Lee Payne: The show must go on despite feeling of detachment

Photo: Rich Eaton.
Tamworth FC v Norwich City. The FA Cup. 06/01/2007. Darren Huckerby is embrace

Darren Huckerby is embraced by travelling fans after scoring the second goal in the win at Tamworth in January, 2007 - Credit: Rich Eaton/Sportsbeat Images

I hit a wall last week. It took seven months of behind-closed-doors football, but it had been coming for a while. 

At first it was a novelty. Watching Norwich City’s home and midweek away games on my laptop, all the Premier League matches being televised with some on the BBC, games being on most days and at all times of the day. But it would soon wear thin. 

Recently, Sky Sports were bigging up the Monday night game between Arsenal and Newcastle. When there are two teams playing that I have got no particular interest in I would usually have the match on in the background whilst doing something else. On this occasion, though, I just could not be bothered. I watched a music documentary instead. 

It has dawned on me that it’s not football on its own that I care so much about. A living, breathing crowd brings so much to a match.  

On the TV you can choose to listen to the sound of the soulless echo of the stadium or to have the broadcaster pump artificial crowd noise on top of it. It is not much of a choice.  

You can see the empty seats; you can tell the crowd sound is fake. It makes it all feel pointless. Manchester United and Liverpool have played it each other twice recently, once in the league and once in the FA Cup, but without anyone in the ground these games might as well have been between Oldham and Tranmere. Big games just do not feel big without a crowd there. 

We have already had to watch an FA Cup final played in front of an empty Wembley Stadium, as well as a set of play-off finals.  

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Can you imagine how gut-wrenching it would have been if City’s 2015 play-off victory against Middlesbrough had been behind-closed-doors?  

Liverpool had to lift a long-awaited Premier League title without their fans there to witness the moment. Leeds finally made it back to the top flight but have had to play the whole of their first season amongst the elite with no one watching on. These are great achievements that felt like they lacked something. What if you support Marine? You get drawn against Jose Mourinho’s Spurs in the cup and you’re not allowed in. 

I’m not saying that football should not be played in the current conditions. It has been a welcome distraction for many from the drudgery of another lockdown.  

I am aware of people who are not as bothered by the lack of supporters as I am. Not being able to go to Carrow Road has made me feel more detached than ever before from the team but watching on a screen has not diminished how much I care.  

It still matters a great deal. Football and cricket – my other great sporting love – have been a lifeline during the pandemic. Sport must continue, though the pangs to see and hear a crowd are growing stronger. 

It is now 11 months since I went to a football match in person. That was the FA Cup tie at Tottenham, a memorable occasion when City won on penalties.  

It was not just the game itself; it was the whole experience – the journey to London, drinking in a pub (remember those?) with loads of fellow Norwich fans in their yellow shirts, seeing Tottenham’s incredible new stadium for the first time. I vow never to take days like that for granted again. Travel, pubs, sporting events. All things that coronavirus has prohibited. 

As hard as it is to believe at the moment, with each passing day the end of the pandemic draws closer. Crowds will fill grounds once more. And it is the thought of that which must keep us going.  

The first rendition of ‘On The Ball, City!’ at a full Carrow Road after all this is over will send a shiver down the spine. 

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