt. The Germans got right out ahead of the rest of Europe in re-assembling their top-flight game (just as they got right out ahead of Europe in dealing with the pandemic). And who could deny that Der Klassiker, as witnessed the other week, was a decent game of football? And yet… were you out of your seat at any point? Was there anything in the soundtrack to draw you in? Anything to make sense of the fuss? What a cold spectacle it was. In the final analysis, your conclusion would have to be: a bit of a yawner.Does that mean we have to worry about a similar chilly fate befalling the Premier League when it returns? Maybe not. Let’s keep positive. The key distinction between that and the above? Neither of those had Chelsea in them. That’s the game-changer. That will be the difference, come the day.
Read: Introducing Project Restart for fans