Football’s ability to take us away from the real world is priceless

We only appreciate the beautiful game when it gives us hope in dark times

In a world still coming to terms with Covid-19, we are running alarmingly short on diversions.

Online quizzes and split screens eventually lose their appeal and we look for something else to bury our fears. 

Once upon a time the only dilemma was whether Brexit should be served hard, soft or lightly grilled. Oh how I miss hearing those three magic words: Get Brexit Done! 

A reassuringly dull soundbite was soon replaced by the more ominous Wash Your Hands and Protect the NHS. 

We now inhabit a curious twilight zone where health and economic survival fight for supremacy. But where do we turn for distraction, a pleasant diversion that concentrates the mind on something different? 

From the earliest days of lockdown football almost matched the pandemic for column inches. It was rightly dismissed as trivial and meaningless when lives were being lost. But it also fulfilled a vital function as fans longed for the restoration of some normality.

A rash of meetings between the Premier League, EFL and FA failed to reach a decision. But then a tantalising chink of light; lockdown would be eased and project re-start was suddenly in full effect.

Naturally behind closed doors but it was a start, and I felt a childish knot of excitement in my stomach. Then I realised how important the game was to thousands of fans. 

As a season ticket holder at West Ham my mind drifted back to the home game against Manchester United in September 2019. I was walking towards the flatpack monstrosity they call the London Stadium.

Stratford Walk on matchday was always a sea of claret and blue; however two replica shirts clearly stood out from hundreds in my field of vision. 

Two guys had an identical message on their shirts. It simply read Dad 1946-2019. It struck me what an important role the club plays in people’s lives. 

As ‘Dad’ passed away their support for West Ham is an act of remembrance; a place to keep their memories and savour the ones yet to come. 

It’s not exactly going out on a limb to assume ‘Dad’ took his boys to games and nurtured an enduring passion.

‘Dad’ would have been 12 years old when West Ham were promoted to the top flight in 1958; and in his late teens when they won the FA Cup in 1964 and European Cup Winners Cup in 1965.

To see Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst in their pomp would have produced many ‘I was there’ moments. No memory would be greater than the glorious summer of 1966, when fans could say with some justification West Ham 4 West Germany 2. 

He would have witnessed the ups, down and inbetweens; but also two more FA Cup wins and the emotional closure of Upton Park in 2016. 

Where pop music provides the soundtrack to our lives football is the timeline; where fans don’t measure calendar years but seasons that start in August and finish in May.

Football becomes a refuge and distraction from life’s realities. As those tribute shirts so clearly demonstrate, football is a common reference point in many families. And in bereavement we find solace and comfort from our team, however they might be playing. 

A 2-0 home win against Manchester United seemed a fitting tribute to ‘Dad’ and the other fans we have lost. 

One wonders how many seats will now be vacant at the London Stadium regardless of social distancing.

Not everyone is a football fan, but we can easily insert our pursuit of choice whether it be the theatre, rock climbing or crown green bowls.

Football is a symbol of the life we hope to lead once again; where we can scream, shout and berate players who miss open goals; and not have to search for a face mask before we enter a shop. 

It may well be the last diversion on people’s minds, but it’s a liberty we cherish when it’s denied to us albeit for the best of intentions. 

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