For the past month or so I have been wondering whether I really miss Premier League football. The first Saturday there was none, I rather enjoyed its absence. Being confined to the garden on a warm afternoon felt like a relief from the relegation fear that has had me, a West Ham fan, in its grip since our goalkeeper, Lukasz Fabianski, tore a hip muscle taking a goal kick in late September. That afternoon West Ham sat fifth in the table. When the season stopped, they were 16th, separated from the final relegation place by goal difference.
During this long football shutdown, I did panic at a headline suggesting a plan for five teams to be relegated, only to discover that this proposal entailed no clubs being relegated this season and five the next. In telling the story to my West Ham-supporting neighbour, I managed to alarm him as much as I had myself. But when a month later we ran into each other in the local park we didn’t discuss football for the first time in the near decade we have known one another.
But dread isn’t really an explanation for this absence of absence I experience each weekend. Relegation struggles are one of football’s visceral pleasures for fans. In their near unbearable tension – when four or five clubs’ fate can change with one comic mistake or one moment of sublime beauty – lies something close to the soul of how supporters experience football. You won’t hear fans singing with more conviction than when, as they watch their club relegated, they belt out that they know they are, they’re sure they are, they’re their club till they die.
No, my problem isn’t West Ham going down. It’s the Premier League’s whole rotten edifice, which this lockdown has exposed: the top clubs that wanted to use the government’s furlough scheme; the players’ absurd arguments against wage cuts; that the broadcasting contract looms over every move the Premier League considers; and the offensive pretence that fulfilling that contract would financially support the lower-league clubs facing ruin. One doesn’t need to ignore the demons that haunted pre-Premier League football to wonder what it means to love a game that in its highest professional form has become so bereft of any moral compass.
A season that recommences without supporters, where only those who can afford to pay for TV subscription channels on top of their match-day tickets can watch, in private, seems the Premier League taken to its commercial conclusion.
I remember West Ham playing Castilla (Real Madrid’s reserve team) in the “ghost match” of October 1980. Uefa ordered the second leg of the Cup Winners’ Cup tie to be played behind closed doors after some West Ham fans had behaved appallingly in the first game in Madrid. As I listened to the radio that evening, the stadium’s emptiness seemed pervasive. But the void was the fans’ fault, and back then BBC radio commentary was an art form, an inexorable part of the game’s cultural DNA, and not, like the television rights, an object of resentment whose gigantic revenue stream clubs must value more than the fans turning up to watch.
There have been moments these recent months when my mind has cast the havoc the virus has caused the Premier League as the denouement of a long story, one where the disease washes all the excess away and forces English football to start again. It is, of course, an illusion. I know full well that human beings have succumbed to apocalyptic morality since they first started telling stories about what happens when pestilence, or the flood, comes.
If the football season does restart in June, I also know I will watch all West Ham’s games and that my relegation-fretting will return. I’ve cared for far too long about West Ham and football to stop now. When the grounds open again, I will be there, even though I have never reconciled myself to West Ham playing at the London Stadium. When I am there, I am sure I will enjoy it because I still miss my match-day routines, my West Ham friendships. I probably miss the arguments about which players are to blame for the team’s problems.
But these past few months have been a brutal lesson in what I have suspected for some time. My love for the club and for English football is now mostly about memory. The 10 May was the fourth anniversary of West Ham’s final game at Upton Park and the 40th of West Ham’s 1980 FA Cup final win when, as a second division team, they beat Arsenal 1-0. Reflecting on those two events, I unequivocally missed football. But what I missed very deeply was football the way it once was. And when I go to football now there is, somewhere around me, some other match present too, another place conditioning my emotions.
For the present, regardless of whether any more games are played this season, I want Liverpool to win the Premier League. But that victory would feel like what the past demands, a Merseyside redemption story that should be fulfilled. I would not have the same concern for “justice” if it were Manchester City 25 points ahead.
The first time I experienced relegation as a fan I was ten. West Ham lost their last match of the season 2-0 to Liverpool, and I sat in my bedroom letting the commentary on the radio dissipate, second by second, the last drops of a fiercely held hope. Four months earlier I had moved back to Nottingham, and the week before newly promoted Nottingham Forest had improbably won the First Division title under the leadership of Brian Clough. My parents said it would be understandable if I switched my allegiance to Forest. Rather pompously, I told them I was a West Ham fan for life. I was right.
But I could not have conceived I would end up aware that I now support that football club out of time.
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show