OLIVER HOLT: Don't pretend football is back, this is a pale imitation

OLIVER HOLT: Don’t pretend real football is back… this is a pale imitation, and the game we love may never return

  • Things have felt sanitised and bleak since football has returned from lockdown
  • Getting fans back in stadiums must be a priority in order to revive the game
  • The five-sub rule feels like a sop smuggled in to benefit the richer clubs 

Half an hour before kick-off of the second leg of League One’s play-off semi-final between Oxford United and Portsmouth on Monday evening, a white flat-bed truck pulled up in the car park outside the Kassam Stadium. 

Twenty blue pallets had been stacked high on the back of it so that they rose six feet or more above the driver’s cab.

There are only three sides to the Kassam. The fourth was never built. So behind one goal, only a low wall separates the pitch from the car park. The truck driver had done his homework.  

Things have felt sanitised and bleak since football has started up again following lockdown

Some football fans sat on top of a truck to get a view of Oxford United against Portsmouth

The police moved him on but he circled round and parked a few metres away in the spaces reserved for customers of a cinema multiplex, which is closed. After that, they left him alone. 

Just before kick-off, the driver clambered on to the top of the pile of pallets and opened a beer. He was 20 metres away from the pitch but he had an uninterrupted view of the empty stadium. Another man climbed up beside him, shook his hand and sat next to him. Others scrambled up as well and, when the game kicked off, they began to sing and cheer.

Soon, there were 10 Portsmouth fans perched precariously atop the pallets, English football’s first spectators for almost four months. They began to chant at the wall of cardboard fans behind the other goal, the fans that football has replaced them with. The real thing confronted the impostors. ‘Where were you at Fratton Park?’ they yelled. The mute army of cut-outs stared back at them.

To people who don’t know English football, who are not steeped in it, maybe that moment might seem insignificant. For those of us there, sitting socially distanced in the stand, masks around our faces, it was a moment of joy. It was like a breath of pure oxygen. Banished since the game came back sanitised and bleak last month, it was the first sighting of football’s soul.

It was the first glimpse of what football has been lacking since returning, atmosphere and joy

They have been saying football is back but it isn’t really. What’s the point of staging a drama if it plays to empty theatres? I’m sorry, but I have been to a few matches behind closed doors and it has been interesting to watch the games and see moments of skill and expression but let’s stop pretending football is back. What we have is a pale imitation of football.

We know these stadiums of ours as cauldrons of emotion and passion and argument and anger and cursing and pleading and laughing and crying and hugging and stamping and shouting and sighing and shrugging and raging and exhorting and conflict and resolution and despair and triumph and pointing and waving and escaping and living. Now they are places that echo and clang and try to fool our minds with their cardboard fans and their fake crowd noise.

All this is necessary, we know, and we accept it because the safety of fans is paramount and the alternative was for the TV companies to ask for their billions back and for English football to be plunged into a terminal meltdown.

In the weeks since restart, it has still provoked moments that make the heart sing. Kevin De Bruyne has played more majestically than ever, it has been thrilling to watch the continuing emergence of Mason Greenwood at Manchester United, and it was a pleasure to see the joy of Chris Wilder when his Sheffield United side scored a last-minute winner against Wolves on Wednesday. Some things transcend the emptiness.

Without crowds, too many football matches have looked like training games since the restart

Others do not. Without crowds, too many matches have looked like training games. Without fans, lower-quality sides accept their fate against the big boys far more readily than they did when they had their supporters there roaring them on, refusing to allow them to become dispirited, refusing to allow them to give up.

Newcastle’s FA Cup capitulation to Manchester City at St James’ Park at the end of last month was a good example. Many sides have been outplayed by City. There is no shame in that. But Newcastle would not have been quite as supine in front of 50,000 screaming Geordies.

And would Spurs have surrendered so meekly to Sheffield United that Jose Mourinho said he was ‘disturbed’ by their lack of desire if thousands of their fans had been packed into the away end at Bramall Lane 10 days ago?

Now that the domestic season is drawing to a close, Jurgen Klopp’s dominant Liverpool side have been confirmed as title winners and relegation and promotion issues are about to be finalised, a wider concern is starting to emerge, too: will we ever get football back as we knew it before the coronavirus or is it being changed so fundamentally that it will be unrecognisable?

The game feels transformed, more breaks, more subs, more interruptions, less momentum

It almost feels as if a coup against football has taken place during lockdown. Suddenly, it is a game transformed. More breaks, more subs, more interruptions, more protests, less rhythm, less momentum. It is starting to look like a different game. So when fans are allowed back, will they like what they see? When they are allowed back, will they want to stay?

I am not sure that football recognises quite yet the magnitude of the task it faces to win back the fans. The balance of power between clubs and supporters has shifted during the lockdown.

Fans had been relegated to cash-cows, customers to be fleeced in superstores and at the turnstile, commodities taken for granted. But the sight and the sounds of those empty stadiums has reminded us that they are the game’s life-blood. We already know we can put a price on the importance of supporters to the ‘product’.

