More than a club

This piece was published in the matchday programme for the game against Barnsley on 2 January 2021. The Norwich City programme is really great and it is worth subscribing imho. You can do that here.

We have finally made it out of the year 2020. Staggering and dazed, confused about what the hell just happened. It’s been a tough year — at best — for all of us. But as it often does, the football our team plays, and the kind of club we are, has given us hope, this year, and for the future.

Thinking back to March, we really had no idea what was coming. Covid-19 was still, for most of us, a news story, not something that was happening to us. I looked back at my programme column for the Southampton game — our first to be cancelled because of the crisis. Even then, I hadn’t bothered to mention the possibility of looming chaos.

For most of us, the last proper Norwich game was in March, Nine thousand City fans were at White Hart Lane for the magic of an FA Cup win against Spurs. We celebrated together as Krul came running down the field towards after his winning save. The idea of being in close proximity to tens of thousands of other people fills me with anxiety now, just as the memory of that night fills me with joy.

Norwich City were struggling when the Premier League was paused, but we had played good football for most of the season. It often felt like the league table was lying, exaggerating our struggles. Lockdown was hard for us all. More work for many, no work for others. Stress, loneliness, worry. Not having games to look forward was hardly the worst thing in the world, but added to the unpleasantness as days and weeks ticked by. But we still had hope that when things got back to normal, we had a shot at a great escape from relegation.

It feels naive looking back now to think that we could have survived once the season restarted, but we all felt at least some hope that it could happen. Then week after week, misery was heaped on misery. We weren’t beaten, we surrendered. The Southampton game set the scene. Losing four-nil to Arsenal and West Ham didn’t seem out of the ordinary, we’d become numb to it.

In this gloomiest period of the year, we showed who were off the field rather than on it. The players spent some of their spare time calling elderly fans and those shielding. Simple acts of kindness went further this year. Tim Krul spoke to one 94-year old City fan who told him she was lonely and hadn’t been able to shop. He told Radio Norfolk, “I was able to get some stuff to her, but it shows we need to, as a community, get together because there’ll be some people without the privilege of family to help them.” When the club launched the new kit, it decided to feature the key workers who have been on the front line against the virus. Fan group Along Come Norwich brought out a series of beatific face masks, raising thousands for local charities in the process.

“More than a club” is a phrase most fans know. Norwich City and its fans aren’t unique in how we have reacted to Covid-19. But the year was a stark reminder that we are more than a club because of what we have in common, and what we need from each other. This city, this county, this club is for all of us — to take from when we have need and to give to when we can do so.

As 2021 gets underway, things are tougher than we hoped for twelve months ago, but we still do have hope. A vaccine has already been given to hundreds of thousands of people, including here in the fine city at the NNUH. On the pitch things are looking up. After a wobbly start, we were sitting comfortably on top of the table, and we were there after a long period of injuries and a so-so performances that seems to suggest we have another gear to click into. Watching Norwich play over the last three months has again become something to look forward to, not endure. Saturday (and Tuesday) are moments of joy in between the slog through the lockdowns.

Ultimately football isn’t a matter of life and death, but it still matters. We’ve lost Norwich fans this year and their families will be grieving. Norwich fans working in the NHS are exhausted. Key workers who wear yellow and green off duty are putting themselves in the front line doing tough jobs for us. Although the vaccine puts the end in sight, it is still off in the distance. Football binds us all together, especially when we are winning. So as we start the new year, we should take a moment to say thank you to those Norwich fans who are keeping us as safe as possible, and to the Norwich players who are giving their all, and giving us hope of a brighter future come the Spring.