Football without fans – Preview
Friday, 19th Jun 2020 16:07 by Clive Whittingham
After a three-month lockdown hiatus, we’re back this Saturday with QPR v Barnsley. Or, rather, they’re back, we’re left to press our noses against the window and watch from out here.
QPR (14-8-15, DWDWDW, 13th) v Barnsley (8-10-19, LWWWLL, 24th)
Football without fans is nothing.
Or, so we were told. By Coca Cola when they wanted to attach their name to our cup competition in order to pedal more liquified sugar to our kids. By Nationwide when they wanted to stick their name on our league to bolster their mortgage sales (your home is at risk if you go through a bit of a bad patch etc etc). By CheckATrade who were so keen to get us to CheckATrade they happily aligned themselves with a cup competition originally designed to give Walsall and Scunthorpe and Carlisle the odd day out at Wembley now hijacked by the EPPP brigade to give some ostensibly competitive football to the hoarded mass of excellent young FA Youth Cup final veterans at Ch***** and Manchester City.
There we were, the apparently essential component, jumping around like a gang of lobotomised chimps, in the background of all the adverts. “GREEN ARMY”, Paul Whitehouse cried in the name of Aviva car insurance, imitating the sort of beyond-help sex case who steadfastly trawls the country twice a week from Plymouth, perfectly aware that Argyle peaked with David Friio, Akos Buszaky, Peter Halmosi, Paul Sturrock and Ian Holloway but spending the next 36 hours getting to Hartlepool and back for a granular goalless draw regardless - because that’s what we do. Marketing execs invited us to marvel at the glutton for punishment who mixed headteaching a south London comprehensive school (respect) with bi-weekly duties flapping around in a giant eagle costume at Crystal Palace home matches (less so).
It was, and is, all about us. The people who place the “mental accas” and buy the mortgages and drink the Coca Cola. If Bright Osayi-Samuel steals the soul of a full back and there’s nobody around to lose their shit over it does he really steal their soul at all? No. No. We were told. We were assured. We were promised.
Then the tide went out, and the snake-oil salesmen who hadn’t dressed appropriately were suddenly exposed. Tiny, tiny penises flicking back and forth in the wind. The extent to which the old ideal of a working class sport, played for - and dependent on - the people who hand over their coin to come through the gates once a week, has decayed was laid bare. The top division, as we were well aware, is lost to us. This has existed purely for the Far East and US, and the corporates, and that cunt on your street who says he “supports” Manchester United/Liverpool/Arsenal for quite some time. Their long-held dream of wall-to-wall, back-to-back, all-week-long televised Premier League a reality at last – do not expect it to revert back when this is over, Norwich v Southampton is your Friday afternoon now. The second tier, as the effect of the ITV Digital collapse on clubs should have told us, has left us behind as well. Our poxy, hard-gotten, easily given away twenty pound note is still vital to the League Two Grimsbys, Newports and Cambridges of this world who voted strong and early to abandon their season rather than play it without us. Carrying player contracts on beyond June 30, paying for all the Covid-19 tests required for this operation, playing matches with all the appearance fees and bonuses that would bring and bringing staff and players out of furlough to put on the games without a few thousand sad sacks trooping through the doors to watch simply wasn’t feasible. Port Vale, one point and one place shy of the play offs with nine games left to play, voted to end the season. It’s the first decent thing to come out of Port Vale since Gareth Ainsworth.
It seems the erosion has reached somewhere in the region of eighth in League One. Below it, football without fans is indeed nothing. Above it, three decades of dependence on ever more disgusting television payments has created a group of addicts for whom holding their hands up to a once in a generation event and either walking away completely or at least waiting until people can come back through the turnstile isn’t an option. That’s the thing about smack, it’s terribly moreish, and the dealer isn’t just going to hand it over for free. Even with this behind closed doors summer bonanza, Sky has clawed back £170m from the Premier League according to the FT, and the international broadcasters want £160m back on top of that. Above that line football without TV money is nothing, the fans are just there for decoration – even the noise we make can be dubbed on afterwards, it turns out.
