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Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

Matt Rowson on those 'lockdown days'


An opinion that has grated for far longer than it deserves, for significantly longer than its pronouncers have spent formulating it, is that ‘football supporters just care about winning’. Such generalisation is most frequently offered by media commentators in the wake of supporters of a club voicing their objection to something as a mitigating ‘yes but’, oversimplifying or dismissing the protests in question.

It’s not a suggestion that’s completely baseless. Certainly football supporters have shown all manner of flexibility with their footballing and more general principles in the face of having to reconcile these with the reality of a manager once despised elsewhere leading their club to promotion, or of a club takeover based on proceeds of questionable origin for example.

But it’s also inaccurate in general. It’s based, in particular, on the presumption of the preservation of a certain degree of status quo… that the club will always be there. Hell, that football will always be there. Rarely has this been in sharper focus than during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The one thing that was certain, as everything shut down, as we retreated into our homes, as football stopped was that nothing was certain and that nobody knew how this was going to shake out. People deal with chaos – with crisis, if you like – in different ways and with differing levels of success. If you like a plan, if you like knowing what you’re going to do when, a crisis can be stressful. If you are good at reacting to things, at firefighting, you’re more likely to stay calm in chaotic circumstances in general because, a planner might suggest, that’s closer to your natural state of affairs.

Fortunately, my better half is in the firefighting camp and so we muddled through like many others. For myself, I found myself pining very quickly for the reliable constant of football and everything that went with it. No, of course it wasn’t important, a very low priority in the grand scheme of things when people were ill and dying, shelves were sparse and so much that we’d taken for granted felt as if it was crumbling around us.

But it was ever thus. There’s always been more important stuff going on than football, but part of its value is that, despite not mattering at all it matters such an awful lot. I needed the reliability of the fixture list, something constant to cling to and something to be distracted by. Something else to think about. Something inconsequential that mattered.

In the meantime, the club had been doing a sterling job of supporting the hospital in particular and the wider community in general. It’s easy to take this for granted… the hospital was next door for goodness sake, the hospital approached the club in the first instance, what sort of own goal would it have been to say “no, you can’t use our meeting rooms, bugger off”?

Nonetheless. They went beyond meeting rooms to provide whatever support they could. They did it, they did it well and wholeheartedly and this is worth bearing in mind in the context of what was to come on the pitch. What is it we support after all if not each other and this central iconic entity that binds us together and was doing a pretty damn fine job of supporting us back in return when we needed that support? At a time when political and ideological differences had been driving wedges between people (some might say manufactured to do so), when we were being physically isolated by the pandemic, here was something that was bringing people together, emotionally, symbolically. Brilliant.

Then the football itself started up again. I’d not been to a game since Old Trafford, having travelled there with an Italian friend who fancied a couple of hours in Manchester whilst I was at the game. He’d just been at home in Milan. By the time Liverpool came around I was on the sofa self-isolating with a temperature. No, I don’t know… but anyway, I felt kind of cheated of that and looked forward to the Leicester fixture in particular and the resumption of football in general with relish. I filled in the gaps in my subscriptions and invested in a new, large monitor to facilitate the engorgement.

I vaguely remember one of the podcasts, in reflecting on the Bundesliga already having proceeded down this path, warning that it was football, Jim, but not as we know it. The absence of a crowd was always going to be… weird. Shouldn’t have been a surprise that this was so, I guess. But it does change everything. I was unapologetically a crowd noise ON man, for all that it wasn’t ‘real’, for all that it created an illusion that everything was normal. Normal is what I craved. As an aside, my mate Paul – not a Hornet, but a two-or-three-gamea-season man for the last five years or so – credits the lack of supporters high in the list of stuff that got us relegated. He cites the Watford crowd’s extraordinary patience and, you know, support in contrast to so many others as a big miss.

Attempts to watch games ‘together’ online lasted as long as it took us to realise that the various streams we were watching weren’t in sync, an insurmountably frustrating obstacle. An attacking set piece didn’t prove quite as tantalising if I knew that Loz, in Spain but somehow with the fastest stream, hadn’t reacted positively. I celebrated promotion with Loz in Hove five years ago, and was under no illusions as to his inability to curtail his instinct.

And so, with daughters one and two unengaged by televised football, watching the games became a solitary experience. Our relegation was dragged out by the episodic nature of the fixture list, every game available to be pored over. Since the focus was obviously on the games that affected us at the wrong end of the table we watched a lot of terrible football. There was plenty of schadenfreude, plenty of swearing at VAR, plenty of bellowing into space in frustration at our inability to be a part of, let alone to affect, what was going on in front of us. And then it was done. Finished. Relegated almost at the death, incapable of being the least inept of a poor bunch.

But, you know. Still there. What supporters want, more than watching their sides win, more than watching their sides, is for their side to be there at all. Yoorns