We are, as each of you is undoubtedly aware, living in rather unusual times. Borders are closing, millions of people are being advised to remain indoors indefinitely, penguins are being given free reign in zoos, and, of course, football has been cancelled.
All of the football. Gone. Just like that.
But, before we get into all of that, I have a confession to make. Prior to penning this piece, I was writing an article for Póg Mo Goal dedicated to the fact that, in the last few years, I have stopped watching the game we all describe as beautiful.
I know, I know. Sacrilege.
The purpose of said article was to be that though my love for the sport has by no means waned, my means of consuming it has drastically altered, to the point where even attempting to watch a 90-minute fixture could rightfully be regarded as a self-imposed war of attrition.
We live in the era of snackable content; we want to see spectacular goals, incredible saves, touchline bust-ups and cringeworthy blunders. Many people – myself absolutely included – struggle to be enticed by the bits that happen in between; we care not for the wayward crosses and short corners that result in the ball taking a convoluted route back to the attacking team’s goalkeeper, or the seemingly endless wait for VAR to conclude that yes, that goal the referee deemed to be onside was, indeed, onside.
However, despite my inability to concentrate on a match for its duration, I would say that I’m now more clued up on football than I ever have been before. I know which teams are going through difficulties both on and off the field, I can name a raft of youngsters that we should all be keeping an eye on – Weston McKennie, Achraf Hakimi, Ruben Dias, Ebrima Colley, Pietro Pellegri – and I could probably participate in a fairly comprehensive chat about the current state of Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League (there’s a decent chance it’ll merge with the Dutch Eredivisie, if you want to know).
So, where exactly do I garner this wealth of knowledge? How – and, ultimately, why – do I keep on top of all manner of football-related content without actually having the capacity to watch even a solitary game?
Quite simply, I am a podcast addict. I’m subscribed to 49 different podcasts – a ridiculously high number, I’m well aware – and though only five of these are soccer-centric, it means I get through an average of seven hours of content each week that is directly focused on the latest results, news, scandals and predictions from across the footballing world.
Take The Football Ramble, for example. This podcast, which releases six episodes a week, gives its listeners thorough insight into the Premier League and the Championship, as well as the headlines from every top tier league in Europe. But it also does far more than that. Its many contributors – from Andy Brassell to Jonathan Wilson, Lars Sivertsen to David Cartlidge – are given licence to delve deep into the topics that interest them, whether it be the ongoing corruption allegations surrounding FIFA, the various – often ill-conceived – methods being used to tackle racism, or whether VAR is killing the sport.
The conversations are always respectful, courteous and well thought out – a far cry from the bombastic and routinely brainless diatribes that masquerade as ‘analysis’ on established radio stations such as talkSPORT.
The Football Ramble, The Guardian’s Football Weekly, Quickly Kevin, The Totally Football Show, Sunday Supplement – these podcasts are made by people who love the sport and want to discuss its finer details with other like-minded individuals. They enjoy learning as much as they do offering up opinion, and their altogether grown-up approach to assessing what is, at the end of the day, a group of people kicking a sphere into a rectangle, makes it a pleasure to spend time in their company.
They know full-well that football is a game, that there are far more serious things they could spend their time discussing, but they are also fully aware that football is a global language; it is an escape from reality for billions, and they acknowledge that without it, their lives would be much the poorer.
Now, with covid-19 having successfully managed to halt the world’s supply of professional sports, I find myself in something of a podcast vacuum. While there are new stories emerging all of the time – Euro 2020 was officially postponed during the writing of this article – it is amazing how quickly I, and many, many others, have come to miss football. The podcasts I consume so greedily are still being released, but with no games to dissect, no managers to lambast, no strikers to praise, it has quickly become apparent that without matches taking place, positives are few and far between, and there is nothing left but trivial speculation, confusion and an undercurrent of despondency.
A few months ago, I concluded – in my own head – that I find the state of modern football to be somewhat depressing, but I’ve now learned that the lack of it is even more difficult to contend with.
Suddenly I find myself longing for a 15-minute back and forth on whether the current Liverpool squad is the greatest to ever grace the Premier League, a meticulous examination of Barcelona’s failings in the January transfer market, or even an extensive review of Wolves’ latest draw.
I’m a 32-year-old man, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that I miss football. Its absence has left a gap that I wasn’t even aware it had been filling.
I feel like the stereotypical guy who has taken his girlfriend for granted for years, only to realise that once her bags have been packed and the door slammed in her wake, they have lost something truly special.
It could well be that case that all this self-isolating has left me in a heightened state of emotion, but once this coronavirus business is out of the way, I vow to ensure that, every single day, I let football know that I love it.
It’s no more than the most beautiful of games deserves.
Joe Phelan would, if you asked him, declare himself to be a Tottenham fan, but what he likes more than anything is the controversy, drama, and spectacle that surrounds the beautiful game. Follow: @acedece