The whole issue of how and when our sport returns has become riddled with financial self-interest - some of it forgivable, some of it less so. Peterborough have been pounding the pavement, demanding the chance to win a promotion they’ve had multiple failed attempts at before because this year is definitely their year and once achieved they’ll apparently be able to sell Ivan Toney (Northampton, Newcastle, Barnsley, Shrewsbury, Scunthorpe, Wigan) for £20m. Hull, meanwhile, who sold their two best players in January for money that went straight in the chairman’s arse pocket and have since embarked on a 12 match losing run culminating in 4-0 and 5-1 setbacks in their last two games, surprisingly say they’re against returning, because it isn’t safe, and anybody who questions their motives is a horrible cynic happy to see families thrown on the pyre simply because they’re families of rich footballers. The fact five more of their players have now walked out and refused to play, their contracts up this summer, is irrelevant. How dare you make Hull City play out this mess they created for themselves? How dare you?
Those with things still to achieve want to play football while the country falls apart around them, carry on without the crowds and ignore the impracticalities of trying to complete nine rounds of fixtures between 24 separate groups of 100 or so people somehow locked down, isolated and immune from this wicked illness, to get what they want. To hell with the people these footballers live with, care for, interact with – they earn enough, get the fuck on with it. Dance for me monkey. Those with everything to lose, often through their own incompetence and gross mismanagement, happy to virtue signal behind said impracticalities and vote to curtail the threat to their baseline even if it does shaft the odd Tranmere Rovers here and there. Meanwhile, a government that turned rich footballers into their latest dead cat just a few weeks ago is now happy to use them as a shiny thing to distract the public once again from a litany of failures and scandal. Oooh you like football don’t you? Look at this live football over here, ignore that pile of bodies over there.
In the absence of a written rule you felt certain would be there somewhere stipulating what happens if a league season is unable to be completed there is, of course, no easy answer to any of this. Any of it. What exactly are they supposed to do? As Mark Warburton, who’s spoken more sense than just about anybody in the game during this whole crisis, points out, it’s really easy to come up with problems and reasons why we can’t do something. We’ve never done that before, we’ve never done that before, we’ve never done that before. Football is great at it, and to a certain extent I’m just here joining in. We’ve never had a pandemic like this in the modern era before and we’re going to have to do some things we’ve never done before to get our sport up and running on the other side of it.
The idea we should rush to cancel this season in order to protect a 2020/21 campaign that‘s only a second winter peak away from being halted itself makes little sense when set in that context. As funny as it would be to see Leeds denied a promotion, simply abandoning a season 80% of the way through never really rang true. There was talk of “unweighted points per game”, which Leagues One and Two have controversially used to decide their standings and means Wycombe in eighth are now in the play-offs while Peterborough in sixth are not. Then there was “weighted points per game” which in some cases (Coventry 2.265 v Wycombe 1.063) would have seen more points awarded to the two teams involved in a fixture than the three that were actually on offer. Every solution is imperfect in some way and can be attacked. But it is solutions we need.
There were always going to be pros and cons. The final decision was always going to work for some and not others, as part of a long slow, crawl back to whatever normality looks like from here on in. But it’s no great surprise who the solution they have come up with works for, and who it doesn’t. For football, and more pressingly for the man at Sky Sports who writes the cheque and enables clubs to continue paying players 20 times what players of equal ability earned ten years ago for the same output, that crawl starts with the sterilised version of our sport we’re about to be fed this weekend. For us, it starts on our sofa, praying a streaming service that couldn’t cope with 1,000 people using it can cope with twenty times that and allow us to press our snotty noses against the window and have a look inside.
Like so much that’s happened over the past month, it feels ridiculously early to even be considering this. In excess of 50,000 people are dead. The UK is still recording fresh cases in the thousands, and daily deaths in the hundreds, long after the rest of Europe got a handle on its numbers. Locked down but not locked down, track and trace neither tracking nor tracing, queuing for Primark and mass city-centre protests ok but visiting parents and going to the pub not ok, and through this bungled, jumbled, catastrophic, tragic mess all of sudden comes live football. The footballers asked to put their bodies on the line by going from locked down with family to competitive action against other professional athletes in three weeks. My friends in other countries furrow their brows and say “really?” a lot. A wiser man than I said of football’s return that if you took money out of the equation, there wouldn’t be an equation at all.
I’m a pragmatist. I get why you have to finish a season 80% of the way through however you can. I don’t, at the moment, believe you should then start another one until the crowds are back but then what if crowds and audiences aren’t a thing again until there’s a vaccine? Can you just put a whole sport, with 91 professional businesses employing many thousands of people, on hold indefinitely? Probably not.
But forgive me for feeling that this isn’t right, and not getting terribly excited about the prospect of the sport we’ve all dedicated varying amounts of our lives to following now happening in our absence. Let football never again pedal us a season ticket, fizzy drink, hamburger, car tyre, or any of that sweet, sweet Gazprom under the lie that ‘football without fans is nothing’. When the shit got real and it actually came down to it they were faced with a choice on what football can do without: television money, and the chance to either be promoted towards more of it or avoid being relegated away from it; or supporters? And it chose to carry on without us.
