Celebrations – A Great Escape

Darren Young

@WeGrowSport

Darren is one of the founders and Managing Director at GroSport and has worked for The Fan Experience Company since 2017.

A UEFA Mentor, he has worked with federations and clubs across Europe to improve their match day experience, implement new strategies for different fan groups and to develop fan engagement initiatives. 

More of his articles can be found in his weekly column on the D3D4 Football website. 

This might be politically incorrect – let’s face it, most political stuff is these days – but I’m pleased that footballers have ignored the request not to celebrate goals with hugging and kissing. Although it has been mainly just hugs, to be fair to them.

The reason I’m glad is because, to me, it felt unnecessary. A further erosion of those little pleasures in life but with no obvious benefits. Pretty much standard for the way Covid has been handled full stop.

The players have been tested multiple times, lived in bio-secure bubbles and kept on club-controlled diets. They even have to wash their own training gear. The stadiums and training centres have been sanitised to within an inch of their existence. And social distancing? Do me a favour. They are pulling each other’s arms and shirts at every corner and free-kick anyway, and how can any tackles be made while keeping two metres apart (although Scott McTominay probably wishes they were)?

What’s the real – only – reason? Optics. It isn’t going to be a super-spreader situation, like influencers racing off to Dubai for New Year (isn’t it weird that the people who apparently influence us are the ones that do all the wrong things?), and barely anyone in elite football is catching anything. It’s just that the powers that be don’t want footballers setting a bad example when everyone is having to abide by the rules. And it’s not like anyone in government has done that, is it?

I’d suggest that most ordinary folk DON’T care that much. The ones that do are the same people who complain to Ofcom after David Walliams cracks a slightly risqué joke on BGT. The fans, and most rationale people, don’t want to see players adopting a 1895 stance and walking back to the halfway line in an orderly manner after scoring a goal, and have their teammates write to congratulate them on their achievement using quill pens.

I think most of us want a form of escapism from this ongoing nightmare, and football – all sport – can help to provide that. Although not wanting to make a direct comparison, (although some are, bizarrely, suggesting a post-Covid attendance boom as happened after the Second World War) one of the ways that POWs coped in Nazi concentration camps was to lie on their backs and stare at the clouds rolling by in the sky above. It wasn’t just The Great Escape because of the tunnels and motorbikes.

On the subject of films – like football, a form of entertainment – they also whisk us away from reality for a while. Now, what if the directors suddenly got all antsy about how it looked.

What if Batman went out to fight crime in Gotham City and everyone had a mask on (although that actually might be quite good). Or The Full Monty if they had to be 2m apart in the unemployment queue as they looked for some hot stuff.

Imagine a version of Fifty Shades where the two naked actors had to stand on circles stuck to the floor while a middle-aged woman in a plastic visor told them when and where they could move.

Football allows us to leave all this strife behind for 90 minutes once or twice a week. It also allows us, if we embrace the fake crowd noise, to pretend we’re there. We don’t need someone to say, ‘Remember how shit life is at the moment?’ and ruin it all. A quick trip to the shops will do that anyway.

When fans do get back in stadiums, the same questions might come up. This, in all likelihood, will be August now and, like everything else, we have virtually no idea what the rules might be by then.

Before that, the summer will see an Olympics and European Football Championships – all being well – take place. These might be a real acid test. The Olympic organisers have already produced a playbook with dos and don’ts for the spectators (do clap, don’t chant) that might just work okay in Japan.

But what if we ask thousands of football fans to avoid shouting, singing and celebrating? Try that on a Saturday in August at Selhurst Park, the Bet365, the Kassam Stadium or Vale Park. Especially Vale Park.

The response they’ll get is predictable as your club selling its best players on transfer deadline day – yet one more thing wrecked by Covid – and won’t be pretty. It’s virtually unenforceable too, unless you have hundreds of police, thousands of stewards and actually  like to antagonise half your fanbase.

Surely no club wants to do this. It will be hard enough to get numbers back to previous levels as it is; either through restricted capacities or because some of the fans themselves are either uncomfortable being in crowds, have health issues or can simply no longer afford it.

The actual pre-match and match day experience is already going to be a minefield. Will fans know what to expect? Wil they know what they can and can’t do? Can they eat? Is beer available? Will they be able to stand / sit where they’ve always sat / stood? Will they get a playbook too?

There are so many examples of how the way it used to be will have to change. But it doesn’t mean that we should go out of our way to make it even worse than it needs to be.

The Olympics are a one-off. If the experience isn’t great or what was expected, it won’t matter as those attending won’t say ‘After that, there’s no way I’m going to the next Olympics in Tokyo.

But football fans might say that if they find attending their club’s matches an unpleasant experience. Note I’m saying unpleasant and not unnatural. It is possible for it to be unnatural (which is almost inevitable) and still be a positive experience.

So if we’ve asked for proof of a negative test (as they are doing in Tokyo) and a vaccination certificate (they aren’t doing this in Tokyo) then surely they can be themselves once inside.

They should be allowed – within reason – to act as they want to; sing songs they don’t know the meaning of, jump up and down when a goal is scored, hug a stranger if that’s their thing, scream obscenities at the referee and be in a much better position than the assistant ref when it comes to judging offsides.

Football fans, like everyone, have had to give up a lot in the last year. By August, if the country is as safe as we hope by then, they’ll deserve to finally be able to do something they enjoy again.

Let’s give them a chance to celebrate properly.  

Originally published on The Fan Experience Company website on 05.02.21