Slight Return (I’m Coming Home)

Back in March, I reflected on the personal impact that the pause in live football presented for me. At that point, of course, we didn’t know when football would return or in what form. The sport got its act together swiftly and has been played behind closed doors for the last nine months now.

Prior to the enforced close of football stadiums, I had missed only a handful of Arsenal games in the last twenty years. I didn’t miss a single home fixture between October 1999 and December 2018 and I didn’t miss a domestic away fixture between January 2002 and December 2018. In that time, I estimate that I travelled to roughly 80% of Arsenal’s European away fixtures.

I’ve been an Arsenal season ticket holder since I was eight years old, going to Arsenal has been my life. It’s been my most persistent routine- even school and work haven’t matched it for longevity. From boy, to teenager, to student, to my bedsit dwelling 20s and through marriage and chronic back pain in my 30s, going to Arsenal has been the golden thread through all of these rites of passage.

My family are Arsenal fans, so is my wife and so are the majority of my friends at this stage. On Thursday night, I will return to Emirates Stadium for the first time in nine months, one of the lucky 2,000 with a golden ticket. I was at the final game at Highbury and the first game at the Emirates, I wonder where “the first game back during the global pandemic” will feature in my pantheon of landmark games in years to come?

So what has it been like becoming an enforced armchair fan for the first time in my life? I should clarify a few things first. As I have written many times, I have becoming increasingly disengaged with elite level football. I make no effort to watch any Champions League group matches whatsoever- I don’t even look up the scores (obviously the same follows for the Europa League bar the Arsenal matches).

That distance has grown during the pandemic with talk of Project Big Picture and the expansion of the Champions League from 2024. I also think that a lot of the things we have seen as a result of necessity while fans haven’t been allowed in stadiums- staggered kickoff times, Sunday evening matches- are probably here to stay now.

I don’t like VAR and feel it burgles something vital from my personal enjoyment of the sport. I have found myself watching games and just switching channels when a long, VAR enforced pause intrudes. Elite level football is moving in a direction that is at odds with my interests. It’s not something I am especially bitter about, not anymore. I accept that lots of people want and like VAR and lots of people probably like and want expanded European competition at the expense of the domestic calendar.

Prior to lockdown I felt a natural drift forming. It will never be a complete fracture. I mentioned that my support of Arsenal has been a golden thread running through my many rites of passage in life. Well, during lockdown, my wife and I had a daughter, our first child. She arrived ten days late, on August 2nd meaning, yes, I watched Arsenal win the FA Cup on a tablet in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich.

My wife watched it with me through her contractions (she didn’t go into established labour until the next day). So it’s also fair to say that my priorities have changed too. Without wishing to be glib about the situation, if ever there was to be an enforced hiatus from going to watch football, it happened at a convenient enough time in my life.

Initially, I appreciated the novelty of watching Arsenal on television. Since there were no fans there at all, I didn’t have a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out). As time has gone on, I have missed the stadium experience, or, at least, I have appreciated watching on television less and less. I have become more aware of how the experience of watching Arsenal has changed.

When you go to a match, it is an all-day event what with the travelling and “socialising.” The match is the centrepiece of the day but it doesn’t represent the entire experience. Lately match days haven’t really felt like match days until the team news drops 60 minutes before kickoff and my twitter timeline lights up like a Christmas tree.

On one hand, social media has been a welcome enhancement during this period, enabling that match day interaction. However, I also find that games are intense in a different way. When part of a physical crowd, a match is very intense, there is lots of singing, swearing and shouting and I usually have a few beers inside me.

I find matches are out of my system much more quickly as a result, a greater level of adrenaline is expended during the fact. Then afterwards, the social side takes over again. You might have a twenty minute debrief and blow off some steam as you sink the first pint (or lukewarm tin on the train platform for an away game). But soon enough you’re back into a social situation and the game merits barely a mention for the rest of the day.

On television and with social media, matches linger- for better and worse. If I am at a match I probably don’t look at my twitter feed from about an hour before kickoff until a couple of hours after the game finishes. Now I am much more involved digitally and games burn much more slowly, especially the bad results. Being at a match is like taking an adrenaline propulsing stimulant- it enters you quickly and leaves you quickly. Watching on television is more like smoking a spliff- it’s passive, slow to work but equally slow to leave your system and you are more of a hostage to your thoughts.

There are other things I have noticed in recent weeks too. Travelling to away matches regularly is an exercise in project management. You have to know when the TV selections are being made and be poised on the National Rail website as they drop. At this moment in time, I cannot recall a single one of Arsenal’s January Premier League fixtures.

To travel away is to live perpetually in the future, a nine-month loop of booking planes, trains and hotels for games that are some weeks away. Now I find that sometimes I don’t even know the precise time Arsenal are kicking off until the day of the game. I am under no illusions that everything will recalibrate come Thursday evening.

A 2,000 crowd for a Europa League semi dead rubber in December is not going to be “an adrenaline propulsing stimulant.” Most of the pubs around N5 are not open and social distancing means the social aspect will be altered dramatically, as will the stadium experience. This is day release as far as the return to football is concerned.

After this, I will be part of the ballot process and will likely be able to attend a few more home games before the end of the season, all things being equal. Don’t get me wrong, that feels very satisfying indeed at this point. It’s not a return to normal by any means, but it’s a slightly faded facsimile of normal and I will grab it with both hands and wring it for all it is worth.

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