As we pass the one year anniversary of the last time fans were allowed in stadiums, Glenn Entwistle talks about how and why he is feeling fatigued from football and how as fans we can all do more for each other during this tough times.
I never thought I would ever say this, but I think I am becoming bored with football. Maybe bored is a strong word, but definitely fatigued.
As we enter in to the 13th month of being away from stadiums, and the 8th month of watching football on laptops, the novelty of just having football back has definitely worn off. I remember between March and June last year when we were deprived of pretty much all live sport due to the pandemic, and I had to get my fix watching Darren Gough and Mel C cycling virtually around a volcano – we’ve come along way from those dark days and I for one don’t want to go back. However, I feel like we are at a point now where we have watched as much football as we can from a distance, and damage is already starting to be done in terms of people walking away from both attending games and just from football in general.
The pandemic, lockdown and attendance restrictions have had a massive impact on this, but I don’t think that tells the full story. Over the last 10-15 years I think people have slowly been turning their backs on football and losing interest, and the pandemic has just compounded that, in addition to other changes within the game which have only added to problem.
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I, like most football fans, could not wait for the football to return last June, and given were Rovers were in the league, it wasn’t beyond imagination to see us having a real go at making the top six, especially as the playing field had been levelled somewhat with the outbreaks of the virus. We might not have been able to attend in person but fans did their bit to show their support by buying the cardboard cut-outs and now we have Doctor Who, Elvis and a ginger Tomcat watching from the Jack Walker Stand (probably much to the relief of some of our wide players). The 3-1 win against Bristol City did nothing to temper these expectations and it looked to be an exciting finish to the season. As it turned out, it wasn’t to be and Rovers finished with just three wins in the last 9 games, ending up in 11th place. Oh well, it was a long shot anyway but there was talk of crowds returning and the country getting back to normal by the end of 2020 and we might finally be able to get back in to the stadiums.Embed from Getty Images
I bought my season ticket for the 2020-21 season fully aware that I might not see any live football, but hopeful that maybe by Christmas, with the return of Bradley Dack on the horizon, we would return and be able to get behind the team in person rather than on social media. Given the start Rovers had to the season part of me could not wait, but part of me also thought that maybe one of the reasons we were flourishing was because there were no fans in the stadium and players who had previously somewhat wilted in front of an audience where blossoming and having a real impact.
As we enter in to the final games of the season, I think the lack of fans is now having the opposite effect. The hopes of play-offs and promotion disappeared during the horrendous February run and, at the time, without any real relegation worries, the season was petering out, and players where going through the motions – none more so than in the games against Coventry, Bristol City and Wycombe (two of which at Ewood).
Whilst some players have benefited earlier on from the lack of crowds, others are now suffering as there is no encouragement or passion from the stands to get the players going – something compounded by the fact we are distinctly short of leaders on the pitch. It is no surprise to see that when we go a goal down, there is very little reaction. The possession-based style of play doesn’t help with this as it means we are never going to kick off and go hell-for-leather. I also don’t buy in to the opinion that Mowbray doesn’t care as he just sits there and does nothing (a Manager’s job is largely done during the week on the training ground, bouncing around like a Klopp-shaped buffoon isn’t really going to help anyone and it isn’t very dignified). What I do think we are missing is the will/want-to-win of a Bradley Dack or a Danny Graham, getting the players going when we do concede, showing there is a still a fight to be had to get something from a game. The lack of supporters in stadiums only adds to this – how often in years gone by have Rovers gone a goal down and the crowd has really reacted? Without crowds it is just flat now.
I’d probably have a different opinion if we were pushing for promotion or top six, but my argument would be the same, still borne out of frustration that there are no fans there.
Obviously fans not being in stadiums is for health and medical reasons and I totally understand that, and I’m not saying we should be ignoring advice – which is why I believe there are other factors at play in this “football fatigue”.
As recently as five to ten years ago, I would have looked at what football, usually not in the same division as Rovers, was on the TV, and genuinely get excited about which games I was going to watch. Now, there is a game on almost every hour of every day – as I write this, Super Sunday consists of Southampton v Burnley, Newcastle v Spurs, Villa v Fulham and Man Utd v Brighton – I have absolutely zero interest in watching these games. Yes, this is partly due to the Champions League returning mid-week, but every game is now seemingly on TV, and it’s just too much football, I’m becoming numb to it.
