Before I begin my article proper, I want to preface this by saying that I have been a Liverpool fan since 1994. I cheered them through the good times and bad, from the highs of Istanbul to the lows of Hicks and Gillett. Along the way, I would celebrate the wins and dust myself off from the losses. All with the idea that my fandom and loyalty would be valuable in all scenarios. Not least the one that all Kopites wanted for so many years: the Premier League title. Though Liverpool’s history celebrates 18 previous League championships, not having a modern title just felt wrong. And the heartache from the likes of Steven Gerrard’s slip and 97 points not being enough would only enhance this. Like most LFC fans, I would often play out fantasy scenarios in my head of how it may happen. A dramatic last-minute Aguero winner, perhaps? Or maybe a dominant home victory to earn the title in style? Most fans would often suggest that didn’t care how it happened, just as long as it happened. And I would agree with that sentiment. But not now.
And for that reason, I no longer acknowledge Liverpool’s “title” from 2019/2020. Why? Allow me to explain.
Let me start by saying that Jurgen Klopp’s men were absolutely worthy of being named League champions. Only a complete idiot or someone with a pathetic bias would suggest otherwise. After all, winning 26 out of 27 matches is a run of form that is virtually unheard-of. That alone emphasises their credentials. But it also wasn’t mere good fortune. This is a team that had previously won the 2018/2019 Champions League, the 2019 Super Cup and the 2019 Club World Championship. In other words, this team lived up to its billing, and domestically, their time had most definitely come. So, the comments that I make below are in no way, shape or form reflective of the squad’s quality. Because they’re arguably the most deserving champions of the entire Premier League era. With that out of the way, let me now explain why their championship medals mean nothing in my mind.
A Different Version Of Football
Well, there’s the obvious: the Coronavirus pandemic brought an abrupt halt to the sporting world. Well, the world as a whole, actually. And all of a sudden, there was a real chance that the season wouldn’t conclude; that fans wouldn’t get their moment. I’ll come back to that point. But as we know, “Project Restart” would allow the campaign to theoretically conclude from mid-June 2020 onwards, albeit with drastic changes. These changes, to me, cheapen the accomplishment because the entire game would change. I won’t hear people say that “it’s just the same”, because it absolutely wasn’t. What is the same about teams getting changed in car parks? Or players being unable to participate despite having no reason not to play other than contact with a Covid-positive friend, relative or teammate?
Of course, these changes were necessary due to the global health crisis. But if anything, this just emphasises my point. We were (still are) in the biggest threat to global health in our lifetimes, and in those pre-vaccine days, with the threat level at its highest, they were still playing football? It was madness and unethical. And besides the moral dilemma, there was the fact that the rules had literally changed. In no other sport, at no other time, could the authorities tweak the rules during a season like this. They’ll say it was a necessity; it wasn’t. And I’ll come onto the reasons why. By all means, change the rules once the season ends so that it’s a fair and level playing field. But to do so during the season was very questionable to me. Even worse, the Champions League format was altered altogether to become a straight knock-out tournament in one country. Even in 2020/21, Liverpool would play one half of a two-legged tie in a neutral country. How on earth was this fair? I know that these changes were the only way to play the game. But in that case, don’t do it. Because it brainwashed those who HAD to watch football into accepting something that, actually, was nowhere near the expected standard.
The Season Didn’t Properly End
Now, the record books will say that the Premier League came to its desired conclusion. No, it didn’t. With drastic format changes, a suddenly-packed schedule that would greatly alter performances and, thus, results, and the lack of eligibility for anyone who happens to come within two metres of a positively-tested person during a two-week period, this was absolutely not the season that had been in progress prior to mid-March 2020. It’s football, sure, but a pretty lacklustre and thrown-together version of it. Whatever way you spin it, there’s a massive asterisk next to any pandemic-era football for this reason. This isn’t a lower-league game being postponed due to a frosted pitch or a European game behind closed doors due to fans behaving abhorrently. This was a very different and often unsettling version of a sport that thrived based on everything that this version lacked.
So, while Sky, the BBC etc. will inform you that 2019/20 ended on July 22, in my mind, it never did. It’s the equivalent of reading three-quarters of a novel, only for a totally rewritten version to replace the original ending. Might Aston Villa have been relegated? Could Leicester City have made the Champions League? Hell, could Liverpool have flopped it so spectacularly that the assumed procession would suddenly become a frantic chase to glory? We will never know. And while pundits may make educated guesses, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s not that nothing is certain. Anyone who suggests that the ending to that campaign is acceptable has a personal benefit for believing that way.
