In an extract from the Totally Football Yearbook, Daniel Storey remembers a year that tested the sport through natural and man-made disasters.
The following is an extract from The Totally Football Yearbook: 2021, the definitive account of a truly strange season from the team behind the award-winning Totally Football Show and with a foreword by Jamie Carragher – out August 5.
F365 favourite Daniel Storey reflects on how a season without fans, when the most venal characters in the game tried a thankfully unsuccessful power grab, might make us even more grateful to have football back in our lives…
It was the hardest 18 months in English football’s modern history. Not since the Second World War had there been a longer void without a league game being played, as football rightly became subservient to fighting a global pandemic as the country was brought to its knees. Football as a live spectator event was decimated and the sustainability of the professional football pyramid, the unique selling point of our game, was pulled into sharp and uncomfortable focus.
For some, football as a broadcast-only spectacle is a hollow entity. Television was always intended as a supplement to live participation – an opportunity to showcase the game across the globe. This was different. Seats sat empty or were filled by cardboard cutouts of those who could not be present and, in some tragic cases, would never return. Crowd noise was manufactured and piped through our screens as an attempt to replicate normality but, lacking the nuance and improvisation of a live audience, was destined to disappoint. Players and managers understood that there was a job to do but all bemoaned the absence of cheers and jeers, of raucous celebration and painful laments.
Yet others gorged themselves on this televisual feast after three months with no football at all. They understood that this was a lesser experience but a necessary one. For those forced to shield in their homes throughout 2020, into 2021 and beyond, football – even in this warped form – became a lifeline, maintaining a connection to the sport that governs their social life. This football was still a thousand times better than none at all.
We must resist the temptation to focus purely on the negative connotations of this grim period. As communities were forced inside their homes, exacerbating loneliness and mental health issues, many football clubs throughout the pyramid recognised their role as community leaders.
Chelsea paid for NHS staff to stay in rooms at its Millennium Hotel at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool players contributed £40,000 to Fans Supporting Foodbanks. Watford launched ‘Hornets At Home’, reaching out to elderly and disabled supporters. Stevenage created a careline for those who might slip through the cracks, offering assistance with menial tasks and shopping. When the Premier League attempted to charge supporters to watch matches on a pay-per-view basis, games were boycotted and huge sums were raised for charity instead.
On an organisational and individual level, people stepped up.
One of the most uplifting stories was the work done by former Tottenham and England defender Gary Mabbutt. Forced to self-isolate during the first four months of Covid due to his diabetes diagnosis, he sourced a list of Tottenham’s elderly and vulnerable supporters and their birthdays. Every day, Mabbutt would make a series of telephone calls to those supporters to wish them well, offer his emotional support and check that they were coping during hardship. They would invariably end up discussing Tottenham’s Double in 1961 or the FA Cup final victory in 1991.
Further down the pyramid, communities gave back rather than received. With football’s hiatus ruining the financial forecasts of non-league and grassroots clubs that survive on modest matchday revenues, they reached out to their supporters to raise funds and protect their very existence. Money was raised to keep up repairs on clubhouses, pay ground staff to keep the pitch in good condition and pay league registration fees.
This is the best of football fandom. These supporters had no hope of going to watch their team play, were not permitted to enter their local ground and expected no hard evidence for the work that they had donated to. Yet at a time of great financial uncertainty, funds were raised and clubs were pulled back from the brink.
The positive spin on the long absence of supporters at football matches – and we still await a time when grounds will be full of home and away fans congregating en masse – is that absence has made our hearts burst with fondness. For some, going to the match had become a pursuit forged in loyalty rather than enjoyment, particularly those who support clubs that they will never stop loving but sometimes may find very hard to like.
But being without the live experience only reinforced our connection to it. For those of us who have grown accustomed to sport as an integral part of our lives, its absence is catastrophic. Think of the elderly season-ticket holder who craves the next home game. Think of the casual club employee who relies on regular paydays. Think of the people who struggle to make social connections but use their love of sport as a shortcut to creating bonds. For all the ugly characteristics of modern sport, few things grease the wheels of community quite like it.
We do not know whether sport will ever return to exactly how it was before. But we do know that it will return. And we do know that on that first Saturday morning, we will wake as if roused by the excitement of a dozen Christmases and birthdays rolled into one. We should never apologise for missing it, nor for how much it means to us.
If the void left by football’s prolonged absence and incremental return provoked the best of us, we were also witness to the worst aspects of a sport wedded to the extremes of rampant capitalism and submerged in the worst excesses of commercialisation: avarice, opportunism, exploitation. If opportunity truly is born out of adversity – and we have no record of whether Benjamin Franklin was a supporter of a Big Six team – some of England’s biggest and wealthiest club owners burned the already thin bridges that existed between them and those they consider to be customers but who consider themselves to be football supporters – the true owners of the clubs.
