After months that felt like years of the small screen in our little home stadium being colonised by ‘Normal People’, ‘Better Call Saul’, ‘Ozark’, ‘The Last Dance’ and re-runs of ‘Modern Family’ and ‘Friends’, I had issued a General Alert at the start of this week warning that, from Wednesday onwards, the collective would need to brace itself for an extended period of bingeing on a six-yard box set, a wholesale conversion to back of the Netflix.
This was initially seen as a not unreasonable request after the long, dark days of spring without a ball being kicked, let alone being seen to be kicked, and a memorandum of understanding was duly signed off by relevant stake-holders, all of whom are family members but not necessarily, you understand, members of the football family..
But, in truth, it didn’t take took long before something that was almost reassuringly recognisable as disgruntled normal service was resumed.
By which I mean that the clock in the top-left corner of the screen was ticking past the 100-minute mark in the Man City-Arsenal game — the prolonged added time a result of the unfortunate Eric Garcia ending up a casualty in that awful friendly fire incident with Ederson — when, on re-entering the room, a dissenting voice was heard to exclaim: ‘God, is this still going on?’.
Reassuring? Well, yes, because I for one will happily settle for a touch of the oddly normal in these strangely strange times, a taste of anything that makes life feel a little bit more like it did BC (before Covid).
And after Covid? Despite all those considered thought pieces predicting that, from how we shop to how we relate to each other, life will be irrevocably transformed by this foul pandemic, I can’t say I’m entirely convinced that — even after all the suffering and grief — the new normal, when it finally arrives, will be all that different to the old normal.
If we have learned anything from what the sage Dylan inimitably described in his recent New York Times interview as “the long strange trip of the naked ape” it’s surely that the fundamental things — good and bad — not only apply but endure, come hell, high water, plague, conflagration and even VAR. To pluck just one earth-shattering event from history as an example: ‘the war to end all wars’ — well, sadly, that didn’t exactly turn out to have a prolonged shelf life, did it?
So, in the context of the magnificent triviality that is football, it’s with a raised eyebrow that I’ve already read a couple of articles suggesting not only that playing behind closed doors might have some benefits but that they could even survive to positively affect the long-term future of the game.
A big one is that, with no gallery to play to, we’re already seeing evidence — first in the Bundesliga and now in the Premier League — that players are less inclined to indulge in feigning injury, abusing the ref and generally acting the maggot.
To which my immediate response would be that, firstly, we haven’t seen Neymar back on the pitch yet, and secondly, the salve for such undoubted irritants has always resided in the ref’s pocket, howling stands or no howling stands.
According to statistics from Germany, 12% more free kicks and 15% more fouls have been given against home sides since the Bundesliga returned, while the pre-lockdown rate of 43% home wins has been effectively halved to 21% since games returned behind closed doors.
Those are striking figures, to be sure, but hardly surprising and, frankly, of no lasting consequence unless we’re facing into the unthinkable of a world in which the coronavirus is never brought under control or some other global monstrosity arises to take its place and wreak even more havoc. (Pause to allow the shudder to pass).
Dependent to a huge extent on the fervour generated by the supporters, the old staples of playing home and away — the fortress, the 12th man and woman, the tough place to go, the hostile atmosphere, seeking to quieten the fans early doors — are all part of the challenge and the beauty of football, making for a supreme test of character as well as skill, and for those of us lucky enough to be looking on, ideally in the flesh, bequeathing glowing memories of the greatest nights whose enduring vividness in the mind is inseparable from the excitement of the drama witnessed on the pitch.
In a bid to soften the pill, Sky Sports have been offering viewers the option to watch games with fake crowd noise attached but, though well-intentioned, the effect has been merely to underscore the deadening absence of the real thing. Certainly by the time City, three-up and cruising, were toying with Arsenal the other night, with ‘Blue Moon’ recycling on a loop in the background, I was entirely reinforced in my belief that it’s best to leave the tricky business of ambient soundscapes in the expert hands of Mr Brian Eno. (Who might also, as it happens, make a better fist of basic defending than Mr David Luiz).
Whether it’s Turner’s Cross or Tallaght Stadium, Anfield or the Westfalenstadion, the essential experience of top-flight football is radically altered and hugely diminished in the absence of the fans. Diminished but not destroyed, of course, which is why so many of us are content for now to, as it were, block our ears to the non-existent noise and simply give thanks that the good old 11 v 11 (with additional subs) is back.
In the circumstances, the quality of tomorrow’s Mersey derby will be strained — though, admittedly, not as strained as that pun — but, yes, it will still be a wonderful, life-affirming thing to see Klopp’s exhilarating red arrows back in flight.
It’s football, Brian, but not as we know it. It will more than serve for now but, personally, I’m already desperate for the new old normal to return.