If anything good emerges from this coronavirus nightmare, it will hopefully finally include proper recognition for the most dedicated members of the sports community.
No cohort, as Covid parlance goes, was taken for granted more than the poor old spectators. Especially football fans.
Sky-high TV subscriptions, sky-high subscription costs, snacks and drinks that are almost as expensive every match day as good food.
Constant design changes from replica kit accompanied by prices well above the cost of living, child sizes outrageously included to the desperation of the working parent. Rising travel bills for party fans, especially by train.
Manchester United fans cheer their team against Manchester City in March 2020
A father and his son can earn hundreds of pounds going to a single game. For far too long, that has been the pitiful reward for unshakable loyalty and enduring devotion.
Now the coin is certainly dropping in the interest of the spectators.
The longer they are absent, the clearer it becomes that for television rights money football is an exercise as empty as the field. Those gruesome soundtracks of public noise as tinny and hollow as a beer can kick in the gutter.
Increasingly, I hear from fans who were initially grateful for this distraction from lockdown boredom, that their interest is waning. Recent statistics suggest that TV viewing figures have been ebbing in recent months.
In part, with so many games crammed into the weekly schedule, we seem to have hit saturation point. Also remove the pink glasses and look behind the hype and it is hard to dispute that the quality of football continues to decline.
Clearly, this is related to the energy loss usually generated by crowds and the diminished sense of urgency and responsibility on the part of players to please the supporters of their teams.
More and more managers have recently virtually admitted that they are finding it increasingly difficult to motivate their teams. Jose Mourinho at Spurs, Mikel Arteta at Arsenal and Steve Bruce at Newcastle are recent examples, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer at Manchester United to some extent.
Manchester City hosts Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium for empty seats
A limited number of fans attended Premier League games in November and December – here Liverpool fans see their team host Wolves at Anfield
Jürgen Klopp hates pointing the finger at his players, at least in public, and prefers to take the blame himself. But would Liverpool possibly have ever set a record for consecutive home losses if Anfield had been packed to the brim and the Kop in full voice? I do not think so.
Liverpool is the classic example of the missing crowd syndrome, but they are not alone. Players and teams across the country are underperforming. Among them, some so-called stars are exposed due to their technical shortcomings due to their diminishing urgency on the field. Which here, more than any other football country in Europe, is usually driven by the passion of its supporters.
Effort, it is becoming increasingly clear, has hidden the limitations of talent in the past. So much so that some players who are considered matches in the England squad have to be replaced by youngsters who are still eagerly ambitious.
All of this begs the question of why much football was played at all during the pandemic. Not least because players still can’t resist kissing and jumping over each other when they actually score a goal, before returning from their bubbles to their infectious families and neighbors.
Yes Yes. We all know it’s really just about the money. But do Premier League multi-millionaires have to be paid over £ 2,000 a month to put food on the table for their wives and children? It is certainly better to keep their poor relatives in the lower divisions going. Grass-roots enthusiasts try to keep fit, all the more.
Not only football is plagued by absent fan malaise. The recent disastrous performance of England’s rugby and cricket teams provides irrefutable evidence of this. But otherwise they all falter.
England struggled at Twickenham during the Six Nations with no fans to cheer them on
Not for the good of whatever game it may be. Because spectator sport should be played for … er … the spectators.
What the hell is the point of Rugby’s Lions tour without the camp followers, Test cricket minus the Barmy Army, Cheltenham with no Guinness slurpers, Wimbledon with no one to mock the strawberries and cream, Olympics without the usual collection of the acclaimed family of spectators from all over the world?
And as for the desperation of filling Wembley with potentially super-scattering crowds for the delayed dollars, it must be better to focus on reducing infection and death rates to a minimum so that lockdowns can end and grounds can reopen anywhere safely.
And when those gates swing wide open, how about a gesture to the audience from Joe and Jill?
Government benefits and Eat Out to Help Out are worthy help. But once it’s really safe for the football crowd to return and the national game now knows how important they are to the performance and aspirations on the pitch, wouldn’t it be nice to welcome the long-suffering fans back by putting them in first game for so long … free.