I’ve received an e-mail from Old Trafford, saying that refunds are to be issued to season ticket holders for the remaining matches of the season. We’ve known for weeks, months, that fans wouldn’t be returning to matches this season, even if the season can be completed in the three top divisions – it’s already been abandoned at other levels in England, and in Scotland. I knew this had to happen. I knew that City had contacted their season ticket holders last week. I’m glad that the clubs are doing the right thing and offering refunds rather than credit notes. But still – it’s so final. No more match going for this season. And who knows what’ll happen next season, if there even is a next season? You can’t exactly practise social distancing inside a 78,000-seater stadium filled to capacity, not to mention on the crowded trams before and afterwards. The Dutch government’s talking about banning fans from matches until there’s a vaccine. I’m trying to forget that I read that.
Four generations of our family have gone to matches at Old Trafford. Or, whisper this, on one side of the family, to Anfield. Families all over the country can say the same. People go with their relatives, or with their friends. Or on their own – you make friends with other people who sit near you, even if they’re only there for one match. We’re all their together. It’s an amazing bonding experience.
In any pub, or park, or workplace, or school playground, you’ll hear people talking about football, whether it’s with fellow fans of their own team or “banter” with fans of a rival team. I know some dads and sons (it’s not such an issue with daughters or mums – we can always find plenty to talk about!) who hardly talk about much else other than football! If the season can be completed, as it’s being in Germany, it’ll be something, but it won’t be the same. I’ve watched some of the fanless Bundesliga matches. I watched United’s behind-closed-doors with LASK Linz just before professional football was suspended. Football without fans is very odd. Owt’s certainly better than nowt, but it’s very odd.
And the thought of months, maybe more, without being able to go to matches, without that buzz, that excitement, that shared feeling, the shared celebrations, the shared moaning and groaning and criticising, is just horrible. Going to football matches has been part of my life since I was a little kid and nagged Dad into taking me to Old Trafford with him.
It can’t be helped, as things are. We all accept that. And yes, I do know that far worse things are happening. But, as former AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi once said, “football is the most important of the least important things”.
And spare a thought for the forgotten losers in all this. As I’ve just said, it can’t be helped, but think about the knock-on effect of football without fans, or no football at all. Think about the people who run the cafes and pubs near the grounds. The people who operate the burger stands, hot dog stands, drinks stalls and ice cream vans – and remember that most of them will also usually work at music festivals, which have also been wiped out. The people who run the souvenir stalls outside the grounds – and, at big clubs, they’re there every day, not just on match days. The offices and factories which make a little extra money by charging fans to use their car parks on match days. The local transport networks. Anyone who’s ever been on a Metrolink tram half an hour or so before United or City are due to kick off at home can well imagine what a hit Metrolink are going to take from this, at a time when they’re suffering so badly anyway. The hotels where visiting fans stay. The whole economy of a footballing town or city.
Remember all the devastation about the effect that Bury being expelled from the Football League would have on the economy of the entire town of Bury? That’s now happening to every single town and city in the country which has got one or more professional football, rugby league or rugby union teams, or is home to county cricket. And football without fans, or maybe no football at all, is going to have a similar effect in towns and cities in Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece … the list goes on and on.
There’s always been football. In 2013, when I had such severe anxiety and depression that the doctor wanted me to go to the emergency psych unit at Crumpsall Hospital and I was off work for three months, I still never missed a match. Although the counsellor said that I had a setback due to the emotional trauma caused by Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement!
There’s always been football. Now there isn’t. I know that people have got very mixed feelings about trying to finish the season. I can see both points of view, but, if it can be done safely, I very much hope that it can happen – things seemed to go OK in Germany last weekend. But football without fans, fans without football matches to go to … that makes me very sad. I do know that football isn’t “much more serious” than life and death. But it’s still very serious to a lot of people. And, whilst we understand and accept that we won’t be going to matches for a long time yet, that doesn’t mean that we’re not devastated by it. And our local economies are going to be hit very hard by it as well.
Our world’s been turned upside down. Not being able to go to football matches might not be the biggest part of that, but, to a lot of people, it’s a big part.