Aidan Smith: Some football games right now make me want to put on my mask - and cover my eyes

What’s the best game of football you’ve seen in lockdown? Watched from your sofa, obviously, with a cup of tea and a macaroon bar - would it be that Celtic-Hearts Scottish Cup final with its twists and turns, great goals and great blunders, one club going for the quadruple treble and the other with a get-it-right-up-the-lot-of-you grudge, all rounded off with a gripping penalty shootout? Yes, that wasn’t bad, but weren’t there some boring bits in the middle?

Liverpool's Swiss midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri (L) heads the ball against Burnley's English midfielder Josh Brownhill (R) during the English Premier League football match between Liverpool and Burnley at Anfield in Liverpool, north west England on January 21, 2021. (Photo by Jon Super / POOL / AFP)

Or maybe it was Serbia vs Scotland, the playoff which enabled us - at long last - to step from the cold pavement and through the velvet rope clutching an embossed invite to major finals. That was the best, no? Well, best result by a million miles, but did we really see the best football that night? Scotland were hanging on for a lot of it and as we all know that’s never a pretty sight.

But, you know, maybe we’re expecting too much from football right now. It’s being allowed to continue while just about everything else has come to a juddering halt. Football has been deemed vital to the nation’s health and wellbeing, the vaccine before the vaccine if you like.

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That’s quite a lot of pressure. Football as a palliative, to stop us going mad. Football can do many things but can it really do that? In normal times we take football incredibly seriously. Moods are determined by results. But there are other distractions in normal times, other ways to get a bad result out of the system and eventually there can be the acknowledgement that, ach, really, it’s only a game. But football under Covid is expected to be more than a game.

21/02/04 SPL RANGERS v HIBS IBROX - GLASGOW Hibs manager Bobby Williamson appeals to the referee for justice during a match against Rangers at Ibrox in February 2004.

Football under Covid is like some government-sanctioned drug programme, uppers provided intravenously through tubes attached to the back of our TVs. But not every game can be spectacular, a circus with fireworks. Not every team will be willing participants in such matches.

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Some will embark on games with the best of intentions. I will give Manchester United and Manchester City the benefit of the doubt and accept they wanted to put on a proper show in last month’s derby because Sky told us incessantly that’s what it would be such. But the match was terrible. I wanted to wear my mask while the multi-millionaires fannied around from first whistle to last. But on this occasion pull it over my eyes.

Other clubs may not be able to impersonate Barcelona - peak Barca, that is, not the version where Lionel Messi chops down opponents and gets sent off - or simply don’t want to. They may not have the players or be in good enough form or it just may not be who they are to play that way. So what happens to them under Boris Johnson’s scheme for football as a morale-booster? Should they be banned from further participation?

Of course, one man’s heroic rearguard action is another man’s anti-football. Burnley parked the bus at Anfield the other night and were able to snatch a win because Liverpool were so poor. We can hardly blame Burnley; that was the only way they were going to earn a much-needed three points. But as a spectacle, given that football has this new status in the pandemic with almost a duty to entertain, was it harmful to our mental health?

Rugby is also continuing to be played, for the same reason of keeping up spirits, but recent disgruntlement with Edinburgh after some pretty stodgy performances irked head coach Richard Cockerill to such an extent he was moved to retort: “If you want entertainment go to the theatre.”

Now he’s not the first embattled boss to react like this. Bobby Williamson, when he was in charge of an equally prosaic Hibernian, declared: “If you want entertainment go to the cinema.” Note that Cockerill said theatre, doubtless in recognition of the rugger-bugger’s preference for the higher arts (though not quite opera). Note, too, that no one, not rugger-buggers or anyone, can attend the theatre right now, so Cockerill’s players are privileged at being able to carry on with their jobs while the vast bulk of actors haven’t worked for almost a year.

Neither Edinburgh now or the Hibees at the beginning of the millennium were quite able to move the ball around with the fluency of Michael Jordan and the rest of US basketball’s dream team, as featured in The Last Dance, the big Netflix lockdown hit. I was one of Bobby’s refuseniks but at least my pals and I were able to register our displeasure by staying in the pub or finding another game a bus or short train-ride away. We can do neither of those things at the moment.

We have to watch football while stuck at home and are told it’s good for us, that it will help us through the greatest test of our nation since wartime. Normally it is good for us but this is the new normal. Footballers are hugely fortunate being able to play on, and I’m sure most realise this, but they hardly need another responsibility placed on them if they’re already feeling like the equivalent of armed forces entertainment trying to jolly everyone along with a song and a gag.

The problem is exacerbated by that fact that while there was always too much football on TV before, now it’s swamped with the stuff. When a lot of games are dreary, football doesn’t have the effect of an upper, but more like bromide. I’m desperate for this war to be over. I want matches with crowds again, and to be in among them. Maybe, after all the privations, that will be like eating a banana again.

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