Jordan North: The football fans missing their 'happy place'

When BBC Radio 1 DJ Jordan North got through his I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here viper challenge by chanting about his “happy place” – Burnley FC’s Turf Moor stadium – he sparked a wave of online jokes.

But among the gags about whether Turf Moor is happier for Burnley or the away supporters was a truth for many football fans: their home ground has always been a source of solace and community in tough times.

That was true until this year, when the pandemic closed the stadiums. So how much are football fans missing their hallowed turf and how are they coping?


‘We’re missing that togetherness’


Being held up by his dad on the terraces of Bramall Lane, Sheffield United’s ground, is one of Adam Murray’s first memories.

“When it’s something you’ve had around you all your life, it’s generally a happy place – win, lose or draw, it’s about the family time and the time with your friends,” he says.

Going to the match has always been a multi-generational family affair, Adam says, with friends meeting up for a drink beforehand and joining their families at seats they’ve had for years.

So losing this has been just one more way in which the virus is keeping loved ones apart.

Adam says he still keeps in touch with the club community through its LGBT group Rainbow Blades, which holds regular social gatherings over Zoom. Members trade banter with other teams’ LGBT groups, along with ideas for making football a better place for gay fans and players.

The sport still has a long way to go, he says. But he adds: “For some people it may be the only place where they can go and be part of a community and be accepted. For some people, not being able to be in that community now might be quite isolating.”

The last time he saw the club play at the stadium, his 73-year-old father was close to tears as he praised them as the best Sheffield Utd side he had ever seen. "We're winning every week, it just couldn't be any better than this."

Adam says it saddens him that “we were completely robbed of that because of the virus”.

And he believes that the lack of fan support has been a factor in the club’s poor start to this season, leaving it languishing at the bottom of the table.

“There’s definitely something missing: it’s not talent or ability, it’s that togetherness we share,” he says. “There’s a real feeling that without that togetherness of United we can’t do it.”


‘It’s a home away from home’


Football writer Harry Pearson, a fan of northern non-league football, said the period before the second lockdown provided a rare phenomenon.

Because capacity was limited to just 150 people in some cases, even some of the smallest clubs would have crowds locked outside, clamouring to get in.

“They were standing outside trying to watch the game through the gates. It’s never been known, such a thing in the Northern League that people were locked out,” he says.

The author of The Farther Corner: A Sentimental Return to North-East Football says many non-league grounds are “a home away from home” for fans, with many missing the companionship more than the sport.

“There’s never been any real sort of violence or trouble, it does generally seem like a happy community,” Harry says. He jokes that he shares a phobia of snakes and could imagine chanting about Dunston FC’s UTS Stadium under stress.

The community of the football stadium offers a chance to break free of other concerns, Harry suggests. “Like walking a dog” – he says you bump into the same people all the time for a friendly chat without any pressure to get to know them deeply.

“You’re pleased to see them, you stand next to them for 90 minutes exchanging mild witticisms about old footballers from the 1970s, but you don’t know anything about them,” he says. “When you keep things just on the level of football, it’s a good escape.”

But for now, there isn’t any football at all at this level. So how is Harry coping?

“I’ve been watching a lot of old YouTube things. I’ve been gradually working my way through the European Championships of my teenage years. That’s how I’m dealing with it.”

Original article 17.11.20 on the BBC News website.

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