Football Without Fans – Life Without the 12th Man

The Coronavirus pandemic has shattered the fragile normality of every day life with the emptiness of thousands of football stadiums across the world being a stark example of the impact it has caused.

For a football fan, nothing will ever beat the adrenalin rush of walking through the turnstiles at your team’s home ground.

The ascent into the stands as the vibrant green of the pitch pokes over the horizon and the constant cacophony of noise hits you with all the force of a punch from Anthony Joshua.

Over the past year the beautiful game has still powered on despite the chaos of the world around it, yet there is a certain emptiness to it, not enough to ruin the game but enough to notice somethings missing.

Sometimes it is easy to forget the lack of spectators for a few minutes, until a player is fouled and their scream echoes throughout the endless sea of plastic, or a shot misses by some distance only to be met by exaggerated gasps from the painfully obvious fake crowd.

The absence of support is something that is felt throughout the entirety of the English football landscape, with Harvard researchers finding that Premier League home teams score an additional 0.1 goals for every 10,000 fans present.

The end of the 2019/20 campaign was played behind closed doors, robbing several fanbases of the thrill of seeing their sides success in person.

Liverpool won their first top flight title in 30 years, securing the league with a gap of 18 points over their nearest pursuers Manchester City, yet there were no celebrations in the famous Kop End.

Anfield, incidentally, was the setting for the last game to be played in England with a capacity crowd on March 11th 2020.

Jurgen Klopp’s men welcomed Athletico Madrid (and their fans) for a Champions League Round of 16 tie.

The decision to allow 3,000 people to travel from Madrid, an area that was one of the most heavily hit by the pandemic at the time, was one that baffled many especially considering Athletico fans weren’t even allowed in to La Liga games already at that point.

Another club that sorely missed the presence of their following for their celebrations were Leeds United, who ended their 16-year hiatus from the top division, winning the Championship under Marcelo Bielsa.

Although these complaints are tiny compared to the other horrendous events of the past 12 months, the absence of supporters at games has other very real effects on clubs and people alike.

It was Celtic legend Jock Stein who first coined the famous phrase, “Football without the fans is nothing” and for some clubs it is becoming more literal than they ever would’ve hoped.

The further you clamber down the football pyramid, the importance of fans becomes increasingly apparent, with many clubs main source of income coming from ticket sales and match days.

The government has tried to help non-league clubs by providing a £10 million grant back in October which was fully drained by the turn of the new year.

In order to make it appear as though lower league clubs haven’t been completely abandoned, a further £11 million was made available in January yet only as a low interest loan for steps 1-2, meaning that although it may offer temporary life support, the long term financial stress could cause clubs to flatline.

This news was a disappointment to say the least to many at that level, as prior to the beginning of the campaign they were of the understanding that the costs would be covered throughout the duration of the season.

Football without fans simply isn’t sustainable for a lot of clubs, especially smaller ones and as a result, the English football pyramid is beginning to shake at the foundations, threatening to collapse in on itself completely.

All divisions below the National League North/South have already had their season suspended since November and the decision was made in February to abandon the remainder of the campaign.

The purest of football fans exist in the depths of the English footballing system, the most dedicated travelling across the country to watch their team play on a surface that wouldn’t look out of place in the aftermath of a music festival.

The clubs are a real community, where the few that support week in week out are just as important to the team as the players.

The impact of empty seats at the lower levels isn’t just a lack of atmosphere when a goal is scored, the supporters are the club and without one, the other can only last for so long.

During the second of England’s lockdowns, certain non-league grounds were allowed fans in, provided coronavirus restrictions were stuck to religiously.

This did allow some time for some clubs to tread water in the tumultuous whirlpool they found themselves in, yet after a second season in a row was cut short prematurely, it has become increasingly difficult to remain afloat.

It isn’t strictly the non-league clubs who are drowning either, there are several teams littered throughout the football ladder that have run into financial troubles since coronavirus threw a spanner into the usual relentless football machine.

Notably, Championship side Sheffield Wednesday have been struck particularly hard by the pandemic and specifically the lack of income from match receipts.

A recent delve into the club accounts by The Athletic’s Nancy Frostick and Matt Slater shows that the club are losing £1.5 million a month and if they carry on at the same rate will require outside help to remain in operation.

The term ‘it’s just a game’ has been heard by football fans more times than they’ve heard they’re own name, yet to so many, football is a livelihood.

People’s jobs are at risk, especially when even a club of the stature of Arsenal were forced to cut 55 of their staff members back in August due to the strain that the pandemic has placed on their finances.

Football provides an escape for so many, and in a time that is proving so challenging for many people’s mental health, the return of fans will be a much needed one.

A recent UK household longitudinal study shows that average mental distress was 8.1% higher as of April 2020 compared to June 2017-2019.

It seems like a lifetime since anyone heard the drunken chants on a train before kick off, or saw the sea of their teams colours surge into life when the ball hits the back of the net.

The dark tunnel that the world has been plunged into may finally have a light at the end of it with the Coronavirus vaccine starting to be distributed all over the world and Boris Johnson has boldly outlined the intentions to allow up to 10,000 fans in certain grounds for the final game of the season.

Although the atmosphere won’t live up to iconic moments such as Sergio Aguero’s last gasp winner for Manchester City in 2012, even the most feeble of cheers from terraces around the country will be warmly welcomed.

Football is a sport that thrives of passion and the roar of a crowd can provide players with confidence that they simply cannot find elsewhere.

Fans have an impact on so many different aspects of the game, whether it be influencing a referee to give a decision or pouring pressure on an opposition player, the game simply isn’t the same without them there.