Sports

Emotional return of fans gives hope they’ll finally stop being taken for granted

My favourite initial reaction to Millwall fans’ latest audition to be Tommy Robinson’s house band came from Danny Baker.

The life-long fan’s tweet – “Makes your skin crawl. How come this clump of neanderthals get tickets?” – spoke for those of us angered that players gesturing support for equality should be mercilessly booed by their own supporters.

Even better reactions followed.

At all four Premier League grounds whose gates re-opened on the Sunday and Monday, fans struck a blow for decency.

At Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool and Brighton the diminished band of supporters applauded their players for taking the knee, loudly contradicting the army of social media trolls who claimed “real fans” support the neanderthal clump.

The return of supporters was a big moment for English football

Only with the game’s lifeblood back where it belongs could that lie have been called out. Yet another vindication of Jock Stein’s old adage that football without fans is nothing.

What a change even 2,000 voices made to the concept of watching live football. The fortunate few who re-connected with their beloved team after nine long months looked like kids clutching Willie Wonka tickets.

Catching glimpses of their anguish and elation, and hearing them belt out their anthems, re-confirmed that they are much more than scenery for the subscription punters watching at home.

They are in fact as much a part of the game’s spectacle as crunching tackles and 30-yard shots. And that empty football stadiums only work as backdrops for new signings to hold up scarfs and museum tours.

As Jurgen Klopp said, walking out at Anfield, unsure of what to expect and ending up with goose-bumps: “Whatever the weather was like outside, it was sunshine inside the stadium.”

For television viewers, having the fake crowd noise replaced with real, human emotion was a revelation.

Without shows of devotion from people who have been invested in a football team all of their lives, we are left with an anodyne impersonation of the real thing.

Liverpool fans were able to cheer the champions for the first time

It’s the difference between watching a sitcom so dire it needs canned laughter and your favourite comedian in a sweaty beer cellar.

As Pep Guardiola said last month, without spectators in the ground “the players lose the joy of playing football”.

If there was any justice their return would be a light-bulb moment for the people running the game, especially the Premier League. A realisation that their product only comes alive when its bawdy, tribal followers are present and they would struggle to flog live games around the world for anywhere near the sums they do, without their presence.

It would make clubs realise that fans deserve to be treated better than stalkers who’ll go to the other end of the country for an 8pm kick-off missing the last train home, because TV wants it that way.

That a decades-old law that states unless you’re in the expensive seats you can’t drink alcohol in view of the pitch, needs challenging. And that asking them to pay £14.95 to view the games left on TV’s cutting room floor, was a criminal insult.

At the very least, last weekend’s successful re-introduction should push clubs to demand fans be re-admitted in larger numbers.

There are hopes attendances can be increased soon

There is no scientific logic to ruling that only 2,000 people be allowed into state-of-the-art, covid-secure grounds like Tottenham’s, while 60,000 seats stand empty.

In the early months of next year the case needs to be made for stadiums to build back towards capacity, especially now the vaccine has arrived. It would be a reward for fans who have overwhelmingly behaved in the opposite manner to the neanderthal clump of common perception.

Especially in the Premier League, where we could be set to witness a thrilling finale to one of the most open title races in years.

Fans deserve to be back witnessing the agony and the ecstasy in all its close-up glory.




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