Perhaps the most established TV pundit, Gary Neville, made the claim that the football being played was as “you would expect” at the end of ‘Project Restart’. At first, he said that he found it “tough” , as “games were played at such a slow pace”. That may have been because footballers had gone nearly 3 months without playing football. As the season progressed, he recognised that “players are a lot sharper and clever with their movement”. In other words, football has adapted and become normal again. In fact, there seems to be a general feeling among top journalists, who are able to attend and cover games, that the football being played has been able to been at a top level during ‘Project Restart’. Gary Neville did go on to say that fans were the only ingredient missing to football behind closed doors, but there has been little to no coverage of fans are significant in affecting the football being played. It is important that we are not too quick to be content with the current football being played.
It may appear as though I did not want football to return at all. Nonsense! Quite simply, it is just not satisfactory to accept football in its current state; supporters, and the unmatched atmospheres they can generate, are the centrepiece to football. Fans are not secondary to the football being played.
Whilst I would like to provide statistics, figures and evidence in defence of supporters, I cannot make a strong one. It is difficult to quantify atmosphere and its impact on a game, to confirm supporters as a main reason as to why a team may make a comeback, to compare over a hundred years of football with fans in the ground to one month of football with no fans. But I am sure that match-goers will agree that they have the power to lift players. Just look up Liverpool fans singing YNWA at half time in Istanbul, or the Man U fans in the Camp Nou going wild after Sheringham swept in and scored the first of two goal in stoppage time in ’99. Those are high profile examples, not to mention all the minutiae examples or personal experiences that can be referenced.
Of course, clubs know fans are needed anyway. Clubs are struggling financially due to the fact fans are not walking in to stadiums. For instance, in a report by The Guardian (1), Arsenal received £99m from gate and matchday income and £180m from TV rights in the 17/18 season. Though TV rights are nearly double their gate receipts, the subtraction of nearly 100 million pounds from their total revenues would be hugely problematic, not to mention the running costs of the grounds during the pandemic, and missed commercial opportunities.
Yet, if football has been so normal, with modern players robotically executing their routines in each match, then there is an added incentive for Premier League owners to raise ticket prices, invite more hospitality and corporate sales into stadiums and abandon the local communities. The abuse of fans could be exacerbated by the current situation. This is already a grave problem for football, as highlighted by Owen Gibson in 2013 (2), Liverpool fanzine ‘This Is Anfield’ in 2015 (3) and all supporters trusts.
There is also the estimate of under 1 million match-goers each weekend in the top 4 leagues in England(4), some of which likely might not be capable of paying expensive subscriptions to Sky Sports or BT Sports. No club offered season ticket holders the chance to televise home games free of charge.
The concern is clear. In a time when loyal fans were already suffering from being ignored and shut out by their owners in favour of more revenue, they have now seen the football community be content with the football being played without them being there. To add to the possible exclusion of passionate fans from football, their voices have been replaced by awkward FIFA “crowd noises” to ‘bring the vibrant atmosphere of the Premier League to the restart’. Can you imagine going to a football match and have speakers play out background chants to increase atmosphere? Spurs have already been accused of doing so in early 2019.
It’s a worrying time for the loyal football fans. It’s a critical time for the loyal football fans. ‘Project Restart’ might only incentivise and catalyse existing problems football fans face. How the loyal fans respond remains a key problem. The Premier League, being an internationally-adored competition which soaks up up to £9bn a year in revenue already, is at risk of turning into a purely commercial league. On the Premier League website, it says that “our fans create an atmosphere that sets us apart from other leagues and competitions”. If the Premier League want to protect this unique-selling-point, it is time that the Premier League sets aside money to help local fans and club communities as fans return to stadiums whilst socially distancing. It is also time the football community acts powerfully and decisively. Make voices heard, amidst the laggy fake noises generated by EA Sports on TV. So, speak now, or forever hold your grace.
image credit: Oldelpaso