Seemingly unlimited time to indulge in my latest save of Football Manager, the novelty of a computerised Grand National, and attempting the feat of spelling my name on Strava have all undoubtedly had their charms over lockdown. The return of sport to our screens and parks in 2021, however, has been greatly welcome.
The summer of sport we have been rewarded with for enduring such stop-gap solutions has certainly been an overdue antidote. While Skinner, Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds have since been dropped from my Spotify ‘On Repeat’ and 3am starts to witness Peaty win gold seem like a distant memory, 2021 has provided some great sporting moments and it is not over yet.
The brilliance and pleasure in these events came not only from the success we have witnessed but the ability to enjoy them with others. Having been deprived of the opportunity to experience sport in a crowd for a year, the ability to watch in groups – whether in a pub garden or at Wembley itself – is something we should no longer take for granted.
Opportunities to do so this summer were abundant. Cricket’s The Hundred presented me with my first taste of sporting atmosphere on the Monday after Johnson pulled the plug on restrictions.
Thus, it was down to Trent Bridge to enjoy an evening of cricket and a thimble of Pimm’s (the price of drink being one thing I haven’t missed). Surrounded by tipsy fans (who cares if it’s a Monday night – sport was back) and swept up in a crowd in raptures as Alex Hales nearly cleared the stand with a match winning six, fans had truly returned.
Yet it was on the terraces of Seel Park, sandwiched between Manchester and the Pennines, that I truly felt sport had been revived. Non-league football provides an intimacy with the game and fans alike that is unparalleled.
Having been unable to witness any live game of Mossley AFC since October 2020, the return of non-league football felt even more overdue than some of the bigger events that had been accessible through broadcast.
There is much to look forward to in a year that has already delivered plenty of sporting gold
It is these local clubs that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, but they epitomise the closeness we have needed to fully enjoy sport. Untainted by the money pumped into top-level sport and still affordable for more casual fans, cold Tuesday nights under the lights have certainly been missed.
I am yet to find a greater way to enjoy the beautiful game than standing overlooking the Pennines from a staggered safe-standing arrangement within touching distance of the ball. The touchline shouts of ‘squeeze!’ and ‘use the channels’ are distinctly audible and the true comedic value of local fans can be assessed as any quip or chant is identifiable.
Thus, my summer has been spent attending numerous non-league games to remedy the time spent away from clubs that can often be the centre of a community, truly uniting people through sport.
It could be a 5-2 thumping in an FA Cup replay played out on a slightly sloping 4G turf on a nippy Wednesday night. Or perhaps sitting basted in a weakening sunlight to witness an early preseason success and eulogising about the apparent strength of the squad for the upcoming season. Non-league football is never without its charm.
Warwick students can look no further than the locally based Leamington FC to fulfil a fix of the action – relative giants in non-league football as they currently sit in the National League North. Alternatively, Coventry Sphinx also represents an accessible option, albeit slightly lower down the tiers.
Similarly accessible and currently still being played in more intimate stadiums often home to men’s non-league clubs, women’s clubs are on the rise. There is no more exciting time to be following women’s football as the game continues to grow but remains without the financial barriers the men’s game holds.
We’ve all enjoyed witnessing football’s journey back to its front step (not quite home) and giving our own, ill-informed commentary on numerous Olympic and Paralympic events. But there is much to look forward to in a year that has already delivered plenty of sporting gold.
What remains the greatest factor in all of this is the ability to be there in-person and with friends to share both the moments of glory and heartache.