On the list of first things you’ll never forget, a Premier League football match comes close to the top.
I was five years old, and Chelsea were playing Newcastle at home in Stamford Bridge. Totally discombobulated by the crowds, I clung to my grandfather’s hand as he manoeuvred me through the lofty herds, practically dribbling me between their legs like an expert forward.
I wore a Chelsea scarf and drank hot chocolate. So small on my seat, I could barely see the players. I was anxious because I didn’t know the rules – the boys didn’t let the girls play at school. But my grandfather guided me into a forbidden sphere, a place previously closed off to me, the remit of men in my family. I had been deemed worthy. It was an initiation.
And it turns out, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know the rules. All I had to do was copy my grandfather. And he’s been taking me ever since.
For more than two decades, I have joined my grandfather in Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea play. Over the years, I went from being practically the only girl in a sea of small boys and young men to one of many women out for a Saturday match with the family.
But this year, as the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered the turnstiles and distanced spectators from their beloved players, all that stopped. My 94-year-old grandfather was told to stay inside. And so we were separated, too.
At first we thought, it’s only for a little while. Yes, the end of the 2019-2020 season was (necessarily) a write-off – sorry, Liverpool. But it would all come right again in time for August. In time for the next season.
August came and went, and spectators haven’t been allowed back in the grounds. Government plans to allow a select number of fans into matches from 1 October were recently postponed for up to six months, in the midst of rising infections and legal restrictions on gatherings. I understand the reasoning. Unlike many disappointed fans, I actually support it. But I miss going with a physical ache. I know my grandfather does, too.
It is impossible to describe, to the uninitiated, what it feels like to be in the grounds for a big football match
It is impossible to describe, to the uninitiated, what it feels like to be in the grounds for a big football match. The physical, visceral sensation. What it sounds like, what it smells like. You hear it before you see it: the crowds, the music, the tannoys. Then the smack of a ball connecting with flesh.
Close up, the incredible speed and power of the players. The shape of the game: the tactics, the rhythm of movement up and down the pitch. The bass in your ribcage. The collective emotion, the anger, the hope, the breathless excitement and crushing disappointment.
It is literally impossible, watching a game via a dodgy stream on your laptop, to replicate this at home. Going to the football is not something that we can adapt for these times. It simply cannot be done.
So much of my interest in the Premier League, and Chelsea in particular, is inextricably tied up in my desire for common ground with my grandfather. There aren’t many hobbies that an elderly man can share with his young granddaughter, but the power of football is to bond the unlikeliest of allies. If things don’t change soon, not only will my grandfather stop going: I may stop watching.
I admit, there were times I sat on the cold, hard plastic of my seat, hands wedged under numb buttocks, frozen to the spine and wished I was home and warm. Maybe I was hungover; maybe I had work. Maybe I would rather have been with my friends. But I went to keep my grandfather company: it was our time to hang out.
Together we’ve celebrated every player, critiqued every manager and insulted every referee. And over 22 years of watching Chelsea play, the only constant has been my grandfather’s hand in mine, guiding me through the crowd.
There’s a significant financial aspect to this, too. Chelsea has promised to refund customers for any games they were unable to attend due to coronavirus restrictions. A good portion of the 2019-2020 season was played behind closed doors, so my grandfather should be reimbursed. At the time of writing, he has not been.
We’re not in the same household. We can’t sit together. I can’t go closer than two metres from him, which means we can’t really talk. We can’t even ‘mingle’ after the game. No more holding hands.
It seems such a trivial matter, in the context of what other families have sacrificed. So far, we’ve come through the pandemic unscathed, and I’m grateful every single day for that. It seems churlish to even complain about missing the football, but what I really mean is that I miss my granddad. I miss our time together. I’m scared time is running out. And that isn’t trivial at all.
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