FootballPremier League

“Football without fans is nothing”: Winning a long-awaited title without fans would be absurd

April 3, 2020

THE debate rumbles on. It’s all we’ve got now. Talk. Noise. Discussion around how, when and if the world is ready, and it’s deemed safe to do so, football returns the other side of a devastating and unparalleled situation nobody was ready for.

It’s been just over three weeks since Liverpool last played a match, an ill-judged Champions League contest with Atletico Madrid, a team that was bizarrely waved into the country unchecked with thousands of fans in tow arriving from a major city that was a Coronavirus hotspot to one that wasn’t.

It didn’t make sense then. It makes even less sense now. That feels like a lifetime ago.

From there, what was always our lifelong escape from the grimmer realities of life was shut down with little notice. There was no opportunity to prepare for it, no time to plan. And – despite the certainty of many opinions right now – no one truly knows what should happen next, or when it should happen. Even if it should happen.

There’s no precedent to turn to, no lesson from history. And no one has yet found a way to look into the future. So it’s all best guess stuff. Meanwhile, any time football is discussed in the current climate someone will grimly remind you that there are bigger things going on in the world. As if you hadn’t noticed. 

When every conversation, every news bulletin, every newspaper, every website contains reference to COVID-19 you can be sure everyone knows. It is a concern for all of us. Yet we’d still like to know, wouldn’t we? Have a chink of light, a ray of hope – a sneek peek at normality on the horizon. Something to look forward to.

And that’s why the talk never stops. Should the season be scrapped? Should it pick up where it was left? Should the prizes be handed out on the strength of what we have seen so far? And on it goes. He said, she said. Someone who would rather remain anonymous said. Team on verge of winning said, club that would stay up if it was null and void said.

What is clear is that one option being seriously considered in the context of Coronavirus and what follows is football being played behind closed doors, and even – it seems – matches being played abroad in countries deemed ‘safe’. Much of the justification around the behind closed doors scenario is bank accounts and bits of paper – contracts, deals, TV money and the rest. Which is fair, and can’t be discounted – especially given the figures involved.

But those grey conversations, those dead-eyed discussions via a webcam about “getting it done” seem to forget something – the very essence of the sport. The supporters. Some, who don’t know, or don’t get it, will dismiss that view. And as time goes on, as reality gets more skewed, as what we knew as normal becomes a dot in the rear-view mirror, the idea of a Premier League World Cup-style tournament played wherever and whenever to a TV audience will become more appealing. 

It’s already happening. If the choice on the table is to throw 76 per cent of a near-perfect season for Liverpool in the bin or watch it being concluded minus the fans, with zero atmosphere, but live on TV, how many of the bored, cooped up, stir crazy would now embrace the latter with open arms?

Only a few short weeks ago, Pep Guardiola was questioned about the idea as football fans were told to stay away in Italy and in Spain. He responded: “We have to ask if it works to play football without spectators. If the people do not come to watch the games there is no sense. I wouldn’t like to play in the Champions League, Premier League, cups, without people.

“We are here for the people. One games, two games, maybe, but not longer. We do it for the people. I would not love to play without people in the stadium.”

Other high profile figures in the game said similar. Jurgen Klopp questioned the practicalities, publicly pondering whether behind closed doors is a solution that helps with the health of the nation and beyond. As per, he has a point. Would people stay away if behind closed doors matches happened?  Would they congregate elsewhere? Would they gather in groups to enjoy what is normally a social experience?

We saw with games in Europe before lockdown that even when stadiums locked the turnstiles supporters turned up anyway. And this is the crux. As the Jock Stein quote goes: “Football without fans is nothing.” And if football is played without fans, if Liverpool lift a title we’ve waited 30 years to witness in an empty training facility, with players' shouts ringing out hollow and celebrations mooted, how will that all feel? 

It’s a step above not winning it at all after being imperious for more than three quarters of the season. But by how much? Imagine it. Picture the scene. A goal is scored and there are no sounds, no songs, no buzz, no crackle. A player slides on his knees to celebrate and there’s no one there to do it with him – a brilliant brushstroke minus the canvas, a knockout punch in an empty hall.

The very essence of everything in life is under the microscope right now with nature as ever proving the ultimate leveller. Money doesn’t matter. Fame is irrelevant. We’re all left waiting and wondering. So ponder this. Who, in football, really – from the managers, to the fans, to the players, the pundits and more, wants the game we know and love to resume as something else? 

What was once a perfect picture, of a packed Anfield, roaring the Reds to a title we thought was never coming, to a field in Birmingham – no fans, no relevance – just a field, some cameras and contracts to fulfill, deals to be done. It may come to that. It may have to be that way. But while options remain, while avenues are open, the perfect solution should still be pursued. Football as we know it. Packed stands. Pubs full. Singing, shouting and a let off three decades in the making.

There are more important things right now, as so many are quick to point out. So let’s think. There’s time to do so. Remember the fans, the loyal match goers, what it means to be part of it. And what it will mean if we’re not. When it comes back, whenever that it is, football needs to get it right.