Football doesn’t matter. The world is experiencing a shared horror. Lives have changed, many ruined.
As the UK tiptoes towards a ‘new normal’ no one wanted, we will need to resurrect our cities and transform them from the ghost towns they have become. But, for now, football will play no part in that.
Thousands should have been streaming up through the city to watch this fixture in March, jostling through the crowds, inches from one another, brushing shoulders, shaking hands. We’ll never know how many of those people we unthinkingly walked with side by side on match days have been claimed by the virus and will never return to St James’ Park.
On Sunday, for the match against Sheffield United, that familiar walk to the ground was anything but.
No programme sellers hollering down the street, no packed pubs emptying out five minutes before kick off, no black and white shirts.
Instead, stewards who should have been keeping an eye on fans inside the ground were stationed outside to keep them at bay.
Every entrance fenced off, every turnstile un-turned. Fans had been warned not to congregate outside of stadiums and police officers were on patrol, on the lookout for any early signs of a crowd. They needn’t have bothered.
Save for a handful of people who stopped to take a picture, just one solitary Newcastle fan hung around.
Chris Burdon, 37, said he wanted to show his support by watching the match on his phone outside the ground. The lifelong Newcastle supporter said: “I’m by myself and I can keep my distance from people. It’s disappointing more hasn’t been done to get fans in stadiums, even if it’s just 15,000 people. If you can have people on trains then why can’t you have people in football stadiums?”
This break in the football season has forced fans to reflect on how much it means to them. Some have missed it like you would a limb, others have been surprised to realise they’re quite alright without it. For many Newcastle United fans, there is an awkward truth: That many of us may have missed it a lot more once upon a time.
St James’ Park hasn’t been ‘full’ for a while now. It’s certainly been at capacity on many occasions but for a lot of fans something has been missing for some time, like an invisible stand has been closed, depriving the stadium of its full voice.
There have been good days during the Mike Ashley era, including a top five finish, the admirable efforts of groups like Wor Flags and the statesmanlike steer of Rafa Benitez. But all of them were the exception to the rule – Mike Ashley’s rule. They ran counter to a narrative of decline that some fans had accepted as natural law. They were unlikely rallies from a club dealt a bad hand and facing grim odds at a rigged table.
Pessimism has become the default for many fans. So the pace of that great matchday migration, when thousands seem to come out of nowhere to journey en masse up to St James’ Park and which was so conspicuous in its absence on Sunday, has changed over the years.
It was once more like a jog, an excited shuffle from a group of fans dying to be inside the stadium once more. For many, the pace has now slowed to a trudge, a sort of dutiful procession of fans expecting little and time and time again witnessing less than that. Now, you’re more likely to see fans rushing out of the ground on 75 minutes than you are to see them rush towards it.
Walking that lifeless route on Sunday was eerie but it was hard not to wonder how many fans deep down might be relieved they’re not obliged to do it this time.
On the pitch, Newcastle registered a comfortable win over the ten men of Sheffield United. Fans permitted to see the match for free by Sky will have been thrilled and entertained for a couple of hours. Only those with a BT subscription will get to do it all again when United play Aston Villa on Wednesday.
What next for football fans? It could be years before football stadiums are at full capacity again. Around Europe, leagues are looking at proposals to get some fans in, with Spanish officials optimistically claiming it may be possible even before the end of the current La Liga season.
And what next for Newcastle United? The club is being haunted by the spectre of a takeover shrouded in legal secrecy.
It seems likely though that Mike Ashley will be replaced by something else entirely: The financial arm of an oil-rich state on manoeuvres, promising to transform the club, the city and, it hopes, its own image. A state guilty of stomach-churning human rights abuses and long accused of links to terrorism.
There’s a grim irony that the end of the Mike Ashley era may well be played out in front of an empty stadium after all these years of attempted boycotts and fans giving up season tickets. For now, the Gallowgate will lie silent and fans will need to watch from afar as they wait to see if Newcastle United’s long ghost story can be brought to a close.