July 1, 2020

Don’t underestimate the importance of football. It’s about so much more than what happens on the pitch.

It’s about camaraderie. Being part of a group of people, sometimes thousands large, all holding their breath at the same moment. It’s about dancing as you walk down the street all celebrating after you’ve just thumped your local rivals in a relegation six-pointer. It’s about community and singing the names of players in chants that existed before you were even born. For the fan, it’s all about being part of something bigger than yourself.

For all these reasons, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that there was a lot of interest in Premier League football returning over the past week. Across Twitter, we’ve seen people celebrating using #FOOTBALLISBACK.

Predictably, a lot of the discussion was about actual games. After all, it is the games that are returning. It’s not as if football culture is even approaching being back to normal, not least because they are still playing all games behind closed doors. The thing that has changed in the last week is that the games are on. We can once again debate the performances of David de Gea and David Luiz, or despair about technology again after Villa and Sheffield United.

More intriguing, though, were the other things that turned up in the discussion. We think about football as a ‘results business’, but some fans said they didn’t mind seeing their team losing, they were just so happy to have them back on the pitch!!! A large number of tweets focused not on the Premier League but on the grassroots, and how good it was for people to get the chance to play again, rather than watch. Some spoke about how great it was to see players getting back together with the lads; to enjoy being part of a team again.

There were also references to other rituals that surround the game. In some cases, these were references to activities like betting – not so much the process of gambling most often but of sharing how you’d bet with your friends. For others, the focus was on the broadcast of games – being able to once again hear familiar phrases from well-known commentators, like Martin Tyler’s ‘And it’s live!’ Meaningless, of course, to the uninitiated, but fully evocative to those who made a point of regularly watching the Premier League on TV.

Most intriguing of all, however, were the references to the rituals that aren’t even back yet. People greeted the return of Premier League football with tweets about what they would usually do on a matchday. There are tweets about meeting up with mates for a pre-match beer and walking to the ground together, in common cause. The importance of the pub chat, and the fellowship of the entire matchday experience, comes through the more you look for it. Amongst those who regularly attend games, these things seem to have been missed as much as the game itself.

Of course, though football is back, not all of these rituals have been restored. When Chelsea beat Manchester City to send the title to Liverpool, they did so in an empty stadium – and that will continue to be the reality for the near future. Nevertheless, getting the game back on was for many a crucial first step, a return to something approaching normality, and if nothing else a sign that those quietly meaningful interactions will one day be restored.