Wherever your footballing allegiances lie, there is one thing we can surely all agree on.
The game we all love is alive and kicking.
We’ll never forget this summer, will we? And as Euro 2020 ends, it’s time for a few things to be said.
To Italy the glory, to England the heartache, but to everybody associated with the game a reminder.
Football with fans really is something special. Don’t ever underestimate them.
There’s nothing quite like that noise, is there? Those roars and gasps, that explosion of joy, of relief, of sheer, unfiltered delight.
And there’s nothing quite like that sight, either. The flags and the banners and the painted faces. The smiles, the tears, the anger and the frustration. Heartbreak and jubilation, one after the other. Gut-wrenching fear followed by life-affirming happiness, or vice-versa.
The people’s game, played in front of the people. Just the way it should be.
Forgive me, as I’m about to break the golden rule of football writers, and talk about myself for a bit.
I know, I know.
But as somebody who has adored this game for as long as I can remember, someone whose entire life, both work and personal, revolves around it, I really have to tell you something.
There have been times recently where I’ve wondered if that was it, if it could ever truly be the same again. I wondered if I was done with football.
I doubt I’m the only one to have had such thoughts. I know I’m not, in fact.
As a journalist, and as a club correspondent, I’ve been one of the fortunate ones during this pandemic. I’ve been able to attend matches, while those who spend their time and their money providing loyal and unflinching support to their team have been consigned to their armchairs, their world stripped of colour and passion, filled instead with continuous uncertainty and the incessant drone of fake crowd noise.
How lucky am I, eh? I was at Anfield the night Liverpool lifted the Premier League trophy last July. An event 30 years in the making - what an honour.
I was there when Aston Villa ran seven past the champions a few months later. I saw the Reds’ decline in the winter, their revival in the spring and everything in between. Mo Salah’s goals, Virgil van Dijk’s injury, Alisson Becker’s header. When others couldn’t be and so wanted to be, I was there.
And do you know what? There were times I wished I wasn’t. There were times I looked at the fixture list and thought ‘not again’, times when I sat in my car and wondered ‘seriously, what’s the point?’.
There were times when I didn’t want to go to Anfield, a few miles from my home, let alone travel the length and breadth of the country, just to watch an empty game in an empty stadium.
Just to be left with an empty feeling.
That’s the truth. You might not understand or have much sympathy, but it’s the truth. As a friend of mine wrote in March ‘this version of football is sh*te, on every level.’ Like him, like many others, I hated it.
Because when we strip it back, when we really sit and think about why we are drawn to this sport, why we invest so much time and energy into it, why it dominates our news feeds and our TV channels and our timelines, what do we find?
It’s not the game we love, as such. It’s the experience, the ride, the sense of danger and longing and jeopardy and joy. It’s the emotions it stirs within us, good and bad.
The last 16 months took that away from us. It took away the rollercoaster and replaced it with a rockface, one we all struggled to cling on to.
Even for the players and the managers, the stars of the show, it became a slog. Actors without an audience, working themselves to the bone, embarking on a joyless nationwide tour.
You’d be hard pressed to find two bigger football lovers than Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, yet ask them if they enjoyed last season and you know what the answer will be. Even those that won, lost. Success is so much better when it is shared. Glory is not glory, unless it is felt.
So let me say this; the next time a club or a federation or a politician tries to dismiss the importance of supporters, to undermine and mistreat them, push back against it. It’s your game, and always has been. Without you, what do we have?
And take hope from Euro 2020, that better days are coming. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it was the tournament we needed, at the end of a year of suffering.
Football DID come home this summer, but not to England.
To the fans. Where it belongs.
Where it will always belong.