Back In My Arms Again

St Columb v Newquay, pre-season friendly

I’ve never considered myself a football obsessive. I’ll watch my team if they’re on TV or listen to their games on the radio, but I hardly ever watch a televised match as a neutral; I’ve got no interest in talking about tactics or transfers; I couldn’t even tell you who won the FA Cup last year. But when football stopped 20 long weeks ago I came to realise just how integral it was to my world, and that you really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

It’s strange to look back to that phony war period in early March, when we all knew that risk was starting to mount and normal was going to have to change, yet still wanted just a few more Saturdays.

I’m risk averse; I was carrying hand sanitizer around weeks before lockdown. On March 7th I went to watch a game at St Ives and bumped into someone I know and like. He held out his hand and my politeness overcame my wariness and I shook it. But as soon as I’d walked away the hand gel came out. That was the last hand I shook. On March 11th I was meant to be travelling to Luton to fly out to Romania for a few days on an organized football watching trip, but the Romanian league had announced just the day before that it was shutting down, so the trip was cancelled. My disappointment was mixed with a sense of relief at not having to put myself through the risk: the train to London, the packed tube carriage, the flight.

The last game, on March 14th, was at Holmans. There’s no distancing anxiety when you’re one of a handful of spectators scattered around the pitch, but by now it was starting to seem mad that people were still out there playing contact sport. By the clubhouse there was a rugby match going on, and at the sight of players locked in a steaming scrum all I could think was rather them than me. Two days later the FA, no longer expecting guidance from a government with its head in the sand, decided to suspend grassroots football.

So the end of football had to happen, but the way the weeks have just drifted by since has made me aware of how much it matters, how its removal has meant the loss of an anchor, a focal point, to my week. Because Saturdays, I’ve realised, are as much about the game day rituals as the watching of a match: checking the weather before choosing where to go, charging the camera battery, refreshing the pages of the Cornwall Football Forum to see which games are off, clearing the memory card, packing the waterproofs, driving to the ground listening to Freddie Zapp on local radio. I’ve had none of that for over four months, and I’ve missed it.

Now it’s been decreed that we can play and watch recreational level football again. Like so many other decisions made by our government during this period, it seems pretty arbitrary, and the FA risk assessment  guidelines must be daunting for grassroots clubs without the resources to properly implement them. But what the Hell, I can go to football again. I’m not complaining, but I still have the same mixed feelings as I had at Holmans back in March.

With a handful of friendlies taking place across the county I decide to go to one of the earlier kick-offs, at St Columb, who are playing a local derby against Newquay reserves, so I can get back home in time to watch my team, who just happen to be playing in the Cup Final later.

At the ground the strange thing is that it feels almost normal. There are about 40 spectators around the pitch, some making efforts to distance, some not. The problem is that watching sport is a communal activity, and when you’re in a familiar environment it’s easy to gradually revert to familiar behaviour. And how about the players? They’re not getting tested like the professionals. Rather them than me.

The game itself is surprisingly good for a pre-season. Newquay boss the start and get an early goal but St Columb rally and deservedly lead 2-1 at the break. In the second half Newquay score a belter of an equalizer, then a couple of defensive blunders decide the game. First a home defender is sent off for a reckless challenge in the area and Newquay score from the penalty, then the St Columb keeper goes to clear a harmless ball but only connects with air, allowing the away striker to stroke it into an empty net to make it 2-4. St Columb pull one back with another penalty and it ends 3-4.

So yes, it was good to become reacquainted with football, but there’s a danger that a lot of people are assuming that its return represents part of a gentle easing back to normal. The reality is that with a shambolic response to the pandemic this country has the highest excess mortality rate in Europe, is still without a functioning test and trace system and infection rates in England are rising. We all want things to be back to normal, but things aren’t always as we’d wish them to be. I’d love to see this grassroots season go smoothly, but you can’t fight a virus with optimism and pluck, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, like the last, it doesn’t get completed. If that’s the case then we’ll always have the hollow spectacle of the TV-funded elite playing out their season behind closed doors. We live in interesting times.


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