Football is Nothing Without Fans – Matt Busby

Bellshill’s finest football thinker, Matt Busby, predicted the uncanny experience of people watching cultural and sporting events take place in empty spaces during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I’m currently writing a book about theatre in-the-round for Methuen Drama (Bloomsbury) and the pandemic has caused me to re-think my introduction to this monograph entirely. My view is that the recent ‘presence of absence’ of the spectator in live streams from stadia and performance spaces has re-emphasised the value, and therefore the influence of audiences on cultural and sporting organisations.

The round creates an event in which the visibility of the spectator on the event is constant. Stephen Joseph, who popularised the art form in the UK, describes the impact of this on the audience members but also the cultural artefact itself:-

“On a central stage [theatre in the round], the actors are seen against a background of an audience. They do not have the surroundings of illusion … they are positively human beings, set against a background of human beings, and against this background each member of the audience will judge their actions. And each member of the audience is part of the background, each sharing responsibility for the action.”

In my extremely biased view as a theatre in-the-round practitioner of over fifteen years, this ‘shared responsibility’ provides a collective experience which is unique to the cultural sector. This is true whether the audience member is watching street theatre, while sitting in one of the four permanent in-the-round spaces in the UK or a non-specific theatre space for a show like Will Dickie’s raveSpace. The visible audience members in-the-round are incentivised to express their experience of the performance together and, in doing so take responsibility, or, to use another word, ownership of the event.

Is it a coincidence that in the world of football, the billionaire owners of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City felt empowered to form the breakaway European Super League at a time where the visible audience of the football event were absent? The collective responsibility of the fans surrounding the pitch in the stadia were not there and, in this presence of absence, the power and agency of the fan groups were disregarded. It is significant that the major fan protests, one of which resulted in the postponement of Manchester versus Liverpool the first of its kind in the history of the English Premier League, took place with a mass act of extreme visibility. This image of Chelsea fans surrounding club legend turned director, Petr Cech being a precise example of football turned theatre in-the-round:-

As the celebrated football writer David Goldblatt (who I have interviewed for my book) wrote in his most recent The Age of Football,

A crowd cannot, as yet, be simulated and then banished. The spectacle that we have chosen to prioritise, above all, still needs a real crowd in a real stadium, where the social relationships, networks and identities established amongst those present offer an indissoluble humanity in the fact of the game’s commercial transformation and control. (p.4)

This quote, published in September 2019, seems all the more striking in a Covid-19 world where crowds were, and still mostly are, banished from sporting events. The experience of spectatorship did, of course, move into the virtual realm but the ‘indissoluble humanity’ of a football crowd no longer had a palpable and visible presence leaving some billionaire owners to do as they pleased. Once this physical presence returned in the form of fan protests, the ESL plans were promptly reversed. Moreover, there is now a genuine chance of a meaningful re-positioning of the responsibility and influence of fans with government investigation into the governance of football and the famous 51% fan owned club model from Germany being mooted from many different perspectives. Is it far-fetched to suggest that the collective focus of football fandom in the UK, has some of its roots in stadium architecture, in which, to reintroduce Joseph’s thoughts, the ‘background of human beings’ have always shared ‘responsibility for the action’?

My contentious hunch is that theatre activism is less rife in the UK due, in part, to the centuries old domination of proscenium arch theatres and ‘end-on’ configurations.

The architecture of these buildings, in which the audience is placed away from the stage and in the dark only visibly aware of a very small percentage of the people in attendance, does not encourage the same collective responsibility for the event itself. In a political climate where the case is needed to be made for creative subjects such as drama, as well as the arts and culture’s vital role in Covid recovery, there is an urgent need to foster the same level of passion and public visibility for creativity than there is for football. Perhaps the solution to this can be found in the English National Theatre’s decision to adapt their largest performance space, The Olivier Theatre, to be in-the-round for the period of re-opening under social distancing? Smaller performance capacities in spaces designed to emphasise the communal experience of theatre will not only be safer for the public but will also help encourage a passion for the thing itself.

I’m writing this from my desk, having recently moved from England to Paisley, and I’m looking forward to enjoying the cultural life of this town with the same passion and loyalty for the Arts Centre here, or the soon to be re-opened £42 million museum, as I’ll give for the fan-majority owned St Mirren FC.