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Life, Death, and Football

Reflections on football, loss, and what it all means as the pandemic enters its second year.

Fans Leave Messages Of Support For Jurgen Klopp Outside Anfield Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

My daughter was just two days old last January, sleeping peacefully next to me, when Curtis Jones curled in the match winner in the Derby, past Jordan Pickford’s outstretched arms. Well, she was sleeping until I jumped up and yelled in excitement (along with all the Reds packed into the ground, in bars and supporters clubs around the world, etc).

It’s fair to say the world was a different place in January 2020 than it is in February 2021.

Beating Everton at Anfield, even if it was just the FA Cup, seemed to mean everything. The mood around the club was as upbeat as it ever has been. We were champions of everything, watching brilliant footballers doing brilliant footballing things, seeing off our rivals and everyone else. The words and phrases such as “COVID,” “pandemic,” “lockdown,” “behind closed doors,” and “social distancing” were not a regular part of our vocabulary.

As fate would have it, we experienced a loss this week, again two days before a Derby at Anfield.

Even if Liverpool were once again cruising to a league title, playing brilliant football, and didn’t have a whole slew of important injuries, the mood—both personally and around the club—would understandably be downbeat.

We’ve all lost something over the past year. Maybe it was a loved one. Or a job. Or an opportunity. Or a once-in-a-lifetime event (a wedding, graduation, concert, etc). And even if we didn’t technically lose something or someone, we’ve all struggled with isolation, exhaustion, and an inability to do many of the small “little things” that make life worth living.

After the events on Thursday, my wife said “I could really use a beer from Poulsen’s (a nearby café).” Of course, we can’t go to a café or a bar. They are understandably—and rightly—closed. Still, if COVID isn’t directly responsible for a loss, it at the very least exacerbates it.

We all have our grieving process. Whether that’s a funeral or a gravøl (or both), many of us can’t even grieve and process loss in our own way.

We all love the Shankly quote, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

I still love that quote. But this past year has proven Shanks wrong, and emphatically so. Maybe he would’ve reconsidered after a year of watching football being played in empty stadiums.

Jurgen Klopp’s quotes, shortly after the first lockdown, have only become more prescient with time:

“First and foremost we have to do what we can to protect one another. In society, I mean. This should be the case all the time in life, but in this moment I think it matters more than ever. I’ve said before that football always seems the most important of the least important things, and today football and football matches really aren’t important at all.

“Of course we don’t want to play in front of empty stadiums and we don’t want games or competitions suspended, but if doing so helps one individual stay healthy – just one – we do it no questions asked.”

We haven’t kept individuals—and players absolutely count as individuals—healthy. And wider society has fared even worse.

Whether from COVID, lack of a proper preseason, or a condensed 2020/21 season, players are falling ill or injured left and right. And have been since the start of the season. We now know enough about COVID that some players who have been infected might never be the same. The same can be said for the most serious injuries.

Perhaps this will come off as sour grapes to some rival football fans, ones who are more intent to promote Banter Culture than to share in our love of the game, if not our shared love of humanity.

But I’m exhausted. We all are.

This season has become a grind, and not just for Liverpool supporters.

We’re not watching the best football, because football without fans, songs, and chants is nothing. We’re not watching the best football because the players are also exhausted. We’re not watching the best football because many of the world’s best players have been injured. We’re not watching the best football because the lack of fans, the exhaustion, and the injuries are all working together to destroy the game we love. And don’t even get me started on VAR.

Instead of becoming a highlight of our week, matches are just another reminder of what we’re missing.

Of course, I’ll watch the Derby today. Obviously I hope we win. But it’s not quite the same, and I feel my love for the game diminishing with each week, regardless of the result.

As I wrote on Tuesday night, before our loss:

Honestly, I’m not even sure what we’re doing here. I love the Champions League. European Nights are special. But we’re playing home and away at two neutral venues in front of no one. Half our team is injured. People are literally dying, including Klopp’s mom. What are we doing here?!

Indeed, what are we doing here?

I know the practicalities of it all. If we want association football to continue in its current form, they need TV money. For TV money, the games need to be played.

Of course, we had a chance to rethink all of this when football stopped last March.

For a brief moment, it looked like reason and common sense would prevail. But predictably, the greed that pervades football across all levels and governing bodies prevailed. Everyone wanted their slice of the pie, and no one was willing to sacrifice a little bit for anyone else, regardless of the predictable long-term cost.

And the problems were predictable. Any subscribers to The Anfield Wrap were treated to a fantastic series “What’s Next,” with Neil Atkinson, Paul Cope, and Rory Smith, where they debated, in great detail, what should happen post-lockdown.

As Atkinson points out himself (paraphrasing here), “If a couple of gobshites with a podcast can foresee these problems, governing bodies should have been prepared as well.”

I was glad when football came back. It was part of my weekly routine. I missed it. Or so I thought. But much like how I can buy and eat fruit that’s out of season, I don’t really enjoy it. I don’t miss the concept of a strawberry. I miss the full flavor of it.

I miss the full flavor of football. I miss feeling the nerves before a Champions League knockout tie, and for the week leading up to a Derby. I miss feeling my blood boil along with thousands of fans from a bad decision or a terrible tackle. I miss the pure delight of a perfectly placed Curtis Jones match winner. I miss hearing the Kop singing in full throat.

It’s just not the same. And it can’t be without the fans.

We’ve all lost people and things in this pandemic. The people we’ve lost will obviously not come back. But hopefully we don’t also lose many of the little things that we love that make life worth living, including football.

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