Johnny Phillips: Football must work to win back love of fans

Wolves will kick off 2021 with an early evening fixture against the last opponents their supporters were able to watch inside a stadium.

Brighton’s Neal Maupay goes up againstWolves defender Romain Saiss in the lastmatch played before fans at Molineux in front of fans before the coronavirusrestrictions forced clubs to play theirgames behind closed doors last year (AMA)
Brighton’s Neal Maupay goes up againstWolves defender Romain Saiss in the lastmatch played before fans at Molineux in front of fans before the coronavirusrestrictions forced clubs to play theirgames behind closed doors last year (AMA)

When Nuno Espirito Santo’s side left the field after a dull 0-0 draw at Molineux against Brighton & Hove Albion on March 7, accompanied by a few sighs and groans from the stands, few could have predicted the mundanity to follow during

lockdown.

Football rose to the challenge and successfully emerged from the initial hiatus to stage fixtures for the remainder of the year. But any difficulties faced by the game’s authorities paled into insignificance in comparison to the challenges supporters have been asked to overcome. The enforced absence has ripped into the fabric and structures of many fans’ lives and the true soul of the game has been torn apart.

As we enter a new year at the start of a third lockdown – in all but name – with fans still excluded, there has been a shift in what it now means to support a team. What was once a proactive passion has become passive consumerism. How much this will affect the game when supporters are eventually permitted to return in full is open to debate.

The detrimental effect of behind-closed-doors football has only really been addressed from one perspective; what it is like from the players’ point of view to play fixtures in such an environment. But there is an elephant in the room, largely ignored in the back pages. Has there been a fundamental change of mindset among those who occupy the stands? How much has the love gone?

Without sounding too maudlin, when something so intrinsic to the routines and structures of life is removed it is only natural that habits change. Certainly not all – but definitely many – who made going to the match an integral part of their lives are starting to move on; disenfranchised by the weak imitation of supporting a football club that has been the norm since March.

Think about matchdays then and now. That focal point of the week, planning travel, meeting up with friends, financially and emotionally investing in a day out with like-minded souls, the sense of belonging, the collective identity. Gradually those memories are being eroded by something more sterile. Now, it is just a case of checking which time slot of many the match will be screened each week and reaching for the remote control. No post-match pint at the pub or long journey home to digest the result.

Injury-time defeat to a deflected goal away at Manchester United, you say? Never mind, just turn the telly off and tune in the following week for the next instalment. The disappointment is over in minutes.

There has been no other solution, of course. Broadcasters have worked tirelessly to ensure the armchair option is at least the best viable alternative in unprecedented times for those denied access to the clubs they love. A winter lockdown without football on our screens would be unthinkable. But let nobody tell you this matters as much as it once did. And it won’t, until all the fans are back.

The clubs are aware of this, and there is concern at every level of the game. Speaking to Harrogate Town’s chairman, Irving Weaver, ahead of their first home game as a Football league club earlier this season, he was at pains to point out the frustration felt by all at his club that this once-in-a-generation opportunity to consolidate and grow the club’s standing in the community had been lost.

The novelty of being a league club will have long worn off by the time fans return. There was a similar sense at Wycombe Wanderers, where the incredible achievement of reaching the Championship could not be shared with supporters.

When just 1,000 fans were eventually allowed back to Adams Park in December it proved to be an emotionally-charged night. What these clubs fear is that those some who had grown to develop a habit – a love – of attending matches will not have that same passion when this pandemic is overcome.

Football is just one of many losers. The audio accompaniment while writing this has been United We Stream’s Hacienda 24 Hour Party. Manchester-based United We Stream has spent the pandemic streaming live bands, DJs and performers into music lovers’ homes, raising money and awareness for the music sector.

Now, there is an industry that has suffered.

Some important venues have already closed their doors permanently. Bands are being denied the chance to showcase new material and, much like a football club, gain a following.

The pandemic has resulted in the cultural dereliction of one of our most valuable creative forces.

Football has not quite reached that level of crisis, but there should not be any complacency about its ability to withstand much more of this.

Writing the first column of the season, back in September, the only wish for the season was that, by the time Wolves host Manchester United for their final home game in May, the stadium is full. That looks a less likely scenario by the week.

If this makes for a downbeat read, then perhaps history can provide a more positive end note. Just as there are those who are becoming detached from football, there are many whose appetite for a return to the stands is greater than ever. British football’s boom years of the 1950s, where attendances broke records, were born out of the game’s longest break of all. In September 1939 the 65th Football league season was abandoned as Europe became ensnared in the Second World War.

The league did not restart until the 1946/47 season. Times were different, of course. Fans were able to attend wartime friendly fixtures and that sense of dislocation between club and supporters was not the same.

Nonetheless, the appetite among the public for the resumption of professional football proved to be an insatiable one.

If a post-pandemic football landscape offers something similar, then the game will flourish again.

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