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Only football can do this

Monday 17 May 2021

The words, two decades ago, of an elderly fan to a younger one. The past weekend proved them true all over again


“Football, bloody hell…” The three words that fell from the lips of Alex Ferguson as he faced the media following that game in Barcelona in 1999, when Manchester United scored two injury time goals to beat Bayern Munich and secure a League/Cup/Champions League treble.

My 11-year-old son Rory had previously been converted by Ferguson from my Burnley to his Manchester United, so I had taken him to that final as a treat. As we left Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium, I remember a delirious elderly United fan grabbing Rory by the shoulders, and saying: “Drink it in, son, because only football can do this.”

When I say “converted,” how was I supposed to compete when Ferguson had got us tickets for a United game at Newcastle and, on arrival, I got a message that he wanted to see us. I had made the mistake of telling him Rory was “on the cusp” of becoming a United fan, so “no special treatment…” – he took him into the pre-match dressing room to get pictures with Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Schmeichel, the Nevilles… Rory was gone.

Ferguson’s Barcelona words are now part of football legend, plagiarised by fans on most match days – in thousands of texts and phone calls – when something especially exciting, dramatic or unexpected happens. But that grey-haired United fan was also spot on: “…only football can do this…”

We had two examples this weekend. First, Leicester City fans went crazy after VAR judged Chelsea’s late FA Cup Final equaliser to be offside. It was fantastic to see the celebrations. With goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel having made a stunning save from Mason Mount a few minutes earlier, and given a terrific post-match interview, I texted his dad Peter to say well done. “Football, bloody hell…” came the reply.

I knew Schmeichel from the first Soccer Aid in 2005, when he was goalkeeper in the team I was mind-blowingly selected for, alongside four World Cup winners, Dunga of Brazil, Marcel Desailly of France, Lothar Matthäus of Germany, and the one and only Diego Maradona of Argentina. I have mentioned the fact that “I played with Maradona” to someone every single day since. Only football can do this to me.

Second, the incredible injury time goal by goalkeeper Alisson against West Bromwich on Sunday, which kept alive Liverpool’s fading hopes of a Champions League place. Reflect on the drama. His dad has been killed in an accident back home in Brazil. He’s not been able to go to the funeral because of Covid. As the final whistle nears, and the 1-1 scoreline looks like ruining the Champions League dream, he lopes up as a corner is about to be taken, and he smashes home a header that would not have looked out of place on a Roy of the Rovers cartoon strip. Cue celebrations even more emotional than those we saw the day before at Wembley. A goalkeeper leaving the field in the arms of his manager, tears streaming down his face, then another fabulous, moving post-match interview. I really do believe it: only football can do this.

Even my partner Fiona, a non-football fan who has lived with my Burnley obsession for more than four decades, said she was pleased to hear the fans back in the stadium at Wembley, and moved by the scenes of celebration at the end.

The amazing drama created by Alisson at West Bromwich had a special significance for Burnley fans, too, because it means there is now a lot more riding on our game against Liverpool on Wednesday, when, for the first time since Covid, 3,500 fans will be allowed back into Turf Moor. Liverpool have to beat us, or else the dream dies again.

I have been luckier than most fans in lockdowns, in that I occasionally co-commentate for Clarets+, the club site. But even when commentating on victories this season, I just haven’t enjoyed the experience. It was Celtic’s legendary manager Jock Stein who said “football without fans is nothing” – and he was right. Okay, fanless football on TV may be better than no football at all. But as the season has gone on, I have found myself watching every minute of every Burnley game, but less and less of everything else.

I watched the Cup Final not because it was the Final but because I was interested to see whether 25,000 fans could create an atmosphere in a vast stadium like Wembley. They did. Brilliantly. Ian Wright – ex-Burnley, you know – got it right when he said that one of the highlights of the game was the first deafening “Ooooooooooooooo!” by Leicester fans when a Chelsea player hoofed a shot way over the bar.

As for West Brom vs Liverpool, I watched because, in my deranged football fandom, I pretend to be co-gaffer with Burnley manager Sean Dyche, and therefore consider my time on the couch as scouting work, sending him messages about how “we should take care of Thiago”.

When I was asked at the start of the first lockdown what I most missed about normal life, Burnley games came top – by a mile. It is not just the football. It is the journey. It is being met at Preston by my mate Paul Fletcher, who played for us in the 1970s, and chatting as we drive over to Turf Moor. It is the rituals. It is the people you have bumped into at grounds all over the country. It is the sense of belonging to – and loving – something that was here before you were born, and will be here when you’re gone. It is the shared memories, the shared hopes, the shared songs. It is the drama of the moment, and the sheer ecstasy that accompanies a winning goal, or the final whistle being blown as you’re clinging on to a one-goal lead.

3,500 is a long way down on our 22,000 capacity. But there was a time in our history, as we languished in the Fourth Division, when that was a regular kind of crowd. Indeed, on 4 November 1986, we were at home against Colchester and just 1,696 turned up. Six months later, the stadium was packed as we had to beat Orient at home to stay in the Football League. We won 2-1, prompting one of the biggest and best pitch invasions of my life: thousands suddenly realised we had come close to losing something very very special. I got down on my knees and cried, and I was not alone… only football can do this.

And it is only when you have known feelings like that that you can truly appreciate what it feels like to be heading north for Wednesday’s game, hoping we can do the double over Liverpool, and knowing that, for the first time since the first lockdown, there will be other human beings there with you. Football, bloody hell. What would life be without it? For me, as dull and meaningless and annoying as the fake crowd noise that has become part of the armchair fan’s experience.