I’m by no means a football traditionalist and see the benefits TV money has brought to the game, but I miss the days of the majority of football being played at 3pm on a Saturday. I look at putting my Saturday accumulator together now and it stretches from midday to almost midnight. Football has become all encompassing 24/7 and all-consuming – and if there is a slot where there isn’t a game on, there are hundreds of podcasts you can listen to (the Rovers Chat offerings being the best of these, of course) and millions of tweets about the games and the players. If you want to switch off from football, you literally have to get away from a TV, a radio and a mobile phone these days.
I enjoy watching most sports and admit the return of the NFL in September last year was a welcome change and also, as a fan many thousands of miles away, didn’t feel any different to a normal season (apart from the jaunt down to Wembley or Spurs for the International Series). The games where still on at the same time, the rules were pretty much the same, and the league was as competitive as ever. Sticking on the theme of nothing changing, my Green Bay Packers team came within a fourth down of the Super Bowl and made the wrong decision. Hello normality.
It was the same last week when the Formula One returned – yes, it is likely that Hamilton and Mercedes will dominate once again, but every year there are different angles and aspects to get excited about. New drivers come through, teams over perform, and you have some races where due to weather, technical faults or race incidents, it is genuinely exciting from the first lap to the last. And it all takes place at the same time it always has following much the same rules as previous seasons. It has it’s place, it knows what that place is, and it sticks to it.Embed from Getty Images
Which brings me to VAR – the first or final nail in the coffin depending which way you look at it. Firstly, I have never been a fan of VAR and did not want it introduced – my view was that if you can’t play to the same rules on a Sunday morning at Pleasington as at 3pm (or whatever time) at a Premier League ground, it isn’t for the good of the game. For what it’s worth I had the same view with goal line technology (although that has been tempered somewhat). Many pundits thought it would remove the talking points from football matches and we’d have no content for football phone-ins and pre and post match streams, but the opposite has happened.
Instead of talking about the quality of football we watch or the skill of the players, we now talk about decisions and referees, and why because we drew seven lines on a pitch a player is 10mm offside because he didn’t shave his legs or cut his toe nails that morning (yet the point the footage is frozen never even concerns itself with the split second frame of when the ball is released). The lack of consistency is also frustrating – if you’re watching, for example, Aston Villa v Fulham and there’s a suspected penalty, the review is completed within 30 seconds, yet if it was Man City v Liverpool, that same decision review could take three or four minutes despite it being exactly the same incident – so are all games actually being refereed equally even with VAR?
All that said, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place in football for VAR but it has to be for the benefit of the game, something it definitely isn’t at the moment. It should be used for clear and obvious errors, not minute details – if it takes longer than 30 seconds to review and takes multiple camera angles and slow motion replays, it evidently isn’t a clear and obvious error.
VAR is one, if not the only, reason I’m content in the Championship away from the grubby paws of Stockley Park. I can only begin to the imagine the frustration and feeling of desolation if we scored a 93rd minute winner or equaliser, only for it to be chalked off after five minutes of replays during which we the crowd had no idea what was going on. As for the players, how do you then pick yourself up and go again? It has been shown statistically that when a team has a goal disallowed, the opposition is more like to score next – the whole momentum of a game changes with a decision based on numerous replays concerning millimetres. As a fan, you can no longer celebrate a goal in real-time, or a penalty save – the passion is disappearing from the game.
The other unrepentant overlord of football has become money and the importance of it. In the 80s and 90s, there was much more of a level playing field with teams coming from nowhere to really challenge for trophies, and similarly succumb to relegation. Those days are long gone and the Premier League can only realistically be won by one of four or five teams, relegation will likely only be a threat for five or six teams, and those in the middle fight it out for one Europa League place. Even the cup competitions, regardless of the lack of respect shown by some of the big clubs, are usually won by one of the top four or five teams. It’s no wonder the so-called “Greedy Six” (of Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs) want to get rid of replays or of competitions altogether (in the case of the League Cup) in favour of more Champions League games, that’s where the money is, but this constant progression to see football as a business rather than a sport for entertainment is destroying the game further down the pyramid.
