Football - so different but yet so beautifully, ignorantly normal - writes Fraser Watson

The empty Liberty Stadium

Sometimes, the greatest show of strength in adversity is to remain normal.

Of course, in many respects the term normal in football right now is about as relatable as a defensive masterclass from David Luiz.

Empty stadiums, extra subs, Adrian Durham offering reasoned perspective, and universal appreciation for Villa v Sheffield United being live on Sky.

All alien concepts pre Covid-19. All now emphasising notions that along with Michael Jordan, we heinously took for granted before the coronavirus took hold.

But at the same time, these new beginnings have reinforced the beautiful ignorance of football. A trait that frustrates critics, but enderes to fans. That causes many to scream about imbalance in society, but at the same time fulfils the lives of millions.

For whether its terrorist attacks, a recession, or a global pandemic, football has always possessed an ability to plough on in its own bubble regardless. It’s been halted, it’s been more than tinkered with, and it’s had to relate to bigger issues around it.

But while so much has temporarily changed, so much has also stayed the same.

The game was of course an easy target during this international crisis. The extortionate money involved was always going to ensure that. Null and void the season, there are lives being lost! How dare clubs furlough staff! Why aren’t they donating wages!? What gives them the right to be tested?

Suggesting provisional plans should be implemented for the game to return safely was deemed the equivalent of doing a celebratory dance at the rising death toll.

Pandemonium at VE Day anniversary parties, surging into garden centres to maintain the aesthetic qualities of your plants and flowers, and sneaking onto the forbidden coast path. All necessary evils to maintain morale and well-being in society.

But football? Get some perspective for god’s sake.

As it happened, football has returned and thus far successfully. And the mindless tribalism and extremity that we both love and despair of has come back with it.

Empty seats at the Etihad? No change there then screams Twitter. Arsenal’s back four practicing social distancing – jokes everyone. A faulty VAR decision – that could cost people money and jobs. Souness v Pogba, Carragher v Neville, Merson v Mourinho, Roy Keane v everything Man United post 2005.

All the above brought back the fan engagement and petty amusement that let’s be honest, we’d been craving.

Liverpool’s title win, testament to arguably the most dominant Premier League season ever produced, was met with the widespread appraisal it merited. Inevitably, fans flew in the face of the ‘it won’t be the same’ theory with outdoor celebrations and enough flares to burn up any potential asterisks.

Of course, behaving as if they had privileges apparently only afforded to Bournemouth beach goers was always going to draw some scorn. But whisper it quietly, there was something perversely admirable about the mindset of ‘this matters more’. The ‘we’ve waited 30 years and no pandemic will stop us celebrating’ philosophy that underlined how football can consume lives - with or without a lockdown.

For me, this all served as a prelude to my own personal return to football stadiums on the weekend for Swansea City v Luton Town.

Ironically, the convenience factor felt vastly improved. Less traffic heading in, front of stadium parking, a quick temperature test before a crowd free walk to the relevant seat. All things you appreciate more when you’re growing old and miserable.

“Not starting that Celina again,” mumbled one steward.

“Aye, best not lose today now or we can kiss goodbye to the play offs,” croaked another.

Yep. So different in the Liberty, and yet so normal.

The eeriness was weird, of course. Warm up instructions echoed around empty seats. Player conversations could be heard. Media colleagues mumbled muffled greetings across the desks under face masks.

To my detriment, our press positions weren’t blending in like usual. Briefly slinging on a woolly hat (yes, I know it’s June) to shield myself from a random downpour apparently didn’t go unnoticed by Kelly Cates on Radio Five Live.

Clearly, she hasn’t spent long enough in Wales to know such provisions are essential all year round.

Five minutes before kick off panic struck as a photographer innocently wandered into a restricted area. Security staff, pent up after weeks of non-enforcement, reacted with the kind of intensity reserved for a T-Rex escaping its enclosure in a Jurassic Park film.

But amidst the dodgy noise machines, lack of atmosphere, and frankly inept Swansea home display, came the realisation that there is something pure about watching football behind closed doors.

The spatial awareness, the communication between players, the crack when shin pads collide, all more apparent when you don’t have a tempestuous season ticket holder behind you screaming at Andre Ayew to ‘effing pass it’.

When a Matt Grimes free kick was tipped over by Simon Sluga, the sound of ball on palm defied what would have looked a routine save on camera.

“How can that be handball,” shouted Luton manager Nathan Jones early on, in a tone that reverberated around the stadium. “What are we doing?” cried opposite number Steve Cooper, a question that bore relevance from the first minute to the last.

Even during a late melee which saw Swansea’s Jordan Garrick sent off, there was a sense of realism amidst the alpha male handbags often lost in raucous noise levels. You could make out the swearing and sense the aggression. Had the game been live on television, the minority who wouldn’t have switched off by half time would have been afforded apologies for any offence caused.

But when all was said done, the reaction amongst media and supporters alike was a familiar one.

Yes there are bigger things going on than football, but how did Swansea only muster one shot on target against struggling Luton? Sure it was weird without fans, but will Rhian Brewster hang around if we don’t go up? Of course a second wave of coronavirus hovers over Wales and the UK, but how can we be so wasteful with 62% possession?

For all the perspective and strangeness that has engulfed football of late, our obsession with the joy and frustrations that go with it have remained.

So different, and yet so beautifully and ignorantly normal.

Anyway, the match report.

Luton won 1-0 at Swansea thanks to a 72nd minute goal from James Collins.