A ghost season doesn’t have to be haunting

When it became clear — some time between March last year, when football stopped, and when it resumed in June — that the season would be starting again without fans in stadiums, we were introduced to the concept of “ghost games”, from the German word Geisterspiele. It is how they describe matches played in empty grounds, and it was an image everyone immediately understood, not least because it seemed to articulate that feeling we all had: if there is no one there to watch a game, did it really happen at all?

We learnt last week — which marked a full year since Carrow Road welcomed a full crowd — that English football is facing a ghost season: a full campaign of games without fans, with the exception of a handful of pilot events in the autumn, and perhaps more to come in the spring.

We, of course, were lucky enough to host several such matches, which means a select few — about 7,000, across four games — did get to see this side play, but for the majority of Norwich City supporters this has been a campaign we have played no active part in.

Does that make it less special? Certainly, in some ways; our successes feel less immediate, less exhilarating. Without fans, we lose that sense of collective belonging, those synchronised explosions of euphoria that feel like nothing else. It is not quite the same thing to know that we are all still feeling that simultaneous joy, but separately.

There are individual sadnesses too: that the consistently brilliant Oliver Skipp, on loan for the season from Tottenham Hotspur, will never experience the acclaim of a full Carrow Road. That Alex Tettey, should this season be his last, will not get the send-off his near-decade of service merits. That we have not yet been able to welcome Dimitris Giannoulis and Ben Gibson, two loanees who we hope will become permanent additions. And that the likes of Emi Buendía and Max Aarons may have already played their last game in front of a full Carrow crowd, and we didn’t even know it.

These are the losses of the ghost season. But there have been gains, too, if you know where to look for them. The importance of the club both to the local community and to its wider fanbase has become clearer than ever — there are practical ways in which the club has offered its support but the other service it provides is perhaps even more important.

Football offers the kind of heightened emotion, positive or negative, that we do not typically feel in everyday moments; it adds light and depth and shade. In the past 12 months, that balance has shifted, as our ordinary lives have become burdened by stress, fear, grief. We look to football not only as an escape but for perspective: we now know just how little it matters, which means it matters even more.

In that way, this season, so far, has been a gift. Sitting down to watch a football game is a distraction, a deliberate reclamation of a little bit of normality, a small aspect of our pre-coronavirus lives that remains not untouched, and perhaps diminished, but essentially and reassuringly the same: 11 v 11, most goals wins.

It would be naive, though, to pretend that we Norwich fans have not been particularly blessed. Our side have triumphed more often than not, have played entertaining, creative football and are holding firm at the top of the league; it’s season-of-dreams stuff. Except, of course, we can’t be there to witness it.

But if things were different, none of this might have happened. If there were no pandemic, and crowds had been allowed at games, there is no guarantee that things would have unfolded the same way; when we wistfully imagine that scenario, we are fooling ourselves. As time-travelling movies have taught us, there is no world in which we can change something in the past and expect to be given the same future — there is no way to neatly extract the pandemic from this season and be left with the same result.

And doesn’t that make it even more astounding? We all remember the joys of our last season in the Championship, but if this one (whisper it) does end the same way, it is hard to deny that it would be an even greater achievement. This is a side who have repeatedly managed to succeed against a backdrop of chaos and adversity, without us there to spur them on; they have been able to keep their heads, and their focus, when it would have been easy, even natural, to shrink away from the challenge.

In the years to come, long after we have returned to Carrow Road, I hope that is what we remember of this ghost season: not that we weren’t there, or what we missed out on, but what we managed to achieve regardless.

This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Championship game against Brentford on 3 March 2021. Subscribe to OTBC here.




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