Now we come to the smoking gun. It’s easy to suggest that the lack of pre-match handshakes, socially distanced celebrations and frequently-cleaned footballs barely impacts the matches themselves. And as inconvenient as changing in a trailer or a boardroom might be, again it may not greatly impact results. But the lack of supporters in the stadiums absolutely did. Without fans on hand, everything changed. A lack of fans fails to spur on an away team when visiting a big club’s home turf. And a lack of fans also prevents the locals from backing their home-grown club when they need them the most. From title chases to European qualification showdowns to relegation dogfights, the fans make all the difference. This is also true when it comes to cup runs, as well as international football and continental club football. Do you think that Liverpool defeats Barcelona 4-0 on a magical European night if Anfield is empty? Absolutely not.
From a performance standpoint, the fans really are the 12th man, whether there’s 10, 30, or 75 thousand of them. And even rival fans have an impact, as players seek to shut them up by scoring a worldie from outside the box or by slotting home a last-minute penalty. Once you take the fans away, besides the soulless entertainment aspect, the results drastically change. And going back to Liverpool, how might games have played out if the grounds still contained supporters? Bear in mind that their form was dipping just before the shutdown between their first League campaign loss to Watford, two defeats to Atletico Madrid and an FA Cup exit to Chelsea. Even home League victories over West Ham United and Bournemouth were somewhat unconvincing. Though I doubt Liverpool wouldn’t have collected the small number of points necessary to get it over the line, who’s to say for sure? And if fans had been at the likes of Goodison Park or the Etihad Stadium (no jokes), perhaps Liverpool would have stumbled as the end of the season drew closer.
Of course, under Project Restart, this weird version of football allowed Liverpool to theoretically win the League. And they would hold a grand celebration in front of … nobody. Well, besides television cameras. And pundits. As well as family members of club personnel. And journalists. Not forgetting local club legends. And local radio presenters. The empty stadium wasn’t as empty as you would think. Indeed, the usual people were all there, with one exception. The fans themselves. Think about that for a moment. The people that this moment would mean the most to were the only ones absent. If Covid restrictions were so stringent, why have all of the above? Did we really need Sky’s pundits to be inside Anfield? Was it truly necessary for national newspaper writers to be present? And did we really, REALLY, need radio presenters with no interest in football whatsoever to be there? It was a slap in the face to the real fans, those who ached when clips of Gerrard slipping were shown; those who argued relentlessly about the offside goals here and the wrongfully-awarded penalty decisions there; those who spent hours on social media suffering abuse from idiots who gleefully jumped on the bandwagon of Manchester City “saving football” by winning the 2018/2019 title.
Now, I realise that, legally, the club was unable to allow supporters into the stadium, and certainly not in big numbers. As someone who held a ticket for the game that would have hosted the presentation (Liverpool vs. Chelsea), this was particularly gutting to me. I’m sure they didn’t want it to be that way. It didn’t stop them, though. And far from smiles on faces, the club decided to move ahead with all of this for one reason: money.
Here’s the big reason why football would attempt to proceed through the worst health crisis in 100 years. You see, regardless of the extraordinary global events, if the Premier League hadn’t ended in some form, both the League and the 20 clubs involved would have lost out on tons of money. We’re talking hundreds of millions here for potential breaches of contracts, even though the pandemic was obviously not their fault. Some clubs have disclosed how much they had lost during the pandemic regardless, but the losses could have racked up even higher with no second-rate action happening at all. Morally, it would have been nice for those at the head of Sky and BT to accept the appalling turn of events across the world. But unfortunately, the ghouls that run the game at the highest level value money over morals.
Let’s be frank here. If there are no multi-million or billion-pound TV deals in place, we don’t see any football during the second half of 2020 or for the first half of 2021. Because if you take away the financial aspect, why the hell would they take the risk? On that note, isn’t it funny how many people were shocked when the likes of Mikel Arteta tested positive for Covid in March 2020, yet by the summer and autumn of 2020 (pre-vaccine, remember), nobody turned a blind eye to it? It’s all about the impact of the money on the game and whether it could continue somehow for financial purposes. Theatres are only now returning, as are live music and comedy shows. In most cases, and not just in the UK, these arts and culture scenes had to stay on hold. And they barely received any financial support during their time away from live audiences. In contrast, football did everything it could to return, even without fans, in order to make money.
