Light at the End of the Tunnel (for some)

It's been 24 weeks and counting since County’s last league game and the drought continues. Covid-19 has devastated the game as we know it and many clubs are under increased financial pressure just to survive into next season. In terms of the game itself, we have made progress since the game collapsed in mid-March amid a wave of positive cases. The National League play offs were completed, FA Cup dates and play off dates for the upcoming season have been pencilled in and we have a proposed start date of 3rd October. Closer to home, we have had three pre-season games streamed on YouTube and the club have certainly not let something like a pandemic get in the way of progress at EP, but more of that in my season preview article next month.

No matter how you look at it though we have collectively been starved of real football for too long, the bittersweet ‘3rd October’ carrot dangled in front of us has prolonged the famine and it led to some odd outbursts of contempt directed towards the National League and the FA, as County will be watching the rest of the country, even those in divisions below, kick-off in September, whereas we’ll be kicking our heels for a month after. Our own esteemed gaffer was one of the louder voices of discontent and it’s difficult to agree with him on this occasion when you look at statements made by the authorities; the FA had already decided football at our level wouldn’t start without fans and as we’re considered ‘elite’ the government announced fans could return from 3rd October at the earliest. Those higher up the football food chain will start in a few weeks time without fans, but in most cases, they are considered to have a more robust financial outlook than clubs in division five. 


However, when we do return we’ll be subjected to a version of football that none of us has ever experienced. Be prepared to answer health questions, have your temperature checked and to have to wash and sanitise your hands. There is also the possibility of staggered entry and exit times and limited, if any, food and drink available. Then there is social distancing, we’re well used to it in our everyday lives by now, but the atmosphere will be greatly affected without a full capacity at County’s disposal. We’ll have a situation where alternate rows and probably alternate seats are in use, plus there will be limits on standing and singing. 

It would have been nice to discuss all of the above without resorting to speculation but as far as I know, County didn’t publish the required risk assessment before the 15th August deadline, so speculate I must (there have been more than a couple of rumours that this had something to do with the decision to move the Fleetwood Town game). These factors could put some fans off altogether, not wanting to embrace this dystopian version of the game we love, but it’s arguable these will be in the minority. A tiny minority. 




County have whetted our collective appetites by streaming the friendlies played thus far, even if the game at Carrington had the air of the Marcelo Bielsa ‘spygate’ about it, but we are all grateful just to have a little bit of County back in our lives after so long, however, it has now given football a ‘so near, yet so far’ feel, where we have actually started pre-season but we can’t be there to enjoy it, like they have started the party without us, literally. One can’t be blamed for having withdrawal symptoms, we’ve had so little to feast upon for months that the vast majority of fans are almost bursting to get back to EP, like a huge, seven-month pre-season. 


As we turn our attention to October it is apparent a large percentage of County’s matchday going fans will be hugely disappointed next season as the reduced capacity means that anything up to 35% of our 4300 average could miss out altogether, or at least until the available capacity is increased later in the season. Of the 2700 capacity up to 1900 will be taken up by existing season ticket holders, meaning there will be one almighty scrum come 11th September as it appears the rest will go on open sale. There are various opinions on whether this is the fairest way to distribute the rest of the tickets, however, it was always likely to be the case given that this will be the easiest way for the club to sell them and they have enough logistical hand-wringing to undertake as they work out just how and where everyone will be seated.

 

Those who miss out will have to rely on County continuing to stream the games, it’s a safe bet that this option will probably be implemented at the season’s start and many have already resigned themselves to having to settle for that alternative because of the reduced capacity. One assumes the streaming service will be a ‘season ticket’ and/or ‘pay as you go’ type scheme and those of us who have been locked out will be able to sit at home, growing carbuncles on our arses while we slowly become the version of a football fan that match-going fans have always shown the most disdain for. 

A streaming service is obviously better than nothing, as we’ve found out over recent weeks, however, I can guarantee it is only exiles and those who perhaps aren’t feeling as starved of football as some and are happy to sit back in their armchairs for a season, who will be completely happy with the reduced capacity/streaming combination. I would watch it if I had to, but it just isn’t the same as being there. Nowhere near. Remember Dan Cowan’s goal away at Fylde last season? Remember the unmitigated joy? Now imagine you had to watch it at home, would the experience have been the same? Absolutely not. At most, it would have caused you to spill your bag of Doritos and trip over the dog. 

You may detect a little negativity about the prospect of a third of our support being unable to get to see a game in the flesh, and you’d be right, because, as a non-season ticket holder I will probably be part of the unlucky thousands. Now I am not completely ignorant, my scorn only goes so far, I know we cannot return to the game we knew and social distancing and a reduced capacity are essential to prevent the spread, but can you imagine fantasising for months about finally being able to go back to EP, watching Youtube footage of the good old days of last season where we could go for a pint and turn up at five to three and take our seats with our friends, to now where we’re at a point where 400 tickets for an away friendly against a team from the Northern Premier League Division One are the most sought after since those for Nuneaton Borough in 2019. Christ, getting a Glastonbury ticket would have been easier. That’s how desperate we are, that’s just how much we can’t wait to see our team again. 



My lad, 17, summed it up perfectly, out of the blue he recently said “I miss it, Dad. I miss that feeling you get before the game, I miss talking about the game and who might play well or who might score” I thought, this lad gets it, beneath that surly teenage exterior lies a young man who feels the same as the rest of us. Made me proud, that did. 

He, of course, knows that because of our season ticket-less existence, we might not get into EP next season (our plans to get season tickets this summer, hatched at Christmas last year, maybe scuppered for this season) and we have hoped and prayed together that this isn’t the case. I suspect we’re not the only ones. I want to blame the club, the government and the council, but deep down I know it isn’t their fault. We continue to be in this position because of people who aren't social distancing, who think the rules don’t apply to them, who refuse to wear a face mask, who don’t wash their hands and have merely carried on as normal. It is they who have contributed to taking away my one most passionate interest. I could cope with not seeing my extended family, I could cope with having to queue for a loaf, I could cope with having to sanitise my hands because I knew eventually I would have County back. I knew within months I would have the opportunity to take my place among the County faithful again, now I am facing the hideous prospect of waiting seven months to return to County only to now be told Stockport Council are going to take it away from me. 


If you have read my articles, board posts, tweets or have heard me on the podcast you’ll know I care deeply about County. Some people are content to just follow the team between 3pm and 5pm on a Saturday, and that’s absolutely fine. Me, however, I live and breathe this bonkers, frustrating and sometimes thrilling division five football team. Lockdown, the cancellation of the season and the possibility of having to wait another year before seeing my team live again have hit me harder than most. I know not getting into EP next season isn’t the end of the world and it won’t be like that forever, but being denied the chance to go there while a season is underway, one which could see us return to the Football League, is a grim prospect. To some it’s merely a game, to me it’s much more. I suspect, given the football famine we have experienced over the last six months I’m not the only one to realise they feel this way.



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