Geoff Cameron Facts No.94 in the Series – Geoff was Covid-19 patient zero. He killed it to death with a hydroxychloroquine ray-gun.
Team News: Six games unbeaten and an away win at Preston immediately before lockdown had sparked hopes of a late play off surge from QPR, though that’s rather been tempered by the financial realities of the situation and the affects on our squad. The good news is Jordan Hugill and Luke Amos have extended their loans to cover the summer and Jack Clarke looks likely to do likewise – Hugill using the break to have a much needed operation on a painful groin injury he had been playing through, take note Tomer Hemed. The bad news is experienced first teamers Grant Hall and Marc Pugh were coming to the end of contract, the former doesn’t want to play and jeopardise a future move through injury while the latter automatically triggers a further extension with more appearances, so both have been let go. Add to that Geoff Cameron’s suspension for the red card at Deepdale and the squad looks light on both numbers and experience. Conor Masterson will start with Yoann Barbet at the back. Joe Gubbins rolled his ankle celebrating his potential chance in the first team. The club has given a squad number to Danish striker Marco Ramkilde, presumably to provide back up to Hugill along with Aramide Oteh. Hugill is on nine bookings for the season but the cut off point for a two-game ban for ten yellows was the 37-game mark so he's squeezed under the wire there. Senny Dieng is back from his successful loan at Doncaster, and is attracting interest from Birmingham City, but as yet hasn’t been given a number to potentially push for a long awaited QPR debut ahead of Joe Lumley and Liam Kelly. With the exception of the right back spot, where Todd Kane and Angel Rangel are both fit and available, the team pretty much picks itself this weekend – pending Ebere Eze and Bright Osayi-Samuel’s inevitable positive Covid tests on Saturday morning.
Barnsley have said Mallik Wilks cannot continue to play for their relegation rivals Hull on loan having moved their on a half season deal in January. That doesn’t expire until the end of June though so the winger isn’t available for this one. Bambo Diaby has been suspended for five months after a failed drug test in November but is yet to have his hearing, pending an FA investigation. Barnsley had been hoping to have him back for the nine summer games and CEO Dane Murphy said last weekend: “If I said what I wanted to say about the investigation I'd probably get myself in some trouble, but I think that it's gone on far too long."
Elsewhere: No games for three months and then nine fixtures each in 25 minutes is very Championship indeed, and the barrage begins with 11 fixtures to stuff into your gob on Saturday. All behind closed doors of course, although whether Reading will really notice the difference as they return to action against Stoke is highly debatable.
The most intriguing fixture on the list this weekend is up in Hull where the Allam Tigers are hosting Charlton in a battle between two relegation-haunted crisis clubs who, again, will take to the field infront of a crowd about as big as the one that would have been there anyway. Hull, the self-professed “best run club in the league” took a calculated risk in January of packing up for the summer, declaring on their points total of 41, and selling their two best players, Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki, for big money which went straight into their owner’s arse pocket. They’ve since embarked on a 12 match losing run which culminated in 4-0 and 5-1 defeats in their final two matches before lockdown and now lie fourth bottom, two points ahead of the Addicks who they face on Saturday. To compound matters, no new contract offers for captain Eric Lichaj, vice captain Jackson Irvine and defender Stephen Kingsley has seen all three withdraw their services and depart the club ahead of these nine matches. Peterborough’s Marcus Maddison and Barnsley’s Mallik Wilks, token attempts at replacing Bowen and Grosicki at the end of the transfer window, are also not extending their loans with the club and won’t play either. Frankly if they survive from here it’ll be a sporting miracle but they may yet be saved by the incompetence of others.
Charlton have been through a second takeover of the season during lockdown and also have a clutch of out of contract players, including top scorer and star man Lyle Taylor, downing tools for the nine matches. Manager Lee Bowyer is being heavily linked with the vacant post at Birmingham and is said to be keen on some new pastures for himself. Lutown, meanwhile, are at home to play off chasing Preston Knob End having dispensed with Graeme Jones as manager during the shutdown and allowed their former hero Nathan Jones to crawl back from a disastrous spell at Poke City for a second spell in charge. Barnsley are seven points from safety, Luton six, Charlton two, and joining Hull on 41 hoping they all stay exactly where they are are Wigan Warriors, who were in good form before lockdown and go to the Huddersfield Giants, and Middlesbrough, who weren’t and host Swanselona.
