Craig Fowler: Please don't make us wait any longer for return to football grounds
The pandemic will end up being a positive for football's power brokers. Because, ultimately, it proved that, despite what the majority of us have been screaming about for the last couple of decades as ticket prices have gone through the roof and the paying punter has been increasingly inconvenienced to suit TV broadcasting, football doesn't need match-going supporters to survive. Not at the highest level. Millions around the world still watched the Premier League when it returned and did likewise when the Champions League came back.
We assumed having zero spectators in attendance would detract enough from the spectacle to have droves switching their DVRs to another channel, but it wasn't the case and the game will continue to fleece those who can't afford a fleecing every weekend.
Scottish football is not the same. We need fans for our own idiosyncratic version of the sport to survive and thrive. Its passion is what makes it so wonderfully bonkers. We saw what it was like without crowds last season. Is it any surprise that other than Rangers and St Johnstone, who both enjoyed the kind of success which will live long in the memory, most other fanbases were miserable?
We need that interaction. We need that closeness. We need to feel a part of something special and meaningful, something which was either burrowed into us from a young age or implanted in our DNA from generations of ancestors who did likewise.
These aren't "brands". They are clubs who connect with the community and make people, some of whom have very little in life and have been pushed to the margins in society, feel a sense of belonging. There's an inclusivity and, without it, football in this great nation just isn't the same. And that's without going into much detail about how it affected teams on the park. Last term saw the fifth-lowest goals per game average in Scottish top flight history as players often struggled to find that extra energy in the final minutes without the crowd roaring them on in encouragement.
Mercifully, it appears our stars are going to be back playing in front of large crowds very soon. Small percentages of capacity are allowed at present, but this could rocket to sell-out crowds as quickly as mid-August with clinical director Jason Leitch saying there's a possibility of this occurring after Scotland s 'Freedom Day', which will see the removal of all social-distancing measures and is currently pencilled in for August 9.
But let's face it, if there is any sort of trepidation about pulling back some of those freedoms once we get to mid-August, then football is going to be top of the list for industries who have to suffer.
Football has always been an easy target. Those who love the game recognise the benefits it brings to society, such as boosting local economies in what are typically the more working class areas of the country, the fine charity work each and every club carries out on a daily basis, and the benefits to mental health for supporters who need that weekly dose of dopamine that only comes with personal connection. But for those who never received football's emotional pull, an unhealthy number view it through a prism of generalisation and classism. They see it as a blight on society, not a positive, and it makes the sport an easy target.
Rangers fans celebrate in the city centre of Glasgow? Scotland fans travel en masse down to London (which was perfectly legal, by the way)? Tar them all with the same brush. It's the kind of thinking that continues to pull overwhelming support for the continuation of football's alcohol ban. Because, if you're afraid disorder might come at the ‘category A’ games, it apparently makes perfect sense to deny fans a drink at Montrose v Dumbarton.
The blanket ban on supporters last season, with the exception of the two full lockdowns, was draconian, especially as the season reached its conclusion and the rest of society began to open up again. With what we know of outdoor transmissions, the chance of Covid-19 outbreaks occurring inside open-roof stadiums is very slim, and that's without taking into account the preventative measures like temperature checks, face-masks, track-and-trace measures and social distancing that even the attending media and non-playing staff had to adhere to. Full stadiums would've been a hazard, obviously, but to not allow a few thousand to rattle around a 20, 50 or 60-thousand seater stadium was a case of acting tough just to be seen doing so.
It culminated in the ludicrousness of zero supporters being allowed into the Scottish Cup final, but it was perfectly fine three weeks later for 9,000 to attend the Scotland v Czech Republic Euro 2020 game at the same ground. Because overwhelming passion for football in this country can be a positive for some when it suits.
Personally, I cannot wait to rock up to the Roseburn Bar again, where I'll be greeted by my father (hat tip to the recently-retired man of leisure) and his friends and have three or four pints. From there we'll walk along toward McLeod Street as the street gradually gets busier with fellow enthusiasts as the comforting familiarity of all the usual sights and sounds around the stadium begin to wash in. We'll say hello to the familiar faces around our seats and spend the next two hours moaning, applauding, celebrating, swearing, shouting and guffawing – often all in the space of ten minutes. From there we treat back to the pub for the typical post-match dissection.
Now, I'm lucky, I don't need this to feel content in this harsh world. Many others, less fortunate than myself, unfortunately do. But it is still the highlight of most weeks and an aspect of life I have missed dreadfully over the last year.
To those who hold the power. Please, do the right thing. Don't let us wait any longer.
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