This isn’t a game.

This piece was published in the matchday programme for the game against Wycombe Wanderers on 24 October 2020. The Norwich City programme is really great and it is worth subscribing imho. You can do that here.

When Jordan Hughill stuttered, then slotted home last week, the cheers of fans at home will have echoed around living rooms and kitchens. The cheers of the players and the staff echoed around the empty stadium. One thing — one crucial thing — was missing: the away fans going potty in the corner of the Mears Stand.

Football without fans isn’t the same. Not for the players, not for the supporters, but also not for the clubs themselves. That’s not the soppy sentiment of someone desperate to be able to go to a game again, although so many of us are desperate to do so. The absence of fans is an actual threat to the very survival of many clubs, and to the game as we know it in this country.

We all know the sums involved: a looming £250million black hole, with dozens of clubs teetering on the edge of administration if something doesn’t change. We’ve already seen Bury, Macclesfield and Wigan, among others, struggle against the headwinds of poor ownership and financial inequality across the game. The impact of the Covid pandemic is bringing a long-brewing crisis to the boil.

This isn’t just a question of which teams survive in each league and which disappear into the history books. A report out earlier this week from the HOPE not hate Charitable Trust underlined the extent to which football clubs are, well, more than just a club. The report digs deeper to look at what happens to community togetherness when a club goes under. Football clubs in towns play an especially important role in giving people a sense of community identity. Every club is a focal point of purpose and belonging in a rapidly changing modern world that has left many people in many communities feeling at sea. The storied “sense of history” that is talked about with our clubs isn’t just talk — it is the stories of our lives, bound up with our own childhoods, family members, and close friends.

The team at HOPE not hate (where, I should add, I work) conducted a poll of people across Britain. It had some interesting results. A majority (64%) of people, whether they are football fans or not, think that football clubs have an important place in British culture and identity. More than half of the public said that the local economy of a place would suffer if the local club went bust, while 55% said the entire local community would suffer too.

The escalating crisis facing football — even though it doesn’t directly affect Norwich City — is an issue for all of us. And it goes to the heart of what the game is for. Is our sport there for the entertainment of millions across the world watching the elite teams of the elite league on TV, or is it there for all of us, to bring joy (and misery) to local communities, and a source of pride in place? Football has been able to straddle the two competing demands of the modern game for a generation, but some tough choices are approaching.

One option is to let “little” clubs go to the wall. That’s what happened to Bury, as the rest of the game stood by (at best). Another choice is to make some changes. The national game — and the government — could change rules and provide support for struggling privately owned clubs transition into community owned assets, for example. Money will be key — as it is for so many businesses, charities, and public services — to getting through this crisis, but football clubs should be treated as cultural institutions whose survival is key part of protecting our communities through this pandemic.

Of course, clubs themselves have much more to do to represent everyone in their communities. The HOPE not hate polling found that whilst 69% of men felt that football was inclusive, only 46% of women did. The stands in grounds up and down the country often don’t look like the communities they’re based in — something that goes for Carrow Road too. Financial support for clubs should be tied to more serious action being taken to address these issues.

The debate over “Project Big Picture” is one primarily about moving money around within the existing system, but while shifting some deck chairs now can get us through the immediate crisis, it doesn’t resolve the bigger problem staring the game in the face. Football, as it stands, isn’t being run for the good of the fans, or the good of the communities those fans come from. It is being run for the good of a lucky few at the very top, leaving the unlucky and the unloved to scramble for survival year-in-year-out. Until that changes, nothing fundamental will change.



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