At the other end of the table, the Champions of Europe will really have to go some to blow a seven point lead from here, though it does sound like the sort of thing they would do at this point in a season and whether Marcelo Bielsa’s infamous thrice-a-day training sessions were really the best idea through a three month lockdown remains to be seen. They’re at Cardiff, live on Sky Sports Leeds, on Sunday morning. West Brom also look in good nick, six points clear of third and at home to Birmingham City on Saturday, themselves also changing managers with Pep Clotet heading back to Spain once again with his reputation apparently somehow enhanced, once again apparently with other parties interested in his services, once again having achieved the square root of fuck all. The grifter’s grifter.
Third v fourth are playing each other in the midday televised game on Saturday. Tarquin and Rupert have been testing clapper noises over the public address system to make sure their sprightly young chaps feel at home ahead of the visit of Justice League-leaders Spartak Hounslow. Probably the toughest game Fulham could have possibly had after the long lay-off, apart from perhaps Brentford away.
Fifth placed Nottingham Florist go to Sheffield Owls who have an FFP hearing pending into not only flagrant breaches of the rules, but also some pretty transparent attempts to cover it up by way of ground sales, sponsorship deals, and doctored accounts to make it look like ground sales and sponsorship deals were done way before they actually were. UEFA has announced this week it will be relaxing/scrapping its FFP regulations given the huge financial hit on the sport moving forwards and it’s impossible to see the EFL not doing the same, but Barnsley (rightly) are among a number of clubs banging the drum on the historic breaches being dealt with before the end of this season. Wayne Rooney’s BBQ Pit would only be in trouble if a 12 point penalty were applied (they’re at Miiiiiiiiiilllllllllllll tomorrow by the way) but Wednesday are only nine points clear of the drop zone and have won only one of their last ten league games. Blackburn and Brentford have both stuck five through them in that run. Time for the EFL to strap a pair on?
Bristol City, seventh and with manager Lee Johnson testing Covid-19 positive this week, are at Blackburn in this weekend’s exciting fixture between two teams beginning with B.
Referee: Andy Davies, who was listed for the original fixture back in March, is in the middle for this one. Details.
QPR: Rangers were second only to Leeds in the form table when play was halted in March just after a 3-1 away win at Preston, secured despite going down to ten men just after the hour with the scores level. Those three wins and three draws after a poor January lifted the R’s to thirteenth, six points shy of the play offs and 11 away from the bottom three. Their remaining nine matches include fixtures against the teams lying 24th, 23rd, 22nd, 20th, 19th and 15th. Five of those nine games are away, including awkward there-and-back-on-the-day trips to Wigan and Middlesbrough within three days of one another, but they will be played without crowds and the win at Preston was Rangers’ sixth on the road this season. They haven’t won more than that away from Loftus Road since the 2013/14 promotion season when they managed eight. Mark Warburton’s side lost 4-1 at West Ham in a game of three unequal thirds at the back end of last week, Ilias Chair with the goal, and were then beaten 7-1 at Chelsea last weekend with Conor Masterson scoring.
Barnsley: While QPR were taking sound tonkings in their warm up matches for this one, Barnsley beat high flying Premier League neighbours Sheffield United 2-0. Prior to lockdown they had sprung to life in February with a shock 3-0 win at promotion hopefuls Fulham off the back of a six match losing run. That was quickly followed with two more wins to nil against relegation rivals Middlesbrough and Hull (both 1-0) which had them right back in contention. However in the week before a halt was called they lost 2-0 to both Reading and Cardiff to slip back to the bottom of the table, where they are now seven points adrift with nine games left to play. The struggles at Hull, Luton and Charlton should offer hope, and their fixture list offers a trio of consecutive games against Stoke, Wigan and Luton in a week’s time but they finish with Leeds A, Forest H and Brentford A and will need to improve an away record of three wins, three draws and 12 defeats so far with five of their remaining nine games on the road. Since winning 5-0 at Loftus Road in 1950 they’ve failed to win in 25 attempts on this ground, losing 22 of them including all of the last 11.
Prediction: This year’s Prediction League is sponsored by The Art of Football. Get involved by lodging your prediction here or sample the merch from our sponsor’s QPR collection here. Our reigning champion WokingR returns to action with the following tips…
“Well we're back, sort of. Before everything shut down I had written the following as my prediction for this game…
“We all know what usually happens when we find some form and then come up against the team at bottom of the league. And Barnsley have also found some form themselves with three wins and three losses in their last six. I'm hoping we're a more consistent side now though and can see us pulling off a hard fought 2-1 win. Hugill to get his reward for the hard work in the last few weeks.
