366 Days Later - A Year Away From Edgeley Park
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It’s been one year to the day since we left EP for the last time following a 1-1 draw against Barnet. Since then we have been under lockdowns and restrictions and have temporarily lost part of our lives. Since the early days of the league-wide suspension, we have been desperate to be back, amongst our friends, belting out songs in support of the lads, and the fans aren’t the only ones to want those days back too.
The photos of the Barnet game which accompany this article were published in the May 2020 edition of When Saturday Comes. As we all know, County rarely get national press coverage so they provide a prominent and poignant look back at EP in all it’s glory for the last time pre-Covid. With that in mind, I would like to say a huge thank you to Paul Thompson for granting permission for us to use his photos in this piece. Click here to see the full gallery or to purchase photos from the game. You can also follow Paul on Twitter.
From the springtime lockdown novelty of home school, empty supermarket shelves and finally getting around to putting that bookcase together, to the chance of spending more time with family as working from home became the norm, the uniqueness of the situation was embraced by many, safe in the knowledge that it would only take ‘three weeks to flatten the curve’.
Football clubs were no different, games of noughts and crosses, Connect Four and a huge inter-club FIFA tournament organised by Leyton Orient. County launched the player's Q&A for fans to ask players questions, they posted a goal of the day on social media and also repeated, in their entirety, famous games from season’s past.
The ‘three-week’ promise and novelty of lockdown, like most things which are unique, wore off fairly quickly, and as the inevitable conclusion of needing a vaccine before we could attempt to return to normal life became apparent, fans were left to face the reality that there were no guarantees when the 2019/20 season would finish, if at all, and looking ahead, whether the next season would start on time in August.
We may have had more time to spend with our families but it was also a time of shock, frustration and rumour for football fans. The two-week suspension of the league programme passed and the league was finally suspended indefinitely on 31st March, with member clubs voting for the Points Per Game average to determine the final league places in June. As we know, County were the ones to suffer from this as far as the play offs were concerned - Barnet’s sub-standard pitch actually did them a favour in the end.
So that was it, the season had finished, we had already had three months without football and we had another four to wait until the 3rd October start date. The date itself hadn’t been decided upon yet though. In the meantime, the National League fought for steps one and two of non-league to be classed as ‘elite’, like the Premier League and Football League, to allow the 2019/20 play offs to be concluded and relegation places decided. The fight for elite status was one that arguably backfired later on as the government’s continued ban on fans returning to stadiums in elite leagues hampered the ability for clubs at our level to make money on the turnstiles. The bottom line was that for the season to start some form of funding to compensate for the lack of gate receipts would be necessary.
During all the moral and political debate over the return of fans, County certainly didn’t let the grass grow underneath them with a thorough re-branding of the club, a new training complex and a whole host of new faces posing with the new shirt in front of the Cheadle End. The ground itself was also the recipient of a makeover, all ready for our return very soon.
Everything appeared to point to an autumn return for fans as the government’s plans for the return of fans to stadiums were announced in the summer of last year, with the hope that the season would start at the beginning of September. Unfortunately, not for the first time the start date was delayed in August. The main point of interest amongst the debates over exactly when the season would actually start was that the Football Association stated steps one and two of non-league wouldn’t start without fans because gate receipts were vital to the survival of many clubs. However, the government advised fans wouldn’t be able to return at elite level clubs until the beginning of October. Despite the obvious disappointment of the further delayed start and with all the rumour and counter-rumour it was something of a relief to finally have a start date for the new season, one which would also see us return to EP after seven months.
The rest of the country kicked off in September and fans of all teams, large and small, were able to get their football fix at games involving teams in the steps below the National League North and South. County fans also got the rare chance to see their team in action during a friendly at Colne. The rest of County’s friendlies would be played behind closed doors though and the first sight of an empty EP during the friendly with Rochdale was more than a little surreal and tinged with a fair amount of sadness.
