Football in a time of Covid – Empty stands and social media fans

In these unpreceden- no, I’ll save us all the line. The world is pretty mental at the minute, we all know that so I’m not going to remind you all of that here. Football, and sport as a whole, has not escaped this madness and while this current lockdown has been more bearable with plenty sport on TV but it’s just not the same is it?

I managed to attend a couple of early season games with my local Irish League club and the smell of the chip van, the buzz of the crowd and the feeling of a cold, plastic seat under your backside or an even colder steel railing in front of you was genuinely wonderful.

However, since then, we have been restricted to viewing on the sofa while listening to fake crowd noise and Steve McManaman (not sure which is worse really). During this time, I, and others, have realised or reaffirmed our view that Premier League football isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be and it’s the roar of a crowd as a counter attack unfolds and ultimately sputters out or the “wheeeyyyy” as an opposition shot from 40 yards whistles past the post that makes it what it is.

Football is just one of many things that have either changed or gone by the wayside as a result of the pandemic and its return last summer was met with plenty of skepticism as to its necessity. While it is, of course not an essential business, what many people fail to see is the game is more than just ‘overpaid men chasing a sack of air around’. I know we’ve all seen it called this.

To so many, the 90 minutes is actually quite inconsequential. It’s boarding a bus with your mates at 5am on a Saturday morning for an away day and getting home at 11pm that night. It’s the sip of that first pint in the pub you drink in every other weekend. It’s seeing those same faces in that pub or in the stands.

I listen regularly to Adam Hurrey’s (@footballcliches) great ‘Football Clichés’ podcast and on one recent episode, they discussed those very people. The ones whose names you don’t even know; the ones who you nod at as you sidle into your seat and mutter a “back for more punishment” with a scoff; those who you hug and jump up and down with whenever your team score a goal. A stranger once cried into my shoulder after a victory. These are things that are so hard to describe to people who don’t get to experience this.

A much bigger point than this is the distraction and escape that a match day brings to people. People who struggle through a Monday-Friday job for that sweet release on a Saturday afternoon; people who also have a release from their own mental health struggles during a match.

These include people like Sunderland fan Michael Chapplow who was featured in this Sky Sports article about fans who are suffering with the empty stadiums. He doesn’t go to the stadium due to his social anxiety but watches them at a friend’s house. Since the pandemic has made this impossible, Michael’s gambling addiction has resurfaced as he now has to watch matches alone.

Men’s mental health charity Andy’s Man Club has reported a ‘massive increase’ in interest during the pandemic and they attribute a large part of this to the empty stadiums across the country. Of course, with the public health crisis as it is, we cannot start packing people back into stadiums ,but we must be aware of the mental health crisis that is bubbling over in all facets of society and that includes football fans. We must not poo-poo the game which, for so many, is their excuse to clear their head, socialise, hurl abuse at the opposition winger as he lines up a corner and just escape from the everyday realities of life. We could all do with that right now.

Another reality of 2021, pandemic or not, is social media. One thing that I have been frequently reminded of is that had the pandemic been in the 1980s or 90s with no social media, the world would be a far lonelier place and this is absolutely true. It has allowed me to keep in touch with friends, family and the world around me as is the case for so many at the moment.

However, the bottom line that we must address is that, at its worst, social media is a cesspit. It is full of racists, sexists and just downright idiots. You know why this is? Because the world is full of racists, sexists and downright idiots. These people have always been there but social media gives them a platform. Previously these people were the ones who sat at the local bar and rambled to their half-full pint of warm Carling about how “the game was better whenever when…”. Unfortunately, now they can hide behind anonymous profiles and spout and spew their bile.

One phrase that comes up worryingly consistently is ‘football’s racism problem’ which, to me, is just a way of people feeling better about the way things are. Compartmentalize it. It’s just those nasty football fans that post monkey emojis on a black player’s Instagram so we don’t have to worry about the way the rest of society is. In the same way that social media is a reflection of life, football fans are a wider part of society.

Recently, Axel Tuanzebe; Antonio Rudiger; Reece James; Anthony Martial; Bright Osayi-Samuel; Yan Dhanda and, incredibly, Marcus Rashford have all suffered racist abuse either directly or indirectly on social media and, sadly, these are just the recent ones and the ones we know about. The sad fact is that as soon as any non-white player has a poor performance, scores an own goal, concedes a penalty etc. I, like so many others are just waiting for the abuse to start from the accounts with and egg profile picture and what looks like a phone number at the end of their Twitter handle or Instagram username.

Racism is the not the only thing that rears its ugly head in the crazy world that is social media. Recently, Mike Dean requested a break from refereeing after he and his family received death threats after a couple of contentious decisions. Dean is not exactly a wall flower so for him to do such a thing clearly tells me that these are credible threats. My first questions here is: What is wrong with people? Was Tomas Soucek’s red card a correct decision? No. Is it reasonable to discuss and criticise refereeing decisions? Yes. But death threats? Come on.

Steve Bruce this week came out to say that he had received death threats via his son Alex after Newcastle’s recent run of poor form. Again, we all have the right to criticise Bruce and Newcastle United fans are some of the most passionate around but are these really Newcastle fans? That is the issue with anonymity online – nobody will know.

Newcastle fan and all-round Twitter good guy Jonny Sharples (@jonnygabriel) put it perfectly.

I have found that football is best-enjoyed when not taken too seriously. I couldn’t tell you the last time a football match ruined my day. This is not to say that I don’t care but as I said it is more of a distraction from the realities of life. I’m not sure what is better on the way home from a match – celebrating a victory or moaning and laughing at your centre-half’s mistake that cost you three points.

I remember many years ago watching an Irish League match that I paid £10 to get into and it was one of the worst matches I’ve ever seen but we still talk about it to this day. Isn’t that the beauty of football? Life is more fun when we don’t take it too seriously and so is football.

The issue we need to realise is that until society solves the issues of racism, sexism and all round general hate, it will never be eradicated from football. These people will always be among us but the majority of football fans – match-going or not – are what make the game great. That includes those ‘@pulisicszn’ and ‘@thatmanfabinho’ accounts on Twitter. I know they’re weird but they are all part and parcel of what makes football in 2021 what it is.

The sooner we can all get back into the stadiums and make real crowd noises the better.

The Author

Mark Strange

I am a freelance writer who has been published in rugby, baseball and football. I am an avid sports fan in general and also follow ice hockey, basketball and American football. I recently lived in Vancouver for a year were I worked with the Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS. I am a bit of a football hipster and, as well as the Whitecaps, my favourite teams include Feyenoord, Braga and Inter. My Twitter handle is @realmarkstrange

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