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24 June 2020

Life without football has been purgatory, but does it matter as much without the crowd?

I used to tell myself that I am such a fan I can watch any two teams kicking a ball around. Turns out it’s not true. 

By Hunter Davies

I used to think that when I grow old, much older than I am today, it will be so lovely to have two simple pleasures to enjoy. Towards the end of her life, my wife still loved to stagger round the garden and read a new novel each day, getting great comfort from both. Me, I intend to knock back the Beaujolais and watch football round the clock. Bliss.

I hope, of course, I will still have the other obvious pleasures in life, such as work, walking, my dear family, my dear girlfriend, but the wine and footer will be the treats for the end of the day. During the past three months I have doubled the wine intake to make up for the lack of football, which has been purgatory.

I used to tell myself that I am such a fan I can watch any two teams kicking a ball around. Turns out it’s not true. I tuned into the German games, when I remembered, then gave up. Mainly it was the lack of fans and atmosphere. But it also seemed so remote. Apart from Bayern and Dortmund, I didn’t know the players, the clubs, their history, or care about them. Paderborn, who the heck are they? 

Maybe I am a little Ingerlander, only interested in the familiar. I know every Prem player by his walk, his smile, his scowl, his hair, and could not wait to welcome them all back. But what if playing in an empty stadium makes them remote and disembodied? 

We have now had over a week of the Return, and the first surprise has been the haircuts. So that’s what they have been doing during lockdown. We know Ronaldo has a personal stylist with him everywhere, but our Prem players must be equally fortunate. They can’t all have married hairdressers, can they?

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Lamela of Spurs has had a blonde rinse, while Grealish of Villa has employed a whole salon on his hair. They had to erect scaffolding to get that top knot in place. West Ham manager David Moyes has clearly not had a haircut, and has gone white. Roy Keane’s hair is wilder, which suits his character. I have grown a beard these past few months, but have not spotted a new one on the field. They had become so fashionable, early doors. Perhaps I should take mine off. 

The lack of crowds, that is the weirdest thing. I started off with the artificial crowd noise in the background, to make me feel as if I were at the game with 60,000 fans. You can roughly identify the partisan home chants, such as West Ham fans blowing bubbles, Spurs marching on, as they try to simulate the home atmosphere, but the crowd noise is muted, clearly not live, or connected with the play. It becomes mere background, a low hubbub, lift music, restaurant music, lifeless, soulless wallpaper. 

I began screaming in annoyance, until I realised you can change channels and choose to only hear the coaches and players shouting in what sounds like an empty swimming pool. I have become addicted to this. Their isolated shouts do follow and reflect the flow of the game. I’ve not detected any swearing, so far, but then my hearing is not what it was.

Does it matter, not having a crowd? Some players excel in training, yet freeze on the big stage. But most players say they can’t perform properly without an audience, can’t be arsed to turn it on. Like artists and actors, politicians and lawyers, they need a response. 

If the home team is playing well, their crowd encourages and energises them to greater efforts. If they are playing badly, their fans will get on their backs. The home team will often ham it up, clattering the opposition, trying for penalties, shaking their fists at the baddies, knowing the home crowd will love it. There’s no point in doing it if no one is watching. Perhaps that is why in Germany playing at home has turned out not to be the usual advantage without fans.

The thing about crowds, either being in one or watching one, is that they keep you awake. They have a character and life of their own. Last weekend, I found myself dozing off. Well, I did watch four so-called live games on the trot. Overindulging, after such a long absence. 

This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football