It’s Thursday 27th February, an estimated 6,000 Wolves fans have made the journey to Barcelona, some with the intention of watching the second leg of Wolves’ Europa League tie against Espanyol, others merely to soak up the experience and make the most of opportunities that have been non-existent to this generation of fans. I too was enjoying myself, surrounded by family and friends, along with many other Wolves fans in the sun, when someone jokingly suggested that we shouldn’t have made the trip with the outbreak of the Coronavirus taking place across Europe after the first case was confirmed in mainland Spain just days before. It was clear the virus was cause for concern, but as we laughed off his suggestion, not one of us could have foreseen the events of the following few weeks. Particularly as the next day many were discussing the possibility of venturing to Athens to see the first leg of the Round of 16 against Olympiacos in just 2 weeks’ time.
Little did we know, this game would be behind closed doors, we would have played our last Premier League game for 3 months and the UK would be faced with a serious epidemic which would temporarily change the way we live our lives.
Our last Premier League game, a 0-0 draw at home to Brighton on March 7th was one of frustration as Wolves lost ground in the race for Champions League football. It was not the greatest game we’ve seen at Molineux this season, far from it. However, had we known what the next weeks and months would have in store, I imagine all 30,000 in the stadium that day would have appreciated it much more. It was to be the last time we would stand together at Molineux for some time. Just days later,
Wolves unwillingly travelled to play Olympiacos in the Europa League, a game that, by order of the Greek authorities, was to be played behind closed doors. Some Wolves fans decided to fly over to Athens and soak up what atmosphere they could, while the majority were glued to the TV screens in pubs and homes across Wolverhampton. However, there was something not quite right about it. This was arguably the biggest game Wolves have played in their modern history, and many fans were just not at all bothered. I too was sat there not all that engaged in the match. During this game, a statement was released by the Premier League stating that the coming weekend games would go ahead as planned. This was met by surprise with many major sporting events across Europe now scheduled to be behind closed doors or suspended. However, shortly after the dull 1-1 draw in Athens, I was looking at the tame reaction on social media when it emerged that Arsenal Head Coach Mikel Arteta had tested positive for Coronavirus. Thankfully he made a speedy and full recovery.
However, there is a much broader significance to Arteta’s diagnosis. It may have gone some way to saving many lives, as it prompted the immediate suspension of professional football in the UK. Had he not received the positive test in time, thousands would have flocked to stadiums across the country when the virus was clearly more prominent in the UK than the decision-makers had imagined.
Football ground to a halt
For the following two months, football was not in any way important as the UK battled with the virus. But as the situation began to ease, Secretary of State for Sport Oliver Dowden revealed talks had begun over ‘Project Restart’, a plan to get professional football up and running again in England. This was aided by the impressive resumption of the Bundesliga on May 16th. Never had fans in England been so invested in German football. It was the talk of the country among football fans as the first major league resumed. All eyes were watching as the Germans made a very successful return, all be it in empty stadiums.
Watching the Bundesliga I became increasingly impressed with the entertainment the games provided, and the different measures clubs and broadcasters had taken to improve the viewing from home. This meant that pressure began to grow on the Premier League to press ahead with their plans to resume, and the unpopular plans to host games at neutral venues was scrapped. Fans had that buzz back, fans were hungry, the nation wanted its game back. And finally, we got a date, on June 17th the Premier League would resume behind closed doors with various strict safety measures in place.
Football behind closed doors
The very thought of football behind closed doors is enough to make any die-hard football fan lose sleep. Having not missed a competitive game in this country for almost 4 years and knowing many others who have similar or better records, the concept of watching Wolves on the TV was almost unimaginable. And the ghostly nature of the games witnessed in the Champions League and Europa League prior to the suspension of football left a lot to be desired. It brings back the recurring old saying of ‘Football without fans is nothing’, and that could not be truer.
Molineux is one of the very few stadiums left in the top flight that maintains its impressive atmosphere, ‘old school support’ it is sometimes referred to. Having visited all the grounds in the top 2 tiers in England, I cannot stress how lucky we are to have Molineux, and I hope we never lose it and its character. On the occasion football did cross my mind during the lockdown, the memory of the dreadful Olympiacos experience remained fresh in the mind, I struggled to get excited and so did many others.
However, in these strange times, people have had to improvise and open up their minds and that is exactly what the core group of fans of each club has had to do. After the experience of the previous months, I began to warm to the thought of the prospect of having football on TV, of getting behind our team again.
My anticipation was increased having followed the Bundesliga for a number of weeks, this was becoming a concept I could most definitely get behind. And so last week the league resumed Villa Park the destination for the re-start. I had felt like a child on Christmas Eve throughout the day at the mere thought of the Premier League being back on the TV.
However, as exciting as the prospect may have been, the cameras panned around Villa Park as the teams emerged from the tunnel and a sense of sadness came upon me. Whatever people’s opinions may be on Aston Villa Football Club, one thing that cannot be denied is that they, like us, have retained a very impressive and traditional football stadium which on its day can produce a superb atmosphere. And there it was, empty, seats covered in club banners and fans flags hanging from the upper tier of stands. It is not a nice look. But shortly after kick-off, with the help of the artificial crowd noise, the game takes precedent and you try to forget about the lack of supporters and appreciate the fact we have football on our screens.
Our victory at West Ham was impressive, the players dealt with the occasion and circumstances very well. And as I gauged opinion on social media, every comment was focused on the game and the performance of the team, the negative points on the resumption of football behind closed doors seemed to have disappeared. Wolves were playing, Wolves were winning, and that’s all that really matters to us.
On Wednesday, Wolves return to Molineux for the first time since that 0-0 draw with Brighton in March. Molineux will be empty, we will all be sat at home, perhaps accompanied by a limited number of friends or family in our gardens, but this will be far from our normal matchday routine with our normal matchday friends. And as the cameras show Molineux for the first time, I’m sure a sense of sadness will fill us all, there is no hiding it, it will be horrible to see a game at Molineux in such circumstances. But, as kick-off commences our minds will once again be glued to the TV, watching our lads perform to the levels we know they can, and if they do, they will undoubtedly bring a good result against a struggling Bournemouth side. We will all have mixed emotions, but one common goal. And that is why football without fans is nothing, but football to fans is everything.