Finally, football has come home. Not in the “England winning the World Cup” sense, more’s the pity, but in the “live Premier League matches are back on our TVs” sense. Yes, three months of hurt never stopped us dreaming.
Now “Project Restart” has kicked off, opening with Wednesday evening’s 0-0 “thriller” between Aston Villa and Sheffield United – swiftly followed by Manchester City keeping their slim title hopes alive by romping past the typically imploding Arsenal, as big-haired Brazilian lummox David Luiz did his best Mr Bean impression.
This double bill began a post-pandemic frenzy of 92 matches in six summer weeks, spread across four broadcasters: Sky Sports, BT Sport, Amazon Prime and even the dear old BBC – excitingly, the first live top-flight football on terrestrial TV for 28 years.
In case you’re out of practice and those “footy bantz” muscles have seized up through inactivity, here’s a handy cheat sheet for talking about the beautiful game in the new normal – 16 things (that’s a team of 11 plus five substitutes) to sagely say in front of the next televised fixture…
“Football isn’t football without the fans”
See also: “It’s not the same without the crowd atmosphere.” Without supporters in attendance, the fixtures have the eerie air of a pre-season friendly or a training ground match. It certainly makes you appreciate the urgency, colour and excitement provided by 40,000 baying punters.
Mindful of this, Sky last night provided two options. There was the actual stadium noise, its intermittent echoey shouts reminiscent of a schoolboy game with one competitive dad yelling at the kids from the sidelines. Unexpected bonus: you could hear grunts, groans, shouts of “our ball!” or “handball, ref!”, plus the odd swear. Cue Martin Tyler apologising for Kevin De Bruyne’s robust reaction to being denied a corner.
Alternatively, viewers could opt for a sort of piped artificial crowd noise, carefully calibrated to rise and fall in time with the action. The strange whooshing was akin to holding a seashell to a child’s ear. Pass the bucket and spade, mum.
“Oi, no spitting!”
One of the more icky sights in “old football” was players’ impressive ability to propel perfectly-formed gobbets of spit from their mouths or high-velocity jets of snot from their nostrils. Under new protocols, this isn’t allowed. But it still didn’t stop them when they thought we were’t looking.
“Go on, Rashford!”
Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford – note the correct name, Matt Hancock – is a new national hero after successfully lobbying the government to extend the free school meal voucher scheme into the summer holidays. This will leave many neutrals torn. Most fans hate Man U but will be willing Rashford to succeed. Expect strangulated yelps of pleasure when he scores his first post-lockdown goal.
“They could have got some new ads”
A weary welcome back for the endless commercials for online betting, pizza delivery, online betting, men’s grooming products, Thierry Henry driving nondescript hatchbacks and more online betting. When the fun stops, stop. By the way, did we mention online betting?
“These goal celebrations are awkward”
How to celebrate a goal in the brave new world of empty stadia? Knee-sliding in front of a disused stand looks a bit silly, as does cupping your ear to a silent away end. On the evidence so far, an air-punch followed by a look of mild embarrassment is the order of the day.
“Not another Zoom call”
As if you haven’t had enough of interminable work meetings and family quizzes, Sky occasionally cut to a Zoom screen filled with fans watching at home, to gauge their reaction. Annoyingly, these shots were too fleeting to be able to study each one’s background and judge their taste in home decor/books/underpants drying on radiators.
“Look, lockdown hair! Lockdown beard!”
Many players have shaved their heads or snuck in a rule-flouting trip to the barbers. However, a few have let themselves go semi-feral in lockdown like the rest of us. Even referee Michael Oliver looked a little unkempt.
“What is this, rugby?”
With nine substitutes on the bench and five allowed to be used per game, expect flurries of changes as managers make double and even triple replacements. Huffing from purists will inevitably ensue. Rolling subs are for fat prop forwards, right?
“What is this, cricket?”
With top-tier football being staged in June for the first time since 1947, two extra drinks breaks are now allowed per game. Huffing from purists will inevitably ensue. Hydration is for softies at Lord’s, right?
“I miss ball boys”
No ball boys or girls under the new abnormal. Instead a system of “sterilised replacement balls” (no sniggering) will be used. We’ll miss the pitchside scamps, especially for when they go rogue and start wasting time on behalf of the home team. Attaboy.
“Shall we take a knee too?”
Footballers have become politicised over lockdown and for the opening 12 fixtures of the restart, both starting line-ups and the referee will “take the knee” prior to kick-off in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Some viewers at home might well join in. Although a few mealy-mouthed fans are already beginning to grumble about the BLM slogan temporarily replacing players’ names on the back of their shirts. Priorities, people.
“He’s pulled up with cramp”
After a long absence and only three weeks of semi-serious training, it’s no wonder players aren't quite match fit. Hence the sight of highly-paid professional athletes helping each other stretch out their cramped muscles while lying grimacing on the ground, like unfit dads during a stag weekend five-a-side.
“Now wash your hands. Good lad”
As part of the new health protocols - sterile routes, social distancing, red zones, temperature checks, deep cleaning - players will have to hand-sanitise when they enter and leave the field of play. This should provide mild amusement, especially when some bad boy makes a cursory gesture rather than “two choruses of Happy Birthday” technique.
“Ooh, these tunnel-cams are new”
Cameras in the players’ tunnel are a new innovation, as is their proximity to the coin-toss before kick-off. The two socially distanced teams walked out separately, so there was little drama before the match got underway. Hopefully they’ll come into their own at the end of games when there are grudges to settle. Flying pizza! Thrown boots! Bulging neck veins and pointing fingers! Where’s Roy Keane when you need him?
“I’ve missed pundits discussing VAR”
OK, nobody will say this. Technology arguments are one of the most tedious things about modern football. And it’s already started, with the Sheffield United no-goal howler being blamed on “somebody at Stockley Park”. Make it stop.
“Boy, it’s good to have football back”
Thank goodness you can return to ignoring your family again. No more boring boxset dramas with one’s partner. No more jigsaws or board games with one’s children. Just sweet escape for 90 minutes, usually without any vested interest whatsoever. What time’s the next match on?