This is the first week where I can write about a Liverpool match that happened over the weekend, for this blog. I’m not a tactics writer. I wrote quick recaps for TLO in the past and I enjoyed those, but deep dives in to tactics and formations are not a skill I currently possess. Maybe in the future. Maybe when this weirdness is over.
On Sunday Liverpool FC played their first game since the season was paused due to the Covid-19 pandemic back in March. The last time I watched the Reds was from the home of the LFCLA, the supporters club in Los Angeles, when they suffered a loss in the Champions League that essentially kicked them out of the tournament. The match that was supposed to follow was the Merseyside Derby, away at Everton's Goodison Park. Of course, things accelerated, and the season was put on hold as the virus that had ravaged other European countries started to multiply in England.
The question of restart had been looming for months, even with the season due to be finished in May if nothing had happened. That of course, wasn't reality, and we're now in mid-June, watching the Reds play to an empty stadium.
Things were always going to be weird. Who knew what the game would be like if it restarted, especially in such an infamously physical league like the Premier League. All the powers that be have been hemming and hawing about how to restart the league, too, so to finally see it happen in front of me is strange. Part of me felt like it wasn't going to happen, that something would change and cancel the games all over again. Part of me wished that would happen, my own worries and fears not just for the players and the staff but their families gnawing at my insides. These are elite level athletes, but the injuries sustained during these matches are no joke, and putting a further strain on the hospitals already pushed to their limits is not a great thought. Not to mention they had been without their normal training schedules for three months — more than their usual off-seasons. That alone is dangerous enough for their bodies.
Liverpool were lucky enough to get the late kick off on Sunday, taking every moment available to them to make sure they were as match fit as they could possibly be. There was news of a “fully fit squad” ahead of the matchup, considering the team had been stuck with a few critical injuries when things had ground to a halt. I don’t know if what I felt could be called anxiety or optimism ahead of kick off, but maybe a pleasant resignation.
This is happening so might as well get in.
The stadium was empty, with tarps printed with Everton fans’ faces pulled over the empty seats. There were the moments of protest, the kneeling just before kick off and the minute’s silence for all the people lost during the fight against the virus. The cameras showed a couple high profile attendees like Sir Kenny Dalglish and former Everton player Tim Cahill. There was artificial crowd noise played, having been recorded from previous Premier League matches. But the teams were restricted to their own ends of the stadiums for their dressing rooms, their own little quarantine zones. There were water breaks, despite the general cool temperature (I guess for this Californian), and Jurgen Klopp — Liverpool’s notoriously substitute stingy manager — used all five substitutions at his disposal, although maybe not in the best way.
The match ended 0-0, with two players coming off with possible injuries. And that was it. It was largely uneventful, as Liverpool held most of the possession but failed to find their finishing edge. And while it was great to see some of the boys that I love the most do what they love to do best, it wasn’t the same.
No one ever said it wouldn’t be, either. We all knew going into this that the empty stadium would be weird, the new regulations would be weird, everything would be simply weird. This is the new normal, as many others would be saying.
Five points left to secure that elusive 19th league title, out of the 21 points left on the table. That is not a question that needs to be answered — Liverpool will secure that league title this year, they just need to get back into the groove of things. There was nothing in that match that was worrisome. Liverpool have always had trouble getting going following an extended break, with some particularly difficult games always following international breaks or holidays. They are marathon players, not sprinters, even as their football has been played full throttle and free flowing.
Will there be a match day where none of this feels weird? Maybe. Probably. This is the new normal, how things are going to be for a very long time despite some people involved with the league claiming otherwise. Football is nothing without fans, but right now it is in the fans’ best interest to stay home.
My boyfriend and I watched this from his couch, with homemade shandies and flags pinned to the curtains behind us. We did our best, considering we have a well-worn match day routine. In the PC (pre-COVID) times, I would sleep at his, he would wake up early to shower and get ready and then wake me up to get ready and get out the door to head to our bar. We would hug Eugene (our bartender), he would hand us our shandies, depending on the day I would find a spot for my laptop. We would hug and cheek kiss our friends, catching up with their weeks. There would be songs, there would be chants, and for 90ish minutes, there would be just the bar and these people. Even following the 2016 election as the general decline of America increased, the one thing we could count on was our time at the bar and watching the Reds do what they love to do best.
This time there was none of that. Despite our bar being open, Eugene ready to give us shandies, neither of us felt it was safe to go. Physical distancing and masks were required, but it wouldn’t be the same. None of it would be the same. We made the best of it at home, but none of it was the same.
The weirdness that permeated the match 3000 miles away, seeped into our bar and our living room.
When the quarantines started to happen all over the world, when the league stopped, I wanted desperately for it to come back. I wanted us to play our games as quickly as possible, to finish the season in May when it was supposed to so we could take our booked trip to Liverpool to celebrate that title. Even in that denial, I wanted it to come back. I wanted the comfort that came with watching our team slice and dice their way through other teams. I know I wasn’t alone in these feelings. Yet even with those feelings, I relished every video released by the club of the lads doing yoga together, calling each other or other fans, checking in and making sure things were okay -- even so far away from each other.
Now that it is back, that the players are back and doing their best to work through the months of fatigue and not even six weeks of training to get them back to fitness, I don’t know how I feel. I’m so sad I can’t go to the bar, as cases continue to rise here in Los Angeles. I’m nervous for the players and their families and all the families involved — that this might be rushing things back. I’m pessimistic that this restart won’t last for long.
Things feel a little out of control. The restart is fueled by money, the money that the clubs need to continue on with their business, to be able to pay the players their huge contracts and keep them happy. By television contracts and broadcast rules and payouts. This restart isn’t fueled by the fans, as the only thing the fans are benefiting from is the ability to watch whatever match they want without usual broadcasting restrictions.
Hollow. That’s the word for it all. Even as happy as everyone is to see these teams back, these players and personalities and skills, the whole thing feels hollow because it is only for the rich owners of these clubs that these matches are happening.
That’s not what football is, or what it should be. And even with the fan-cams, the stadium noise, the flags and photos draped over seats, it’s not the same. It feels hollow to expect these players to perform through the considerable risks of exposure to this virus. It feels hollow to risk hospital beds and doctors and nurses, just for a few minutes of football.
I don’t even know if that’ll make Liverpool’s eventual lifting of the title all that much sweeter, or all that much harder. They’ll likely do it to an empty Anfield when they play their last home match of the season against Chelsea. The fans that have been waiting for this moment for 30 years will be watching from their homes or their bars, but not in the place that would’ve lifted the team.
God, that’s heartbreaking.
Football is nothing without fans. Now, more than ever, and arguments about morale and boredom, that we the people need to be lifted up and entertained at the risk of these players, feels even more hollow.
We know this isn’t happening for us. Attempts to include fans are just a little empty. Even as Jurgen Klopp kindly tells fans to stay home, to “support us from home.” We have no where else to go that is safe, because this restart is more about the money than the fans.