Broadcasters forced the Premier League to pay them a £330million rebate for the portion of the season played behind closed doors because the absence of the fans and the atmosphere they create devalued the viewer experience.

Extrapolate that figure and apply it to an entire campaign and it tells you fans are worth £1.4billion a season to our top-flight clubs.

There will be concerns about fans being comfortable in crowds of 50,000 at stadiums again

The clubs should be paying them to come to matches rather than the other way round. Season tickets should be free. We can see clearly now that fans make clubs money and clubs ask them to pay for the privilege. The figures tell us what we already knew and what is being confirmed with every soulless game played behind closed doors: football is nothing without fans.

They tell us, too, that the game ought to pay more attention to fans’ concerns because, apart from wider issues about whether we will ever be comfortable in crowds of 50,000 people again, there is growing alarm at the game’s direction of travel and the new rules it has adopted during the coronavirus crisis.

In the course of one season, English football has accelerated quickly towards a model of sport that has increasing similarities with the NFL with its staccato rhythm, its constant interruptions, its made-for-television-adverts time-outs and its video replays. You can love the NFL and still deplore the way that our game appears to be trying to imitate it.

The introduction of the five-sub rule appears to have benefited the big clubs the most

VAR is one part of the problem. Its introduction at the start of the season was a victory for logic and technology. Its implementation has been shambolic. Luddites have never given it a chance but nor has it helped itself. The failure to include match-going fans in the decision-making process and to communicate with them about why there is a delay has been unforgivable. 

Even last week, the length of the time it took to decide on Eddie Nketiah’s red card for Arsenal against Leicester and then to adjudicate on whether there was an offside in the build-up to Jamie Vardy’s equaliser in the same game felt unacceptable. Decision-making should be getting quicker. It feels as if it is getting slower. 

There is understandable disquiet, too, about the news that the rule that allowed teams to use five substitutes this season is to be extended to next season, too. It was supposed to be introduced to aid player welfare in a time of accentuated fixture congestion and its perpetuation feels like a sop to the richer clubs that has been smuggled in under the cover of darkness.

It has been pointed out that some managers have been using drinks breaks as extra team talks

Nobody signed up for this. There has been no consultation with fans. And it really does not take the brains of Lloyd George to work out that it is a rule which will favour richer clubs who have squads packed with larger numbers of higher-quality players. There are enough rules that favour the rich already. We do not need another.

That is before we consider the damage that the five-substitute rule does to the rhythm of the game. Yes, each club still only has three opportunities to make changes but the reality of wholesale changes is that momentum in a game is lost. A side introducing three substitutes at once is not uncommon now. It is like the game starting again.

The drinks breaks that have appeared since the restart have increased the sense of disruption, too. Wilder has already pointed out that managers like Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta have been using the breaks as auxiliary half-time intervals, seizing them as opportunities for extra coaching. Often, any advantage an opponent may have gained is negated by the drinks break.

The NFL is calibrated around interruptions like that. Our game is not. Our game is at its best when it builds around surges of momentum and periods of pressure and periods of heroic resistance.

West Ham vice-chair Karren Brady said the plan is to have supporters back by September

Even when the fans are back, perhaps especially when the fans are back, the prevalence of these new interruptions will ruin those rhythms and how they rise and fall.

If all this were being done in the name of crisis management, we could stomach it. But what was supposed to be temporary is already becoming permanent. It does not feel right. It feels surreptitious and wrong. Changes are bleeding into the game that are altering its nature fundamentally and all without fans being given the chance to make their feelings known.

The Premier League are playing a dangerous game. They seem to be in denial. They used to hold all the cards but they don’t any more. It needs to understand that even though some supporters will rush back as soon as they can, others will be more cautious. 

Maybe that will be because they will no longer feel comfortable in stadiums with tens of thousands of people. Maybe that will be because they have grown used to spending less money during lockdown. Maybe that will be because they have lost their jobs and they no longer have the disposable income the Premier League demands of their supporters and their families.

Maybe that will be because they have reassessed their priorities during the crisis and they have decided they are bored of being taken for granted by clubs and kit manufacturers who have been abusing their loyalty and that they would rather spend their money elsewhere.

VAR is one part of the problem, its implementation has been shambolic since the start

Football must realise now more than ever that it has to make a priority of getting fans back into grounds as soon as it is safe. The longer their absence, the quicker the game will wither and the harder it will be to revive it.

West Ham vice-chair Karren Brady said that the plan is to have supporters back in full stadiums by September, which would be a fillip for the league. If the Government can get audiences back into cinemas and theatres, the Premier League has to convince them it can get football fans back into grounds. If they have not been readmitted by early next season, the game will be in even more serious trouble.

Even then, the danger for English football is that the public will come back to a game it no longer recognises and no longer loves, a game of changed rhythms and alien interruptions and manufactured breaks and innovations weighted towards the most powerful clubs that make it even harder for the Premier League to maintain the illusion of unpredictability on which much of its appeal is predicated.

It may want football back the way it used to be but it is as if the Premier League and the football authorities think they still exist in a world where they can treat fans with disdain.

They may find that their world has changed. They may find that power has shifted away from them. They may be in for a rude awakening. 

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