Even if you look past that aspect, several clubs – including Liverpool – would show their true colours with several poor decisions. For starters, you would have the likes of Liverpool attempting to furlough staff despite clearly having the money to cover their wages. This would be retracted by an apology in Liverpool’s case, but other clubs would press ahead nonetheless. Then, you would have the Big Picture proposal that would mix some justifiable suggestions with some self-serving ideas. Yes, Liverpool were a key proponent of this. In the meantime, the broadcasting schedule would change to allow every single game to be shown live since nobody could attend them. A nice tough, then, until the decision was made to put these extra matches on Pay-Per-View. Why? For the money, of course. To recoup the losses of these poor, sympathetic, pouting “woe is me” clubs. Thankfully, fans rounded together to donate PPV cash to local charities and food banks to cut that one off early. Though the fact that some games on PPV still attracted six-figure viewing numbers emphasises why football gets away with it so often.
And then you would have the European Super League debacle in the spring of 2021. For a few days, one would assume that the end of the world had arrived within football. After a few days, the drama would quell when, one by one, club after club would exit the project. This isn’t the place to discuss the ESL, but this was the biggest insult of all, as so many top clubs wished to break away and create their own exclusive club, once more for financial benefit. And once more, Liverpool was involved. All of this would happen without fans in the stadiums to voice their displeasure. Many believe that this was a key reason for each of these events to take place.
Fans Are In … Out … Back In … Back Out …
While all this was happening, there was still the matter of when fans would return to stadiums. Of course, it would depend on Government guidelines, as well as the take-up of vaccines once they were approved in late 2020. But fans still wanted to return as soon as possible. We would have the situation of fans attending some games in small numbers to close out the year. And it was nice to see spectators again. But only certain clubs could have fans depending not on their League placement, but on their geographical location due to Covid. It’s one of those things that makes sense on paper, but then it doesn’t when you consider sportsmanship. Again, how was this fair? At one stage, only four clubs out of twenty could allow fans into their grounds. It sounds ludicrous, especially when some stadiums with a reduced capacity would feel the benefit of even just 2,000 fans more than bigger clubs could. By early January 2021, it was back to lockdown and no fans in the stadiums. But the football continued of course. They might as well have not bothered.
Come the end of the season, the Government were finally able to allow fans back into stadiums, albeit in small numbers. And wouldn’t you know it, the lifting of some restrictions would coincide with the final day of the campaign. By this stage, all three teams were relegated and the title winners had been crowned. But if fans had been present in the preceding weeks and months, perhaps the landscape would look different. Instead, it was an empty gesture; nothing more than a day out for most fans rather than a chance to watch meaningful and credible football. As I write this, fans are currently able to attend matches at full capacity in the UK. But there’s every chance that in a few months time, if not sooner, we’re back to empty grounds. Until the pandemic ends, this will remain a problem.
Amidst all this, Liverpool fans like me wondered when we could celebrate the events of 2019/2020. Initially, the local government suggested that we would have to be patient, but that a celebration would come. The likes of Jordan Henderson and Jurgen Klopp would agree. Until Klopp changed his tune. When asked at one press conference about sharing the moment with fans, his response was to the effect of “well, they’ve already seen it.” At that moment, it became clear to me that fans had become an afterthought to personal gain and glory for the club. In other words, if Liverpool were to win the next five titles with no fans on hand, no big deal. People often bring up Bill Shankly and what he would have made of modern football. I dread to think what he would think of a mindset like that. Especially coming from a man whose values are often compared to those of Shankly.
Of course, by the time that fans could return properly, Liverpool’s form had nosedived spectacularly. Partly due to injuries, partly due to the condensed schedule, partly due to the lack of fans and probably partly due to the impact of the pandemic finally setting in. Whatever the case, Liverpool now sees themselves as no longer having the right to celebrate with the trophy that fans clamoured for since the early 1990s. In other words, there will never be a chance to truly mark the occasion. And judging by the club’s mindset, they didn’t care a jot.