Look at the Championship this season, at the minute, three of the top six positions are taken up by teams with parachute payments (Norwich, Watford and Swansea), with two more on the brink of the play-offs (Bournemouth and Cardiff). At the beginning of this season no less than seven clubs where in receipt of parachute payments – that’s just less than a third of all the clubs in the division with a significant financial advantage. If those clubs manage themselves correctly and don’t make any disastrous footballing decisions, they should by all rights be aiming for the top 6 as a minimum. For a club to break that influence of parachute payments, they have to have phenomenal momentum following promotion from League One and a radical system like Sheffield United; overspend their budget and financial restrictions and gamble on getting promotion like an Aston Villa or a Bournemouth; have a different way of doing things off the pitch to build a model which makes you competitive on the pitch relatively out of nowhere like Barnsley; or just be ridiculously efficient, or lucky, in front of goal and with injuries, like Reading this season. If you don’t fall in to one of these boxes, a season of mid-table Championship football awaits, with the potential excitement of a relegation battle.
At times this season Rovers have toyed with being the ‘Barnsley’ – changing style of play and getting more out of players such as Armstrong than anyone expected, but this turned out to be unsustainable and as soon as other teams sussed this out, we become easy to play against. Injuries haven’t helped either, but this just goes to show how hard it is to break in to the top 6, whilst operating as sustainable as possible. As depressing as it sounds, we all set off in August/September with the hope of promotion, but in reality, mid-table is probably a fair reflection of where we should be based on our resources and recruitment compared to other clubs in the division.
If we look ahead to next season, three of Sheffield United, West Brom, Fulham, Newcastle and Brighton are likely to be joining us so the league is going to be more competitive than ever, especially in light of COVID-19 where existing Championship clubs have even less money than usual, meaning the gap between them and the clubs with parachute payments is even greater. If a team did want to bet the house on promotion and throw as much money as possible at it, giving disregard for FFP, it would have to be a substantial amount of money to bridge this gap.
So, with all this going through my head on Saturday as we arrived at the Wycombe game I made the decision not to watch the game and to generally be ignorant of the fact it was taking place. If things where back to normal and we were in stadia I more than likely wouldn’t have gone to the game, and I definitely wouldn’t have paid to watch it on a laptop, so why should it be any different purely because we are in lockdown? Does this make me less of a supporter? You could argue either way.Embed from Getty Images
However, now more than ever as a result of the pandemic and its impacts upon all of us, we need to be mindful of our mental health and the mental health of those around us, and sometimes it is important for us to just do our own thing. During lockdown I’ve got in to long walks on a Saturday exploring the beautiful countryside on my doorstep in Lancashire – in the early days of lockdown I’d have co-ordinated this to coincide with arriving home to watch the game on my laptop, usually putting my stress levels back to where they were before the walk either because of the result or the iFollow technical difficulties. What has helped me personally during the lockdown has been the chats with the contributors for Rovers Chat and taking part or watching the post-match streams – after a frustrating loss or draw I’ll often come away from the streams much more content with the world and looking forward to the next game.
As a fan-base, we need to do better. We all have different opinions and a lot of the time there is no right or wrong answer, and that is fine, but we all need to be respectful of other people’s opinions – every once in a while you might learn something new or see a new perspective. The sacking of a manager is always (unless the manager is Steve Kean or Owen Coyle) going to divide opinion, much the same way team selection does every week – it isn’t acceptable to abuse people or belittle them purely because their opinion is different. It also isn’t okay to blame certain sections of fans who have supported a manager during a poor run of results, for the position we may find ourselves in.
At the end of the day we all want the same thing – for Blackburn Rovers to play good football and get back to the Premier League, not one single Rovers fan should want anything different. Whether that comes under Tony Mowbray or whoever the next man up is, I don’t care – personally I would like to see nothing more than for Tony Mowbray to be the man to do it. At the minute, this doesn’t look likely but lets not forget what this man has done for the club to date, where we were and where we were heading when he took over in February 2017 – things might not be going to plan at the minute but this man deserves respect, praise and thanks however his tenure comes to an end.
So, back to the football fatigue – I think I just want this season done with now so we can get back to more of a sense of normality next season. So we can get back to attending games, and when there aren’t games to attend, not being overwhelmed with football every day/night of the week on the TV. Deep down I know I still love football, maybe I just need a flat pint of Fosters and a meat and potato pie burning my mouth on the Blackburn End concourse to reignite that love.
For anyone who is struggling during this pandemic or just generally wants to talk football to take their mind off things, all of us at Rovers Chat are more than happy to talk so please do get in touch with us via Twitter, and do join us for all of our content on match days and in general, I’m biased but the content really is fantastic.