“Not sure what sort of form either side will have carried over but sticking with my original 2-1 and Hugill.”
Woking’s Prediction: QPR 2-1 Barnsley. Scorer – Jordan Hugill
LFW’s Prediction: QPR 3-2 Barnsley. Scorer – Ebere Eze
The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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Letters from Wiltshire #12 by wessex_exile
And the matches keep coming thick and fast, with tonight’s trip to league leaders Newport to face – though not, it now transpires, Shrewsbury on Friday night – called off because of rampant Covid-19 amongst The Shrews. As for tonight, if we can keep nicking results against the run of play whilst I’ll certainly be happy, I’ll certainly also be considerably more stressed in the process. Our previous two home matches we probably ought to have looked on as ours to lose and should never have been that difficult. Tonight is different, and if we can grind something out as the underdog against a team who have made a very strong start to the season, I’m sure we’ll all be much happier?
Letters from Wiltshire #11 by wessex_exile
So, what’s happening in the world outside of coronavirus? Well, the world collectively holds it breath waiting for the outcome of the US presidential election, and what may transpire if the result doesn’t go the way of white supremacists, our own government votes itself a handsome pay rise, then votes against free meals for our most impoverished children during half term, and thousands protest in Poland over new laws that ban abortion in almost all circumstances. What the f*ck…
Letters from Wiltshire #09 by wessex_exile
There’s enough doom and gloom about concerning the coronavirus pandemic to last several lifetimes, and let’s face it, 2020 really does suck. I’m pretty sure we’re all in need of some positivity right now, something to set our sights on, a goal if you will. Mine came to me in a blinding flash of inspiration as I prepared my wake-up mug of caffeine this morning – never, in all my years of following Colchester United, have I got even close to watching every single match of a season. I suspect I’m not alone in that, even diehards like noah must miss the occasional one or two each season. Kind of thanks to coronavirus (bizarre huh) and the relaxed approach to match streaming on Saturdays, I’m currently on 8/8, today being the 9th. Why not, I thought, make it all season without missing a game? There’s a lot of ifs, buts and maybes in that, not least if we do emerge from this crisis before the end of the season and the streaming gets canned, but for now I have my goal…
Letters from Wiltshire #08 by wessex_exile
Lots of discussion this week on football forums, including here, on two subjects – the petition to lobby parliament to allow limited numbers of supporters back into football grounds, and of course the return of that old chestnut from Man City Chief Executive Ferran Soriano, introducing Premier League ‘B’ teams into the EFL. First off, I don’t mind admitting I’ve signed the petition ( https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/552036 ), as have 192,779 others at the time of writing, though I don’t actually think it’ll make any difference. I can completely understand why some do not think this is a good idea, as second-wave spikes of coronavirus infection pop up all over the country (mainly because – let’s face it – some people are dicks and can’t be trusted to sit the right way on a toilet). But to me, the two go hand in hand (not dicks and toilets) – whilst football clubs throughout the country struggle financially without spectators, we are always going to be under threat of this sort of ‘B’ team nonsense as a condition of financial support from the Premier League fat cats. They got their way in 2016 with the EFL trophy, who’s to say they won’t again when the financial squeeze really starts to tighten its grip without paying customers through the turnstiles? Robbie has featured prominently in this debate in recent weeks, and looks like he will again on Sky tomorrow if this tweet from Sophy Ridge is anything to go by -
Letters from Wiltshire #07 by wessex_exile
Welcome to Matchday #4 everyone, with the U’s making a reasonably solid start to the league campaign, undefeated, two clean sheets, only one goal conceded and sitting comfortably just outside the play-offs. I’d probably feel more comfortable if we were scoring a few more at the other end, so it’s good to see Chuck getting back into action. The big news that’s grabbing most of the column inches now is of course that President Trump is in hospital with coronavirus. Now there are many out there in the social media world who consider this somewhat poetic irony, given his (mixed) messaging on the subject since the crisis began, and there are more than a few wishing that it ends very badly for Trump. I’m not one of them, but I was reminded this morning of a famous quote “I have never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction”. Often misattributed to Mark Twain, it was Clarence Darrow in his 1932 work The Story of My Life. For those, like me, who consider Inherit the Wind probably the best courtroom drama ever made, Darrow was the lawyer in the real Scopes Monkey Trial.
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