Meaningless Sporting Achievements
Though some may disagree, football – hell, sport as a whole – is nothing without fans. If you take away fans, it may as well be you and your mates having a kick-about for the significance of a win. And I feel bad for fans of other clubs who also had to miss out on long-awaited moments. But it’s sad to think that clubs use the cliche of “we’ll do it for fans around the world” to justify pressing on for financial purposes. It isn’t just Liverpool; it’s Leeds United returning to the Premier League, and Steven Gerrard managing Rangers to an SPL title. With fans there, it’s a legendary career milestone. But with no fans there, it’s very hollow and almost cowardly to me. I loved Gerrard as a player and felt so bad when he didn’t win a title as a player. But if he truly considers the 2020/21 SPL as him “finally” doing it, given the circumstances, to me that’s wrong.
It goes beyond trophies, though. Look at Manchester City and Everton both finally winning at Anfield after so long, but with nobody there. The whole point of triumphing at a famous stadium is that you faced the atmosphere, the environment, the team, you theoretically battled them at their strongest, and you triumphed against the odds. Can an Evertonian honestly brag about finally winning at Anfield when nobody was there? It’s pathetic. But of course, there are Twitter bragging rights to be won, isn’t there?
And that’s why fans themselves are willing to tolerate all of the above. They may admit that football in empty stadiums was wretched. And they may admit that special moments aren’t the same. But it won’t stop them dancing in the streets, putting banners out, paying for club merchandise and changing social media profile pictures to reflect a triumph. Using the Liverpool example, the years of torment from rival fans means that they’re willing to accept a substandard “moment” just so they can say that it happened. Too many fans are so entrenched in football fandom that they’re blind to how clubs and authorities are using them. That a club like Liverpool could pull the stunts that it did between March 2020 and April 2021 and still face no repercussions from fans other than heated debate at the time sums up that the fandom is too strong to be broken. Some may say it’s a good thing, but it isn’t. Because that gives these powers carte blanche to make egotistical, money-driven decisions designed to line their own pockets, and fans will idly stand by and say “take what you want, I don’t mind.”
That’s why the precedent of football continuing without fans is so dangerous. For I strongly believed for the longest time that once fans stopped attending games, the clubs would start to suffer. And only then could the money that dominates modern football be tempered to give the sport back to the fans. But nope, the pandemic has actually made clubs less likely to fall if anything. I’m not saying I want an Arsenal or a Burnley to go into administration or anything. But now that football has proven that it can survive without anyone in attendance, the fans mean less than ever before. And though they’re back, for now, the clubs have proven that they will carry on regardless of whether stadiums are full or empty. Meanwhile, the diehards still watch along, unaware that they’re puppets to the puppetmasters heading up clubs and authorities.
How I Initially Reacted
Like most people, I was in a state of shock when the pandemic first hit and struggled to cope. Over time, I got used to the first of many “new normals”. I could work from home, I could avoid people, I could stay indoors, and I could chat via Zoom. When it came to football, I had the mindset that I couldn’t do anything about whatever the authorities chose to do. They would ultimately pick the option that only hurt the fans: empty stadiums. Now, despite my upset at not seeing Liverpool achieve their biggest moment in person, I tried to pretend that it was the real thing. I really did. And back then, most believed that it was only a matter of weeks before we could all come together and celebrate for real.
Over time, reality set in. I’m sure the clubs didn’t know how long their grounds would remain empty. But they had made their decision to forge ahead without spectators and with the game severely altered so that they could play and profit. Suddenly, the memories of 2019/20 went further, and further, and further away. The turning point for me was rewatching a documentary after the death of Gerard Houllier. And the premise was that Liverpool’s 30-year title wait was finally over. But in name only, I felt. And even with Liverpool top of the table at that time, I began to lose my love and interest in the game, and in Liverpool as a whole. Especially when pundits would continuously suggest that “the wait was over”. Whose wait? Because me and many other fans are still waiting, having endured more than most fans do in a lifetime.
My Current Mindset
Right now, I have reached the stage where I no longer watch football on television. Everton played last night, and I couldn’t tell you how that match ended. In all sincerity, I couldn’t even tell you who they played. Meanwhile, the pictures from the “title night” no longer exist on my phone. The text messages I sent to friends that night are also gone. And the merchandise that people bought me to commemorate the occasion now lies in an unlabelled box that may never be reopened. My love of football as a whole has been lost to take a stance that borders on grief. Basically, my ties to that achievement, and to the club as a whole, have been cut, perhaps permanently. But with one exception. Despite all of this, I still attend home games. At these games, not a single banner nor chant acknowledges 2019/20, even as a quick reference. They still discuss a 5-0 Merseyside Derby win from many years ago, after all. It’s like the moment has been lost in time forever. (On that note, unlike Istanbul, I’ve never spoken to a fan who said that the summer of 2020 was the greatest night of their life.)
