Abiha Khan assesses Jock Stein’s iconic phrase ‘football without the fans is nothing’ in light of the game restarting behind closed doors. The empty stadia will impact clubs up and down the English league system, but is there any joy in stripping football back to basics?
Football has returned in England, pubs have re-opened and justice seems to have been restored. But is it the same without fans in the stadium? There is something rather unsettling about a game behind closed doors, the stadium filled with the ghostly sounds of past fans echoing into the chambers and the uncanny faces stuck on empty seats. The strangeness, however, is counteracted by a comforting familiarity of the game we love most. After three long months, there is finally a sense of normality. While we cannot join hands with our community of fans and share our emotions, we have a chance to watch pure technical ability and to tune in for the art of football with no other distractions.
You are probably sick of hearing the phrase “football without the fans is nothing”, but it could not be more true at the moment. It’s a phrase we hear a lot concerning the commercialisation of football as the price of being a supporter continues to rise. Football seems to have become less about the needs of fans and more about the club’s financial highs.
If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that you cannot prepare for the future and this could change football as we know it. At present, games behind closed doors are a short-term fix to fulfil broadcast obligations and conclude the competition. The lack of fans and spectatorship have led to an inevitable financial impact on clubs and their neighbouring communities. We all know the hit that local businesses in Upton Park took when West Ham moved from the Boleyn Ground to the London Stadium. Now imagine that impact for every single club across the country. KPMG has estimated a €1.25billion hit for the Premier League, with the 48 clubs in League One and League Two losing £50million. Smaller football leagues – arguably with the most loyal and community-driven fans – may be wiped out before the next season even starts.
But this is not the Premier League’s first financial decline. Before the intrusion of television and the gradual commercialisation which turned the game into a business, by the early 1990s football was in crisis. After the golden post-war years where football was soaring with popularity, by the 70s we could hardly afford any improvements and suddenly our top British players sought after other European leagues. It was no longer about fan loyalty or triumphing a derby – clubs did whatever they could to financially survive with little regard for their fans. We seem to be back there again. While the iconic 1993 Sky Television deal turned English football into the big, multi-million business, the future of football is at stake as clubs will tread carefully with corporate spending, sponsorships will be scarce and the average fan will not be able to afford a membership following a nationwide recession.
While we wait for normality, the economic penalties are such that by the time stadiums re-open their doors, there may be nobody there on the field to watch or worth watching. Fans are fundamental to igniting the player’s energy and spirits. Post-lockdown, we can see the form of our greatest players has taken a hit after two months out of action. While some players may feel more relaxed without the pressure of a roaring crowd, others will be struggling to amplify their action without the main event’s atmosphere. Can the clubs afford to have their world-class players freeze in big games without the support of spectatorship? Boards must realise that ‘football without fans is nothing’ and will need to put the fans and local communities at the heart of their decisions for their clubs to survive. As Jock Stein famously said, ‘Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing. Sometimes we are inclined to forget that. The only chance of bringing them into stadiums is if they are entertained by what happens on the football field.’ All businesses are at risk, and football is not immune to that.
I love that it no longer matters if you have enough money for a match ticket or enough time to travel, football seems to now be more accessible for all fans as it should be. Before lockdown, one cannot deny the secret hierarchy among fans where the ‘best fans’ and the ‘most devoted’ were known as the ones who travelled home and away with their team. The fans who built their schedule around their loyalty to the club. These fans would argue that those who only watch on television are, in some cases, not true fans at all. This hierarchy has made football wholly inaccessible for the majority of fans who are devoted to their club. Pubs may have re-opened but most of us are still isolating and watching from our sofas. Stripping football back to basics has allowed fans to remember why they tune in for games in the first place. We have a glorious chance to watch the football, purely for football.
If the spread of COVID-19 remains low, the Government plans to bring audiences back in stadia from October 1st. For now, fans will have to be further away from their teams than they would like and that is a sacrifice that will have to be made. Sure, football was not in any way important as the country battled with a pandemic, but the void of football added to a sense of loneliness, a loss of routine and further alienation from your community. While some would rather abandon games altogether than have them behind closed doors, the majority of fans see football as their lifeline and will not resist the urge to watch their team. We have to adapt and appreciate the fact we have football on our screens.
Moving forwards, in the ‘new normal’, it would be great to see the interests of the fans take centre stage. Clubs must reward the loyalty of their fans with more affordable ticketing and innovative and accessible viewing strategies for all. It is time to bring the players and fans closer together and to re-ignite the unity. As Gary Neville concludes, “Football needs to check itself. […] It is more than just a game. It is about a community and we need to ensure we are doing all we can not to price fans out of the game”.