How a soulless Boxing Day at Hearts v Ross County vindicated SPFL shutdown decision

Usually, there would be people spilling out of pubs bringing with them the whiff of festive spirit and an air of merriment that cannot be bottled.

Hearts v Ross County was played behind closed doors on Boxing Day after the Tynecastle club decided against allowing 500 spectators in following the crowd restrictions introduced by the Scottish Government  (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)
Hearts v Ross County was played behind closed doors on Boxing Day after the Tynecastle club decided against allowing 500 spectators in following the crowd restrictions introduced by the Scottish Government (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

Christmas jumpers peeking through club scarves tend to provide the once-a-year deviation from the normal matchday attire, and it is all topped off by the Santa hats that have somehow survived the Christmas parties and family shindigs; the traditional red and white, the ones with blinking lights, or those in club colours.

Kids strut towards the turnstiles like models on a catwalk, their freshly-unwrapped strips emblazoned with the names of the men who will live long in their memories, the unforgettable footballing first love.

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Others head to the ground, their usual family groups swollen by loved ones who are home for the holidays, old mates who are back from university, and the camaraderie and tribal sense of belonging is intensified.

Pre-match nerves are silenced by the banter and the laughter and it’s fabulous.

For those whose religion is football, the traditional Boxing Day fixtures often mean as much as the day that precedes it.

Which is why Hearts boss Robbie Neilson was right when he said that football is not enjoyable without fans.

His team provided a quality first half performance, and even when their standards slipped in the second half and Ross County came back at them to provide a tense finale, it felt sterile. Emotions will have been running high in living rooms and pubs but in the Tynecastle echo chamber, where managers’ chats with the fourth official might as well have been broadcast over the Tannoy and tactical changes had to be whispered in players’ ears, the adrenaline did not course through those present the way it does when the senses are assaulted by the noise and animation of almost 20,000 fans.

When the SPFL administration and the top tier clubs voted to bring forward the winter break, they spoke about the finances and sporting integrity and those things undoubtedly matter but what matters most is fans, most of whom forked out for season tickets last term and had to make do with some mediocre live feeds and some enthusiast but often amateurish commentary.

Football is about more than just grainy footage it is about the togetherness and swell of tension, the unbridled celebrations. Most of all it is that relationship between the fans and the players and the way they feed off each other.

Walking towards Tynecastle on Sunday, along deserted streets, it felt like one of those movies about global catastrophe, like I was alone, except for, maybe, Will Smith, or the like.

Inside the ground, the few of us lucky enough to be granted admission, ‘enjoyed’ a soulless afternoon.

Of course, we had been there before. We had virtually a season of it. But somehow this felt worse. It felt eerie and cruel to be in a vacuous stadium on a day when the atmosphere is usually rocking.

But it vindicated clubs’ decision to go into the break early and hope that restrictions are relaxed by the time the action resumes.

Because life without football is unthinkable but football without crowds is not fun and finding a way to ensure as many fans as possible are back in situ when the season returns is paramount.

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