Coronavirus is a matter of life and death for many. Football, despite that famous bit of nonsense spouted by Bill Shankly, isn’t anywhere near as important as that. For millions of supporters around the world, though, the absence of the sport has left a big hole in their lives. I should know because I’m one of these sad cases.
I’ve been an avid football fan since I was kid. It was Italia 90’s combination of Gazza’s tears, Toto Schillachi’s crazy eyes and Carlos Valderrama’s mad hair that hooked me. For more than 20 years, I have been a Brentford season ticket holder (I’m legally obliged to add ‘for my sins’ at this point).
During any given season, I’m constantly checking up on team news and transfer speculation, and, when the Bees have won, I revel in all the highlights and match reports. I consume football podcasts, newspaper articles and books on a regular basis. Against my better judgment, I play Fantasy Premier League, too, meaning that on any given Saturday I’m obliged to check on whether Burnley have kept a clean sheet or if a Leicester City right-back got an assist.
When the current season came to an abrupt halt in March, Brentford were doing pretty well, in with a chance of promotion to the Premier League, most likely via the play-offs. So, it follows that I should be desperate for the resumption of our national game. Strangely, though, I’m not. In fact, I’ve been quietly enjoying this extended break from the football season.
The reasons for this are many and various. For one, following your football team in the modern era can be a stressful and unpleasant business. Thanks to social media, the conversation around football never stops. As much as I like watching highlights of Bees’ victories, to misquote Peter’s Cook’s Alan Latchley, “The other side of success, Clive, is failure”.
With goal alerts popping up on Twitter sometimes three days after the ball hit the net, a defeat can’t be ignored or quickly forgotten. The ‘hilarious’ banter on social media is endless. The nastiness, too. I know I could just not look, but due to my work and lack of self-control staying offline is an impossibility.
Football, I should say, hasn’t been completely absent from my life in the last couple of months. For Brentford fans, there have been Zoom sessions with the head coach, as well as former managers and players. I particularly enjoyed staying up much later than is advisable watching the season review film of the 1998/99 season that the club stuck up on YouTube (As I said, I’m a sad case).
Away from the Bees, Sunderland ‘Til I Die saw me through the early days of lockdown and I’ve revisited a few of my favourite football books (Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, Duncan Hamilton’s superb Brian Clough memoir was an especially rewarding re-read). Most remarkably, the reworked Match of the Day, with its pundits freed from having to come up with inane analysis of that day’s games, has somehow become watchable.
Most people arguing about how to end the season are, unsurprisingly, in favour of whichever outcome most benefits their club. I might be alone among the Brentford faithful in being not all that bothered about promotion to the Premier League, and so would not be devastated if the season was declared null and void tomorrow.
Most of my time as a Brentford supporter has been spent watching us clog our way around Leagues One and Two, so the fact we are holding our own in The Championship, a league in which the quality of the football is generally decent and the matches are usually competitive, is absolutely fine by me. As much as I understand the financial imperative for a club like ours to go up to the top tier, even just for one season, the corporate machine that is the Premier League seems like football on a different planet, and it’s one that I’m not really all that fussed about visiting.
When the game finally returns, I have two hopes. Firstly, that it is back in time to stop any clubs from going to the wall. Secondly, and more personally, I hope Brentford get the chance to say a proper goodbye to Griffin Park, our ramshackle ground. The current season is our last there, with a new home on the verge of being completed.
I’ve seen all sorts at Griffin Park over the years. We’ve had plenty of luck there, most of it bad. The memory that endures most is when we missed a penalty in the 95th minute of the last game of the 2012/13 season against Doncaster Rovers, a miss that cost us promotion. That moment of spectacular, history-making failure was just so very Brentford. With behind closed doors games looking inevitable, there is a possibility we’ll miss both our last game in our old ground and our first game in our new one. That would be very Brentford, too.