The lamentable behaviour began shortly after the first lockdown was announced, with Liverpool and Tottenham forced to backtrack after supporter outrage over their plans to furlough low-paid staff and claim from the Government’s financial assistance scheme. The Government itself behaved miserably, urging footballers to take pay cuts in a blatant demonstration of attention deflection before being forced to perform its own backtrack – deciding to find funding for school meals for children during the holidays after Marcus Rashford embarked on a national campaign. Arsenal made a number of redundancies, pleading poverty, only to then give a three-year-deal to Willian, a 32-year-old new signing on a reported £6m a year.
That was the tip of the fatberg. In October 2020, the Daily Telegraph reported that a set of proposals – under the name ‘Project Big Picture’ – which would give £250m to the EFL to ease financial concerns around Covid and guaranteed 25 per cent of future Premier League TV deals would be handed down. But it came with a kicker: the number of Premier League clubs would be cut from 20 to 18 and the biggest would abolish the democratic ‘one club, one vote’ principle. Control would be seized only by the wealthiest and most powerful.
Project Big Picture was a power grab so despicably greedy that even its name was a lie. Concocted at the perfect time to exploit the financial weaknesses of English clubs just when they were most ripe for exploitation, it attempted to ring-fence riches and power into the hands of a self-appointed fiefdom. It marked English football’s final jump from the game of the people to the business of the few.
The proposals certainly contained some ideas worth exploring. But these were just some scraps of comfort from the wealthiest clubs – who helped create inequality in the first place – for those unfortunate enough to sit outside the financial elite as a pandemic suffocated lives and businesses. Yet more to the point, their grotesque plan was presumably intended to be the start of negotiations rather than the end.
Nobody was expecting charity without caveats. What might have seemed reasonable 40 years ago is now the oasis in the desert. But we had to demand more than this. We could not allow a collection of individuals to shape the game’s future to their own liking simply because it felt like we had no choice. Outrage was rife among supporters and the general public and Project Big Picture was voted off the table by the majority of Premier League clubs.
Rather than accept their attempted coup was destined to fail, the owners of the Big Six clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham – instead plotted something even more spectacularly hideous. By April, plans were leaked of an attempted breakaway to form a European Super League along with six other self-appointed ‘super clubs’: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan and Inter. This would replace the existing Champions League and qualification would be decided not on merit but by invitation – and therefore inescapably linked to extreme wealth.
It missed exactly what makes football so brilliant: relegation and promotion, jeopardy, trepidation, heartache, competition, hope, glory. Destroy that and you destroy enough elements of football’s magic that you plasticise the sport entirely. But they simply didn’t care.
The bad guys behaving like the bad guys, bullying those around them with wanton displays of their economic strength, is one thing. But what stuck in the throat most is how those involved dared to attempt to convince a supposedly gullible audience that their plan would benefit the game as a whole. Over the previous 12 months, they had spoken at length about missing supporters in their stadia because it takes away a huge part of what the sport means. They consistently talked about why the history of football clubs and their webs of connections with supporters creates a special bond that nothing else can fill. They coincidentally did it as part of marketing strategies intended to sell you stuff. And they launched this plan without consideration or consultation with a single supporter association, player or manager.
The Super League was broken apart almost as soon as its intentions were announced. Just 48 hours after rumours became facts and the proposals became public on a Sunday in mid-April, the hubristic coalition crumbled. Clubs underestimated the righteous anger of supporters and other clubs; those who had signed up through fear of missing out were quickly humbled into issuing withdrawal notices and, in some cases, apologies to those supporters who they deemed unworthy of thought. If it will continue to cast a shadow over the sport, shadows weigh infinitely less than a metric tonne of effluent poured across our national game.
And within the indignant reaction that forced the European Super League back into its cave, rays of light and hope appeared like the first warming sun of spring. For all the wealth and power that the owners of the Big Six wield, they were ultimately defeated by the unity of ordinary football supporters who believed that enough was enough. And if it returns in a slightly altered – but still bastardised – form, we will be there to break it down again.
For the first time ever, a group of billionaires are on the back foot; temporarily, but undeniably. There is a push for legislative change so their greed can be reined in and the nuances of English football that make it so special – the depth of the pyramid, the strength of our love, the intangible dream that on any given Saturday our club can make us whole – can be protected by law. We must use this opportunity wisely and expose the situation forcefully so it may never happen again.
And so, if there is anything positive to be gleaned from this unspeakably awful period of our lives, when football was given a firm shove towards the precipice, it is that we know now more than ever how much it all matters and how hard it is worth fighting for. Never again will we take for granted the walk to the ground, floodlights appearing above terraced houses. Never again will we forget to take in that first view of the impossibly green turf as we reach the top of the concourse steps. And never again will we miss a chance to rejoice in the communal experience of watching our team play.
The Totally Football Yearbook is out on August 5 – pre-order here…