The late great Jock Stein made the incredibly lucid and timeless observation that football without fans is nothing.
It would appear to many ‘stakeholders’ in the football equation that breaking this truism either does not matter or it is something that can be ignored during the current Covid19 pandemic.
The last few months of Covid 19 has seen football going from being completely shut down as a spectacle to a point now where the new season is underway and the football observers would have you believe that things are getting back to ‘normal’. Critically, the one big ingredient missing from the ‘normal’ football recipe is the continuing absence of supporters at games.
As clubs, players and TV companies have adjusted to games in the pandemic era, it appears that their normality is to play football behind closed doors with TV dubbing the sound of fans into their coverage. For the likes of Sky Sports this creates the product they need to retain the interest of subscribing armchair viewers. For them, football normality is their tried and tested formula of a TV product which conveys both the game and some crowd ‘atmosphere’ interspersed with the banal views of football pundits attempting to stay relevant in the game or in Kris Boyd’s case vain attempts to avoid mauling the basics of the English language. Ultimately this product is fake football coverage and those supporters who are regularly going to games will probably be aghast at what they see on their TVs rather than their regular matchday experience.
Similarly, the Virtual Season Ticket produced by Celtic, while being a necessary stopgap for those of us unable to attend games, has prioritised the football punditry as somehow being the substitute for the real thing.
What is increasingly worrying is that these new realities of football appear to be being bedded in as if this is how the full season is going to pan out. When football first returned, pundits were at pains to point out it would not be the same without fans but that case is being diminished by them as the TV companies have revised their product to airbrush this problem out of their coverage.
What is more worrying for fans in this scenario is that the Scottish Government appears intent on holding football to a different standard from other elements of economic and social life. Despite football clubs and authorities having put in place far more stringent measures than many other sectors of economic life, the Government appears to be holding football to account under a different set of standards. What we see, as lockdown measures have eased and the economy opens up again, is a continuing scrutiny of football which does not exist elsewhere. This is ironic given that football clubs, players and officials are doing far more than many other organisations in other sectors to ensure safety under Covid 19 restrictions.
Specifically, with regard to supporters going to games again, it seems puzzling that football is somehow an ‘unsafe’ place because of all the possible Covid ‘risks’ related to factors away from the stadium. This is an argument promoted by both the Government and their advisers. The argument runs along the lines of football supporters not being able to go to games because of the possible proximity of supporters prior to the games be that at pubs or on public transport. This is a strange generalisation put forward by Government given that many supporters who go to games do not go to pubs prior to games and do not use public transport. The latter point raises a chuckle in itself as most supporters going to Celtic Park know that public transport to and from the stadium is virtually non existent on matchdays. It also infers football supporters cannot or will not abide by Covid rules. Quite a slur.
So while other elements of the economy and society are being encouraged to function within the eased Covid restrictions, football is somehow regarded as different. For example, there appears to be no scrutiny of shopping centres over how their thousands of daily customers arrive at their facilities and no questioning of what those customers were doing in the two hours prior to them arriving there. So why is football and, more specifically, football supporters, being held to different Covid 19 standards?
One can only speculate on the answer to this question but it seems successive governments have always seen football supporters as ‘different’ in any given situation relating to wider society contexts. There is a long history of laying something like societal sectarian problems at the door of football supporters through to literally kicking in the doors of football supporters to enforce a ridiculous piece of legislation introduced as a knee jerk reaction to an incident blown out of any sensible proportion. Similarly, the over policing of football supporters in a completely different way to other sporting and cultural events is now so ingrained as custom and practice it is rarely mentioned in conversation outside of football supporters themselves.
All of these things point to a Government which simply does not ‘trust’ football supporters to abide by the current Covid rules and go to and from games within these rules. Why else would ‘excuses’ be made for the prevention of football supporters returning to games?
We also hear plenty in the current Covid discussions about the kickstarting of parts of the economy. Again, the Government seems unwilling or unable to see football as an economic sector in its own right. This blind spot seems to suggest Ministers and their advisers think they are only preventing a sporting event from taking place with little recognition of the economic output which football creates when fans attend games.
What is also increasingly demoralising for supporters is the lack of a strong fan representative voice lobbying Government to allow supporters to return to games even in limited numbers. The trialling of 300 supporters at two games at the weekend provides little substance to the possible return of supporters in meaningful numbers. Neil Lennon, quite correctly, raised the issue of allowing limited numbers of supporters to return to games. The figure of 16,000 was referred to by Lennon and this seems to be a reasonable number in the context of a 60,000 capacity stadium. Celtic are well equipped to allow that many supporters into the stadium in a Covid related context. Anyone getting to Celtic games early would realise that an attendance of 16,000 is easily manageable within the ‘footprint’ of Celtic Park.
There is no doubting that the effects of Covid19 have been devastating for so many and Government responses have largely been necessary for an unprecedented modern health crisis. However, the seeming lack of Government facilitation to give football back the lifeblood it needs to provide the spectacle and experience so many of us crave is both baffling and frustrating in the context of other lockdown restrictions being lifted.
Football without fans simply cannot go on much longer. The Government needs to recognise this and allow supporters back to games.