Thursday 31 December 2020

Happy New Year & Groundhopping Hopes For 2021

Happy New Year! It’s been a difficult year for most of us, to say the least – for those of us who like to forget about the pressures of everyday life on a weekend afternoon by watching people kick a ball about, the last few months has been a constant rollercoaster of hope and disappointment. No supporters have been allowed in grounds for most of the year, then non-league clubs were permitted supporters back, then professional sides in select areas – and now, following the news yesterday of large swathes of England being put into ‘Tier 4’ restrictions, it’s back to square one.

Of course, us not being able to go to a football match pales in comparison to what other industries (and not mention, people who have been affected by the virus) are going through at the moment, but with football being a representation of our culture, it’s a good screen on which to see how our way of life has changed. As I said in my groundhop to Ashton Town just before lockdown became official; the only times football has been suspended was during the First and Second World Wars (and even then, friendly matches and wartime leagues were held). So, with such a upheaval, it’s no surprise that many people have felt lost without their usual routine and social contact with others – making the famous football quote by Pope John Paul II that more poignant; “Amongst all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important”.

And we’ve seen this, with all clubs doing various things in their local communities, trying to connect with people – community trusts', football club staff and even players helping to deliver items, hosting virtual events, making phone calls, giving things away, etc. All of this is an example of the impact football has on society, why it’s been frustrating to see the continuing situation unfold – and why we must continue to push for a return to some semblance of normality at the earliest opportunity.

Groundhopping In 2021 – and My Book

As it happened, I only got to see two matches after non-league sides were originally permitted to welcome crowds in again. Now, it’s difficult to assess when games will be able to restart – we don’t even know if non-league will even be able to continue beyond January as many leagues have already been suspended (some for the second time this season).

So, playing by ear it is – hopefully, the right solution can be found to protect our clubs, even if it means cancelling the season again. The initial lockdown was a leap into the unknown, so with the experience and resulting measures put in place by leagues, you’d imagine that swifter decisions can be made in everyone's best interests.

The unfortunate break has seen us all trying to fill the football void in some way; On this blog, I’ve written about a few different things (including my own team, Wigan Athletic's, fall into adminstration – unresolved as of yet). I've also featured a couple of interviews with people who use football as means to produce something – so far, I’ve spoken to a Norweigan groundhopper who has been to no less than 500 English grounds, and a bloke who has built the grounds of the 92 out of Lego! Unfortunately, it’s not been as much as much content as I would have liked to have produced, but there’s a reason for it – which brings me to some self-indulgent selling!

From the 2014-15 season through to the early part of 2019-20, I travelled across the country in a bid to ‘do the 92’. After each season I released a volume of the all the grounds I visited that season, ticking all the visits off. Containing an ever-expansive historical, social, and (often) irreverent look at our clubs and English football in general, I was delighted to see them warmly received.

I completed the project (spoilers!) in September 2019 and have been working on the final volume, Volume Five, ever since. It’s taken a lot longer than I envisioned – it’s by far the largest volume of the series and with COVID and everything, I’ve been pre-occupied with other things to get it all finished. I suppose an ironic twist to all our football grounds being shut is that I’m technically still ‘in the club’ in regards to having been to them all. Us groundhoppers can’t visit Barrow or Harrogate, or Brentford and Wimbledon’s new grounds until the start of the 2021/22 season at the earliest – so that’s good enough reasoning for me to justify the time taken to release the book!

Anyway, Volume Five will (hopefully) be out in late-February and I’ll no doubt be pushing it on here! If you’re interested in the series, you can buy the first four volumes of 'Playing Offside' on Amazon Kindle for £4.96. You don’t actually need a Kindle to read them – you can download the app from Google Play or the Apple Store and read on there.

So that’s all I have for 2020 – a frustrating year for us all, but however you’re celebrating its end, ensure you throw yourself into it because you doubtless deserve it. Hopefully 2021 will be much better, so take care of yourself and everyone around you, and hopefully we'll be back on those terraces, drinking, chatting, laughing and shouting as soon as possible!