Don’t call it a comeback. To be fair, when I elected to take a break from popular STAND 17 months ago, I didn’t expect the world as we know it to grind to a halt. It would be particularly pretentious to suggest these two things are directly connected, but we miss one season in 22 years and suddenly the final League One standings are being calculated on the back of a fag packet and the FA can’t bring themselves to let fans back into football grounds. So yeah, let’s not call it a comeback. It’s much more of an intervention.
We rejoin you with football in a very different place to where we left it in mid-2019. The professional game no longer happens in our presence. It is no longer a visceral experience, but a secondhand one fed to us via screens and apps. Though the way we’re now consuming and consummating our support of our club may be familiar to those who get their kicks from the football pyramid’s pointy end, for many of us it’s largely alien.
You’ll now be over familiar with phrases you previously barely used; ‘the new normal’, ‘unprecedented times’, ‘no, sorry, you’re on mute’. In football an old adage many of us subscribed to, has become almost as omnipresent, though I prefer Jock Stein’s original to Matt Busby’s oft-aired cover version. ‘Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing.’ However, post pandemic, this quotation – much like the 2020-21 season – now comes with an asterisk and an accompanying footnote.
Football exists in two forms. There is football the game – that’s the one you’ll recognise, the one played by kids in the park, men and women in the local leagues, and professionals all the way up to Rovers’ level. And then there’s football the television series; the never ending soap opera of the European competitions, the Premier League, and much of the Championship. And the pandemic has only served to heighten this split.
Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing.’ However, post pandemic, this quotation – much like the 2020-21 season – now comes with an asterisk and an accompanying footnote.
The game really is nothing without fans paying at the turnstiles. It’s visibly crumbling. It has already lost Macclesfield Town, and it will be a miracle if no other club goes the same way before the season ends. Football the television series however remains as ubiquitous as ever, arguably more so, with an increasing number of games televised. So long as the millions from television and gambling firms keeps coming, it doesn’t matter if there are 50,000 fans in their stadia or just 50 journalists, it’s shiny wheel’s revolutions will be televised
The disparity between the finances of football’s top flight and not just the rest of football, but the rest of life, now stretches beyond parody. This summer Chelsea spent more on new players than the government has spent on finding a vaccine for COVID-19. At any time that such spending would seem repugnant, in the midst of a pandemic it’s as crass and careless as making their famous Chelsea pensioners go on Ninja Warrior.
For the game there can be little hope of a government bail out; which is understandable – ensuring folk have a roof over their head is a much more suitable use of their funds. So if football the game is to survive intact it needs a leg up from its annoying cousin – the one who preaches the value of saving on frivolities to buy a house, without mentioning their massive inheritance; the f***ing Premier League.
But you don’t become a monstrous corporate conglomerate by looking out for the little guy, as this quote reinforces:
‘If the Premier League can do their bit to enhance the chances of other teams surviving possibly they may step in, but does that mean every hedge-fund manager who is incredibly successful does that — filter down to the hedge-fund managers who are not so successful?’
Who’s that quote from? Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters? No. Maybe one of the owners; someone like Stan Kroenke or Daniel Levy? Oh no. It’s from Sean Dyche. Sean fucking Dyche! The blokiest of football blokes; the embodiment of the guy down your local who still complains about ‘these poncy new crisp flavours’ six years after his first packet of sea salt and balsamic; a Yorkie Bar with a goatee. That Sean Dyche.
I’m not 100% au fait with the harbingers of the apocalypse, but Sean Dyche using hedge-fund managers as a relatable metaphor has to be one of them. A man who spent his entire playing career in the Football League, manager of a club that’s only been in the top flight for seven of the last 44 seasons, and yet he can’t hoist up the ladder quick enough.
How bloody typical that the only people with the finance to save football the game, are the exact same ones trying to push it further adrift. It’s like the plot of an awful romcom. But it’s hard to see the Premier League hunting us down on a rain-soaked bridge to tell us that they needed us all along. Unfortunately we’re unlikely to have them at hello, and much more likely to win their love with ‘B’ teams in the lower divisions.
How bloody typical that the only people with the finance to save football the game, are the exact same ones trying to push it further adrift.
So for now, we remain stuck in this odd football hinterland. Where we can have the games, but we can’t go to them. It’s a five-minute freeview of football the television series to lure us away from the sanctity of football the game. It’s not for me. I now spend my entire working week sitting in my home looking at a screen; I’d much rather spend my Saturdays paying at a turnstile to turn nothing into something.
This is Glen Wilson’s editorial from issue 101 of popular STAND fanzine, published in October 2020