In September, after the debates, rumours and reports about returning to a reduced capacity EP, just 14 days before we were scheduled to play our first home game against FC Halifax Town, and the day after thousands of season tickets had been sold by the club, the government announced that the plan to have fans return would be paused indefinitely because of the rise in Covid-19 cases, with some heavy hints of restrictions being in place until March 2021; a full year since the game against Barnet at EP. It was a bitter blow to football fans everywhere and the frustration was palpable. After a long summer of praying and fantasising about what a return to EP would be like, we were now back to square one. It wasn’t until the final days of September that funding for step one and two teams were finalised but we were finally ready to start the season, albeit without fans, and the new world of streaming games and armchair fandom was just beginning for County fans.
Later in the year, the government introduced a tier system of restrictions that depended on the severity of the Covid-19 situation in a given area. Crucially, for fans, tiers one and two allowed for fans to return to stadiums at a reduced capacity, naturally, there was excitement at the news and a glimmer of hope was illuminated at last.
Unfortunately, Greater Manchester, which included Stockport, was placed in tier three, which meant no fans would be allowed in until the next review in December. Many areas around the south and south-east were placed in tiers one and two and so County played in front of crowds at a competitive game for the first time in eight months during the wins at Bromley and Barnet. Despite plenty of work being carried out behind the scenes to ensure risk assessments were completed to make grounds ‘Covid secure’ and the noticeable drop in cases, hospitalisations and deaths across the region, it was more bad news for County fans as Greater Manchester was kept in tier three in December and the post-Christmas lockdown has meant the return of fans felt about as far away as at any point since March last year.
The post-Christmas lockdown couldn’t last forever and on 22nd February the government announced a four-step roadmap to guide the country out of lockdown, with the hope it would be the last time they would have to do so. For football fans, there was a huge amount of hope delivered in the statement with the news that fans could return to stadiums from the 17th May at the earliest. For County fans, this means we could be back at EP for the final home game of the season against Woking. We have been here before; the return date, the optimism, then the crushing blow a few weeks before the big date. This time has to be different, surely?
Looking at the situation from the club’s point of view, in hindsight, the takeover couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Having invested millions in a football club, the owner and board, within a matter of weeks were forced to deal with furlough and loss of gate receipts. Having seen virtually zero income, and being honest, zero return on the huge investment by Mark Stott, they have ploughed on regardless, building a side full of experience, one which also has no shortage of talent. County as a club, a business, like many other clubs, desperately need the safe return of fans to happen sooner rather than later. We may have bigger resources than the majority of the National League, but the current arrangement of paying for everything out of the wallet of Mark Stott is simply unsustainable.
From an engagement point of view, and putting aside the controversy of the Jim Gannon sacking, County have tried to make the most of an unusual and frustrating situation. We were given almost daily social media content at the start of the pandemic, while this has understandably died down now the season is well underway, I suspect the majority of fans were grateful to see County still being active and available to provide a degree of normal life in the early days of the spring lockdown.
Arguably the most vital missing ingredient of all has been the bond; the chance to relate to the new players and staff. We all, fans, board and players, desperately need the chance to see the new squad become part of County history, we need the chance to celebrate together - imagine the goal by John Rooney against Altrincham and how it would have been revered by the Cheadle End. Imagine the scenes after the late winner away at Chesterfield and the atmosphere, under the floodlights, at home to West Ham United.
Fans need the delight, despair and everything in between which only the players and live football can provide. We need to shout, swear and laugh. Trying to describe the feeling which live football evokes is difficult, I attempted it back in May last year…
There is also another reason why we don’t ever quite give up; It is the rush, the crackle and the almost electric charge which accompanies the very best moments. The goal celebration is a part of football like no other and other than the obvious, I can’t think of another time in everyday life when the most simple act can give such delirious results. Once experienced, the goal celebration cements the addiction. Most other things at a game are regimented and orderly; we sit in the same seats, meet the same people, drink the same pint in the same pub before the game; we’re creatures of habit and routine. But the goal celebration, especially one which is unexpected or in the dying breaths of injury time, is the pinnacle of any match going experience. Remember the celebrations at Fylde, Barnet, Dagenham (home and away) or Wrexham last season?
No matter how you spin it, with crowd noise or cardboard cut-out fans, it just isn’t the same for players, it’s little wonder most games have a feel of a friendly game about them.
Like fans, players feed off the energy which only a live crowd can provide. Former Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov said in May 2020...
