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Through overdosing on telly recently, I’ve noticed a few things. I still won’t be watching Bake-Off, despite probably the best celebrity line-up they’ve ever fielded, and that there’s now probably at least 20 different programmes that start with “The Real Housewives of…”. There’s also been two Man United-Liverpool clashes, and the fact that nowadays they’re more evenly matched meant interest levels were sky-high.
The first one, a league encounter, was a massively disappointing bore-draw. A week later they met in the FA Cup, which ended with a thoroughly entertaining 3-2 win for United. As there were zero fans at both, meaning this was definitely not the reason for a dire first instalment, does it really make a difference for us, the armchair supporters? And has their absence, in some ways, made such spectacles even more watchable?
Now before all you purists out there get uptight, I’m not denying for one second that sport needs spectators paying their money to come and watch. But this strange state of affairs we’re in at the present time will be ancient history one day, so for the moment, is it really all that bad for the millions of couch potatoes getting their fix?
Over Christmas we had the traditional darts fest at Ally Pally. The PDC World Championship had a few members of the public in attendance for its opening night, then new rules kicked in. It’s true to say that the typical darts crowd has changed over the last decade or so, and not for the better some would argue. Inane chanting and abuse of the players are the negatives they cite, and although the colour they bring in their fancy dress was lacking, you started to see the point the traditionalists have been trying to make. Many of the players certainly performed better for it, and we had arguably the greatest tournament of the lot. All that was missing were the walk-ons, a trademark but not an indespensible aspect. If we take snooker, another sport that’s been prominent on the calendar of late, there’s not much there to debate; once play’s underway, it’s pretty much the same, crowds or not. Here again though, we’ve had more classics than an Only Fools box-set.
Coming up is the Six Nations, the rugby tournament that’s the envy of the world, due in no small part to the friendly rivalry between the impassioned supporters. Alas, the Sweet Chariot won’t be swinging at all, nor will the Flower of Scotland be in full bloom, meaning interest levels are on the wane before it’s even started. Those that stick with it, however, will possibly be treated to a tournament like no other, as home advantage, usually an essential ingredient for a successful campaign, will count for nothing. This hitherto alien concept has made for some interesting back pages, begging the question of what’s more important: atmosphere or unpredictability?
Looking further ahead to March, we have the Cheltenham Festival, when many an Irishman would usually be descending on this most famous part of Gloucestershire. Horse racing has soldiered on gallantly through these troubled times, and it’s not really been much different watching, say, the 3.15 at Market Rasen with no punters looking on – but the world’s most prestigious jumps meeting? It’s a whole different ball game with the famous ‘Cheltenham Roar’ falling silent. Perhaps then, it’s just the big showpiece events where some of us will get withdrawal symptoms.
We started with football and we’ll finish with football. The Premier League may have its critics, but by God it’s been just the tonic for the stay-at-home spectator. It’s not the same that’s for sure, but it’s more than adequate for the moment, whatever your view. Besides, who dares to dream what summer will bring…