It was everywhere and then it was nowhere. On Thursday we talked of play-offs and calf strains. By Friday football had been shushed. Via a few necessarily cold press releases, Saturday plans were cancelled and the right to cheer or barrack revoked. It was an act of larceny that we absorbed and agreed with, as if a benevolent burglar were taking away a prized possession for our own good. All we could do was sigh, look to the floor and mutter ‘I understand, I understand’ over and over like a schoolchild being scolded.
Come Saturday, we pondered the empty stadiums with their quarantined goalmouths. We thought of majestic old Cappielow, wind roaming unchallenged along its terraces. We thought of lofty St James’ Park, a Goliath with nothing to look down upon. We thought of homely Fratton Park, a screaming banshee of a ground now quieter than Christmas Day on the moon. Of course, these places are empty and silent most of the time, yet this was a starving kind of gap and a thicker, more potent quiet. It was different. Games were supposed to be happening right there, right then. Now, we did not know when they would take place, if at all.
We thought too of those grounds’ surroundings; the pubs that half-rely on fortnightly splurges of lager and crisps, the social clubs with their untouched buffets under cling film. Then there were the programmes, bundled, tied and going nowhere. Collectors’ items, per chance? Floodlights rested their eyes and padlocks handcuffed catering hatches. On this late winter’s Saturday, nothing glowed except the odd good deed in a weary world; some clubs gave matchday food to the local needy, a feast sent from No Man’s Land.
It was easy to spot people who were supposed to be at a game. They walked eerie streets and sat in tetchy pubs, heads down and thoughts vacant. Every now and then, they would forget themselves and habits would spur an outbreak of automatic behaviour: Fingers sliding to latest score apps; minds wondering how Ipswich Town were getting on; a quick check in the paper to see what the Sunday 4pm fixture was. Some switched to Sky Sports News in the hope of finding Jeff Stelling announcing that Falkirk had taken the lead at Dumbarton.
On Sunday, it seemed to sink in. Numb acceptance spread. There were no scores pages to devour, no defeats to wallow in. No neighbour asked how our team got on. In the evening, there was no Match of the Day 2 or Sportscene closing theme tune to lull us off to bed. Our scarves, we realised, are sentenced to an unhealthy term on the peg. Hymns will go unsung.
This is not like pre-season, with its steady course to August through transfer speculation, friendly matches and new kits. Fixtures are fading from the canvas, not appearing in fresh paint. Football has no cheery shop window note declaring ‘Back in 5 minutes’. All we know is that it will return. And when it does, hell, that first goal will feel better than it has for years.