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30 September 2020

Why football is still the great escape, even without the fans

There may be no cheering crowds – but the game is still as reckless, relentless and eccentric as ever. 

By Hunter Davies

It’s been an interesting season so far, especially one newcomer to the Prem. Who is it? Stay tuned…

I worried about not having any crowds. They do provide distraction, amusement, atmosphere, excitement. But it turns out the lack of audience has not meant lack of stimulation and encouragement for the players. They are so gung-ho, throwing themselves into tackles, recklessly racing forward, right until the end, so we have seen many late winners and disasters. Why is this? Do supporters screaming and shouting sometimes make them hesitant and fearful?

We are being treated to every Prem game live, sometimes four a day, which is proving a tonic to the nation, oh yes it is. The PM should be pleased. It is good for our mental health, takes our mind off Brexit, the lurgy, and Christmas being cancelled. For millions of football fans at least, it provides an escape into the old normal.

Obviously I watch every game, being a dopey, craven, pathetic fan, which I fear could mean my young girlfriend, aged 72, will eventually get pissed off. I am continually asking if we can eat at six, I don’t want to miss kick-off, and no, I can’t go anywhere this Saturday – don’t you know who’s playing? I must check – nor on Sunday either.

Two big disappointments so far have been England and Spurs. In England’s game against Iceland, the only amusement was a large banner in the totally empty stadium saying WEST BROMWICH ALBION. Had a Baggies fan flown out, been in quarantine for five days, then sneaked into the ground and plonked it there? Or was it an eccentric Icelander who fell in love with West Brom because his granny had a crush on the King, Jeff Astle, back in the 1960s?

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Spurs drive me mad, the lumpen defence always passing sideways. The only amusement is hearing Mourinho’s latest excuse for a rubbish display. Covid – he usually brings that in, as if no one else on the planet has suffered. Or VAR: everyone hates VAR anyway. Never his fault, of course.

The bright light of the season so far has been, tarran tarran… Leeds United. They were terrific against Liverpool, despite losing 4-3. They always seem positive, well organised and determined.

I was willing them on, yet I so admired Liverpool last season. Funny how when a team has got to the top there is a sneaky pleasure in waiting for them to fall to an underdog.

Leeds had such a brilliant team in the 1970s. I loved Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer, Johnny Giles and Allan Clarke, and enjoyed Don Revie’s innovations, even his daft ones that did not last long – such as numbered tabs on the socks. It meant in a goalmouth melee you could always work out which player had kicked the ball. It was the idea of a friend of mine, Paul Trevillion, which Revie agreed to.

We all so enjoyed Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner fighting during the Charity Shield at Wembley in 1974. You might have expected the heavies to have been sent off – Norman “Bites yer Legs” Hunter of Leeds and Tommy Smith of Liverpool. Keegan and Bremner were little fellas.

I also felt sorry for Leeds as they dropped through the leagues in the 2000s. But now they are back in the Prem, with their Argentinian manager Marcelo Bielsa.

Unlike Mourinho – so smooth, fluent, and plausible, convinced he is a matinee idol – Bielsa is an eccentric scruff who avoids the limelight. I have yet to hear him speak English. In interviews he uses an interpreter. During the game, he sits on a bucket.

He looks like the bloke who often comes to my door at a strange time, saying he has a barrow-load of left-over cement round the corner, would I like the front path repaired?

Yet Bielsa is an excellent manager, passionate and committed, not interested in playing to the gallery or the press. Leeds players and fans love him. So does the TV. In an empty stadium, deprived of close-ups of fans, the cameras can focus on Bielsa, doing nothing on his bucket, which I think in fact is a stool. But bucket sounds madder. 

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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union