“Sometimes it can affect your performance when you go out there and there are no fans, you know it’s a serious game but in a way, your body and mind can tell you it’s like a practice game”
Closer to home, think back to the games where we, as fans, have spurred the team on to victory. How it felt to be part of something like that, knowing you played your part in County’s success. It’s then you realise how much a team needs that impetus and spark which a raucous crowd can give them. This is how legends are born, this is how the mystique of a cult hero is built. At the moment all we have is a new squad of mostly unfamiliar faces who, apart from a handful of players, we have no connection with.
County’s home form has been distinctly average this season and while arguments of inconsistency and a general lack of cohesion can be made, the lack of fans to encourage them has seriously diluted any advantage the players could gain from playing at EP. We know they miss us, it seems every other interview has a mention of “if only the fans were here” or “we can’t wait to have them back”. The players as much as anyone need fans back as soon as possible.
While the problems of players and the club may be unrelatable, we, the fans, are the ones who have arguably been affected the most. On 28th March 2020, I posted this on Twitter.
Football - live, chaotic, dramatic, living and breathing football - was a pleasant distraction from those things. Unlike pre season we don't know when this will end and I genuinely do miss it.
— Dave Long (@DaveLong79)
You can gather the sentiment from that tweet, particularly the last sentence, and nearly a year later my feelings remain the same. That has been the biggest problem for fans, the fact that a large proportion of our lives, something which we have taken for granted has been taken away. Once the novelty wears thin and we’re left with nothing it’s when we begin to miss it. We all need a positive distraction from the stresses of family, work etc, County, like an extended member of the family, was always there, Edgeley Park was always there.
It’s at this point, without being overly hyperbolic, where we must think about the mental wellbeing of some fans. For some of us it’s our life, for the majority it’s an intrinsic part of who they are. It’s arguably quite difficult for people who don’t follow football to understand fully what it means to be part of something like this, although the feeling of loss can be loosely described thus; Imagine suddenly being denied the opportunity to engage in your passionate hobby (being a County fan could never be reduced to such a thing, I know), one day you’re told that you cannot do the one thing, outside of family life, which you enjoyed the most. Furthermore, you’re told there are no guarantees as to when you’ll be able to do so again. You would understandably feel downcast and frustrated. It’s arguably almost like withdrawal, the psychological pressure of being denied the chance of escapism with our passion has been a shock to the system for a lot of people and the rumours of return dates, reduced capacity and tier changes have merely emphasised the phrase ‘so near, yet so far’.
The latest post-Christmas lockdown was always likely to be more different. The novelty of the spring lockdown had worn off, plus we had the winter weather to contend with; for many, there have been no countryside walks with the family or relaxing in the garden. Winter is always a tough time for one's mental wellbeing, the lack of opportunity to get out and about, live football watching included, simply adds to the general feeling of lethargy.
Spring is around the corner though, the nationwide vaccination programme has been generally well received so far and as more of the country is protected and the number of cases continues to fall we’ll see a gradual relaxation of the restrictions which have become a huge part of our lives over the past year.
I personally haven’t been affected by Covid-19, other than having to wear a mask while out shopping and having to wait an eternity for the barbers to re-open, and I am certainly not comparing being denied the chance to go to County to the human cost of the virus. I cannot comprehend the agony people who have lost relatives and friends to the virus have been through. We must also think of those who have lost jobs and businesses, and of those families who are struggling to provide for and support their children during this chaotic 12 months.
Spending a Saturday afternoon in the company of like-minded County following folk, having a pint and a bite to eat, cheering, commiserating and lamenting that decision which didn’t go our way has been an intrinsic part of our lives and we have been denied the chance to escape from Monday to Friday, nine to five life, with little hope on the horizon until very recently.
I type this not because I think the restrictions are unjust, I think the majority of fans would reluctantly accept the situation for the chance to be in control of our lives again. I also know there are a lot more important things in life than football, but our general wellbeing and mental health are also of paramount importance. Everyone, including the club, the board, the players and of course, the fans, all need to look forward to the day in the not too distant future when we’ll be back together at EP. With everything that has happened since Barnet at home last March, 366 days ago, it’s been too long a time to be apart.