Fear, hope and disappointment on the first day of the football season

Football, no matter the level, never writes an easy script. 

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The morning after Glastonbury, festival-goers wake up to abandoned tents, marks left in the turf where tents once were, and debris and detritus littering the field. And in the aftermath of such a huge event, the feeling of a comedown (sometimes, of course, literal) hangs over proceedings.

If you were to take a camera around a football stadium at 6pm on opening day, you’d see clear parallels. Empty save for the odd football journalist still filing reports, the roar of matchday is replaced with an eerie silence. 

It’s a silence that says a lot about us as football fans. We spend months waiting for pre-season to end, waiting for the season itself to start, only to lose on opening day and wish for the clocks to rewind back to July, when any club could still win the league unbeaten.

There’s a joke oft-made by fans of clubs expected to struggle: if your team’s name begins with A, B, or C, you’ve got a strong chance of starting the seasons in the play-offs. That hope is quickly washed away by a poor performance, an opening day loss, and immediately seeing yourself wind up at the bottom of the league with just a game played. Alphabetical order, it seems, covers a multitude of sins.

The original sin of any failed football season is poor recruitment. These failings are hinted at, but never made clear, until the first game, when, faced with actual opponents with something to play for, you start to realise that maybe your new, experienced, 35-year-old centre-back is actually unable to run. 

In many ways, judging new signings is like getting a new match on Tinder. We look up their pics on Google and Wikipedia, and get excited about seeing them running around as a youngster in the Championship years ago. He’s absolutely the club’s type on paper. He’d “do a job” for us, we say. But when we see them in the flesh and realise that the extra stone or two they’re carrying is included in the deal, reality hits home.

It speaks to the sort of risky unknowns that make football what it is. Each season feels more unpredictable than the last. Examples abound: Wolves were the surprise packages of the Premier League last season; lower down, look at Sunderland, and their inability to secure automatic promotion despite being one of the bigger clubs in the Championship, let alone their new home League One. What about Notts County, the oldest professional league club in the world, and their money troubles and eventual relegation from League Two, dropping into non-league for the first time in their history.

Football, no matter the level, never writes an easy script (an adage that BT Sport are currently milking with their latest publicity stunt). When the Premier League kicks off tonight, Liverpool will be aiming for the ultimate glory, while their opponents Norwich will start what will likely be a long battle for lucrative survival. Despite that gulf between them, English football being what it is, it’s impossible to say with any certainty that it will be a walkover. 

But while success and failure are always visceral, no matter the league, it means life and death at the lower levels. The money and status available in League Two as opposed to the National League is certainly narrowing, but it’s still a pronounced divide.

By that token, the still-rumbling story in League One has been about Bury FC and Bolton Wanderers, whose financial instability has seen them docked 12 points each. Bolton’s players haven’t been paid for five months. Bury have had their opening two fixtures postponed by the FA.

But it’s moments like these that really bring out the best in fans. Bolton looked set for a long-awaited takeover until the deal collapsed yesterday due to legal wrangling – but there’s still hope of getting it off the ground soon. Bury’s woes continue, and even seem to worsen as each day goes by without resolution. Their second fixture was meant to be against Accrington Stanley, themselves a poster boy of lower league football thanks to that Eighties advert. In place of their proper match, supporters have organised one between fans of the two sides, with proceeds of drinks and food sales going towards a fund for paying Bury’s players.

It’s heart-warming, and demonstrates the extent to which these fanbases are proper communities. The fortunes of these clubs are directly tied to the wellbeing of the local people. Netflix’s much-praised documentary Sunderland ‘Til I Die goes a long way to illustrate that. 

That’s what makes these opening-day defeats hurt so much. Months of waiting for the day to come, only to sidle home from the stadium wounded after an ignominious start. Fans of Liverpool and Norwich will be feeling that anticipation now. It’s likely that at least one set of supporters will be feeling very different come 10pm.

But it is only a start. Lessons can be learned, and wrongs can be put right. Can’t they? The season’s only just begun.

Daniel Curtis is a former Danson intern at the New Statesman.