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Football and Hearts During Covid-19

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It’ll soon be over a year since most of us were allowed inside Tynecastle, or indeed any stadium, for a football match.

A frustrating 1-1 draw against Motherwell was my last time, at which, in a way that typified Hearts calamitous 2019/20 season, the team performed below expectations. It was a game in which we failed to take advantage of what had seemed beforehand to be significant momentum gained from wins over Rangers and Hibs. A failure that would ultimately contribute to condemning the club to demotion, over tele-conference, a few months later.

Thinking about it, this is possibly the longest period in my life that I haven’t been to a football match, certainly since I first started going in the late 1980s. I miss it terribly, and I’m sure many of you reading this feel the same. Everything from that wonderfully pungent aroma that stimulates the nostrils as it seeps out of the NB distillery, to the less than nutritious lunch and pint before the game, to the quality time spent with my dad, with whom I still attend the matches over 30 years after we first started going.

COVID-19 has served to distance many of our social interactions, with engagement occurring in an almost dystopian way via the means of various electronic devices. I haven’t read George Orwell’s iconic 1984 for some time, but the atmosphere and fear, oppression and displacement that I recall seems eerily familiar to the life we are all currently living, albeit Boris Johnson is a somewhat buffoonish Big Brother.

Football has been impacted in the same way. As the legendary former Scotland Manager Jock Stein was once quoted:

Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing.”

For many Scottish clubs that is a stark reality, without the golden goose that is the multi-billion pound TV deal that bloats the English game into paying obscene wages and transfer fees and also lessens significantly – at the top end anyway – the reliance on fans buying tickets to attend matches.

By contrast, match day income is a huge part of our clubs’ revenue in Scotland and without it their financial well-being is compromised. They are, therefore, left to rely on streaming revenue, which is somewhat nobbled by the widespread availability of pirated access to view these games, and the willingness of fans to utilise this, in the spiteful and often petty way that Scottish football fans behave, to get one over on the opposition.

To be perfectly honest, I struggle to feel engaged with the games whilst watching them over streams in empty stadiums. The home environment probably doesn’t help, especially if you have kids and the multitude of distractions that they provide. I’ve missed quite a few goals this season, having gone to fetch something from a cupboard, open a snack packet, change a nappy or wipe a bottom. All the kinds of domestic expectations that a trip to the football provides blessed relief from, but from which no such break is afforded as you watch from home. Rather than jumping up to celebrate goals, there’s been quite a few times where the ball has hit the net and it’s barely registered on any emotional level. It just feels utterly banal, perfunctory and as empty as the very stands it is being played in front of.

It must also be very difficult for the players to feel invested and engaged with the club: what really differentiates one stadium from another, if there are no fans to generate atmosphere? We sometimes lose perspective as fans that the players are not robots or otherwise unemotional automatons. There are several in the current squad who have never played in front of the Hearts fans, which, admittedly, can be a blessing as much as it is a curse. There have been numerous examples of players through the years who have excelled at smaller clubs, but have somewhat wilted in a maroon jersey. 

Opinions are part of life and, in the social media age, everyone has a platform on which they may air their own. Football is a passionate sport and the performance of players is subject to both adulation and vilification. However, I find it difficult to judge the performance of players from TV footage.

A perfect example from this season’s squad, who may have suffered from the skewed perspective of being unable to watch games in the stadiums, is Andy Halliday. Andy, in his post match interview after the recent away game versus Ayr United, openly admitted that he is missing playing in front of fans. He is a passionate player and one of the criticisms levelled at him is that he has seemed dispassionate, the inference being that he’s indifferent due to no longer playing for his professed boyhood team Rangers.

I think he’s the type of player who would really vibe off the Tynecastle crowd and being denied that is affecting him. I also think he does a lot of his best work off the ball, screening the full backs, and that is difficult to see from the limited camera angles we’ve often had in the coverage this season. He’s also had what I feel is unwarranted criticism for his participation in the excellent Open Goal podcast. Given the normal pursuits of footballers in their free time are currently curtailed, like the rest of us by lockdown, it’s probably as constructive a way to spend his time as any.

Conversely, some players may have benefited from the lack of crowd, notably Craig Wighton, who this season has played as if there is a weight off his shoulders. It cannot possibly be easy to excel in any job when your working environment involves people periodically screaming at you that you are “f***** rubbish”. Wighton, who came across previously as a bit of a quiet guy, always looked a bit intimidated in his appearances in previous seasons, but has been an effective performer in this one, albeit at a lower level.

With the pandemic still likely to be with us for a while yet, it’s probably unlikely that there will be fans in stadiums before the end of this season. That brings the prospect that some of the players we have signed on short-term contracts may never play a game for the club in front of the fans. Whilst I can’t say that I’m crestfallen that I might not get to see Elliott Frear play, there is a certain sadness that they will not get to experience the atmosphere of a full Tynecastle.

I haven’t, in my time following the club, been a prolific attender of away games. The one exception to that was probably the last Championship season of 2014/15 – with so many local teams in the division, allied to the novelty of some of the away grounds (I’ll certainly never forget Cowdenbeath in December), my dad and I went to quite a few.

These included the glorious sunny day in Kirkcaldy, when the combination of James Keatings’ hat-trick and a visiting German beer festival made for a very festive away support. Part of the charm of when your team gets relegated is the ability to visit these towns that you would otherwise have no reason to go to. I wrote on my personal blog at the time of a great experience had in Montrose; to be denied the chance to enjoy the delights of Arbroath, Alloa and Dumfries is frustrating.

It is what it is, and there is certainly still a lot of heated debate and passionate opinion on social media regarding the fortunes of the club; but I really can’t wait for this pandemic to be over, so that we can all get back to our home away from home and feel that real sense of connection and community once more.

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