Now, I still attend games partly because I have to in order for my membership to continue. (And because of the club’s terrible ticketing system when it comes to others attending when I can’t make it, but that’s another article entirely.) But it’s also because, as a fan who stuck by clubs through struggles, scandals, court battles and negative publicity aplenty, I feel that I have personally earned the right to see what I was denied. Some might say it’s a sense of entitlement, and that you should never support a club for the trophies alone. That’s not the case. For I’m a fan who went to see Liverpool lose at home to Northampton Town in the League Cup, to Blackpool in the Premier League, and still came back for more. I’m a fan who saw Liverpool conduct themselves very poorly off the pitch and tried to defend them. Hey, I even tried to suggest that Luis Suarez was merely tickling Branislav Ivanovic when he was actually biting him in 2013. As someone who went through all that, plus the near-misses of 2014 and 2019, believing that 2020 would finally be THE MOMENT, only for it to be snatched away. I truly believe that there’s unfinished business by seeing my boyhood club, my favourite team of 27+ years, finally achieve their big moment. And I wouldn’t criticise any other fan who felt the same way.
What Could Have Happened
I have tried many times to justify the above events in my head, but none make sense. Or at least, none make sense in a way that reassures me about my value as a fan. Those who say it “still counts” either have Twitter wars to win or simply don’t care about fellow fans. Funnily enough, those same fans are usually those that never attend games. Or those who do attend games, but will take a win wherever it comes, regardless of how dodgy the circumstances are. And to the aforementioned brainwashed, the club comes first no matter what. Even when the club is clearly using its fans as props, they still back them 110%. I cannot take that mindset because I see things for what they truly are. And for it to happen with the club at the cusp of its biggest moment in a generation hurts all the more.
In my head, the better option would have been a null-and-void. At the time, it was the least desirable option. But in hindsight, it wipes away 2019/20 and reminds fans that THEY MATTER. Yes, it would hurt for the incredible form to be ignored, but what does it matter now anyway? The fans have no true memories over than on screens. If football HAS to continue, you could then run 2020/21 in one of two ways. Either represent it as a non-Premier League entity, a special season if you will, under strange circumstances. Or simply run it as normal but keep fans away for the entire campaign to ensure a level playing field. As it happened, it’s an absolute mess. But these scenarios would have cost the clubs and the broadcasters money, wouldn’t they? And we can’t have that. And though fans are presently back, most are anticipating a further removal of fans from stadiums before too long. This is why I couldn’t class 2021/22 as a real season either. Yes, it’s first-world problems in the bigger picture. But to many fans, football really is the most important thing in life. And without those that are the lifeblood of the game, it means nothing. No, ignore the pretentious banners that adorned club seats while games carried on regardless. Without fans, football doesn’t matter.
All of this explains why I no longer acknowledge Liverpool’s “title” from 2019/2020. Because at best, it was a massive anticlimax. At worst, it was the biggest, most heartbreaking disappointment of my life, as well as an insult to the true fans. Many will say “they would have done it anyway”, but they can’t sway me on this opinion. And knowing that the club was in a near-perfect run of form prior to the shutdown doesn’t help much either. If anything, it hurts even more. Some may read this and disagree. They might even get angry. But know that this comes not from a “hater” or a delusional columnist. It comes from a fan who lived and breathed every moment as a fan up until the top of the mountain was almost finally ascended together. Only for circumstances to raise questions that I believe the club chose the wrong answers for. And why would I want to recal this over and over with such strong negative emotions? The better option is to act like it never happened.
Perhaps one day Liverpool might acknowledge the triumph with its fanbase in a celebratory manner and things will seem different. Better still, maybe in the future, Liverpool will finally win a League title the right way. With its fans roaring them on, tears in their eyes, belting out anthems one-by-one. Until then, though, the most anticipated sporting triumph of my life is irreparably tarnished. Nothing will ever change that. And rather than trying to justify it through weird means, I simply choose not to acknowledge it anymore. And I simply hope that someday, the club gives the fans the moment we all deserve and prove that, in fact, we really will never walk alone. Rather than leaving its supporters behind while walking alone to a money-stuffed trophy replica.