Fans return to live football

During the lockdown period, I had a few guest bloggers produce some articles for me which were pretty well received and it’s always nice when people email you and ask if you would promote their writings, even if their not bloggers themselves.

This one comes from Richard Edwards who is an Essex exile living in Yorkshire  where he juggles allegiances to Colchester United and Bradford City where he now attends regularly. In a distant past life he produced Cool Notes music fanzine in the 1980’s, one of the few at the time to feature football. 

It was a warm evening and I was positively buzzing with anticipation passing through a rough car park in the village of Wrose on the Northern boundary of metropolitan Bradford to arrive at The Mitton Group Stadium, home of Eccleshill United FC (abbreviated to ‘Ecky by many home fans) 

Like many fans I was grateful for the return of live football on our TV screens, but I soon realised that I could not embrace it with any genuine passion. Grounds devoid of fans and matches injected with a fabricated “audio carpet” to simulate the presence of fans represented by cardboard cut outs. It had to be a sci fi nightmare! 

Finding it sterile and hollow my gratitude soon wore thin as I pined for the real thing in any form and you know things are desperate when you start urging your wife to slow down during car journey’s as we passed  a playing field kick about! 

Salvation arrived on the 20th August when the English FA announced  plans to admit a limited number of  fans to lower tier leagues based on a rather complex calculation involving thresholds of ground capacity . Initially this was set at 15% (150) and after a week it rose to 30% (300). This would allow fans to be admitted to the Preliminary Round of the Emirates FA Cup which traditionally starts its marathon journey to the Wembley final in August , an event all too many fans will be oblivious to but which comes with potential financial rewards for competing clubs  

Clubs were reminded that these steps were conditional on all clubs undertaking the FA’s guidance and fans following the Social Distancing measures. All clubs had to complete a risk assessment uploaded to their website and ensure test and trace systems are in place. This is part of a repeated narrative which should be allowed to admit we are all bored with without dismissing its importance.    

Eccleshill United had drawn Silsden another West Yorkshire club close to my home if not quite my heart. This was more than enough to fuel my naive passion for the FA Cup and the prospect of live football. Both teams reside in the Premier League of the Toolstation Northern Counties East League , 8 levels below the pinnacle of the Premier League. I was both grateful and anxious to see a queue, a pre-match queue of any size  gives the match added status , not quite Valley Parade but certainly more than park football. It reminds us that we are not alone in a passion forged in childhood memories. 

Our queue briefly had the unlikely drama of not knowing how near the crowd was to its 300 capacity. Our fears were allayed by a friendly steward who generated non-league banter and gossip on the way in, where we were subjected to test and trace procedures. There were very few masks in evidence and no taped off areas or seats, or bottles of Gel, and thankfully I wasn’t sorry. The attendance looked to be around 150, about 25%  of them Silsden fans. 

‘Ecky started the stronger team in the first half with the Sils under pressure from a confident high paced performance. Luke Aldrich notched their first shot on target within two minutes shortly followed with a close range missed header. 

Silsden fought off this sustained pressure and went 1-0 up just before half time after Matthew Britton connected with a well-timed header from Joe Mitchell’s perfect cross to the far post. 

Silsden were an unstoppable force in the second half scoring two goals within the first six minutes, Britton hurtled down the right wing to deliver perfect pass to allow Anthony Brown to shoot home .Brown then settled the tie two minutes later to make it 3 – 0, a bitter pill for home fans given Brown had previously been an Eccleshill player . A number of them began to drift away, resigned to the £375 runners up award and better hopes for the FA Vase. Silsden will took a hard earned £1,225 from the tie and go on to play Oldham based Bootle in the next preliminary round at home. 

The resumption of live crowds was far more important to me than the score .If COVID has reminded us of anything it’s that we are at our core social animals, personally the spectacle and rituals of going to a match often overshadows the game itself. This match was never going to match the atmosphere at Valley Parade let alone the Premier League, but it was about getting back to those rituals that we might have taken for granted, pies and pints, and the smell of the burger stall, youth team players nearby bragging about how many scouts they’ve attracted and the incessant flow of random bits of  football gossip . The brazen banter and outrageous wind ups from a worldly braggart to your right, the midweek glow of the lights coming off the pitch.

The decision to readmit fans followed the #letfansin  Twitter campaign by supporters and followers of non-league football, at the moment its looking like the right result all round. 

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