Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Golden days are not the same without fans

Is it wrong to have a deep ambivalence about the forthcoming Wolves season?

A General view of Molineux home stadium of Wolverhampton Wanderers. (AMA)
A General view of Molineux home stadium of Wolverhampton Wanderers. (AMA)

Torn between two opposing forces. The mind filled with contradictory thoughts ahead of this eagerly-anticipated campaign, with Wolves assembling their most exciting group of players in half a century.

A flood of new signings bolstering a squad whose gargantuan efforts propelled them to a seventh-place finish and a Europa League quarter-final just over a month ago. What can Nuno Espirito Santo mould from these talented new recruits?

These should be the days of our lives, but they are not, are they? Such great players on our stage but the most important people of all cannot be there to see them.

Is it possible to be excited yet consumed with apathy? Because that is how it feels. Dealing with this paradox in the mind is tricky. There is a fragility to life right now. Is football an important distraction and escapism from what is developing all around us or is it an irrelevance?

Here’s a confession. When Wolves exited the Europa League so desperately late on against Sevilla, the over-riding emotion was one of relief, not disappointment. The defeat took away the unpalatable prospect that possibly the greatest night in the club’s entire history would be played out without the presence of those who mattered most. Those it was all for. The fans.

If that resonates with your own emotions then it does not need explaining, but if it jars then consider this. What does supporting Wolves mean to you? Is it devoting all your energy to willing the team on to win every single match, an existence defined by the result? Or is it something entirely different? A sense of belonging and shared experiences. A source of companionship and camaraderie. A structure to mould into the more austere plans and demands of life. A release of the pressure valve.

Heading along the motorway to an away game and passing a car with that instantly recognisable scarf wedged in the window frame, billowing in the wind. Boarding the train at London Euston or Manchester Piccadilly or anywhere else in exile and making the most familiar journey in the world. The one that ends at Wolverhampton. Lovely Wolverhampton. And if you cannot be there, it is knowing that others are.

Nuno’s visceral celebratory run and fist pump at full-time is meaningless otherwise. Without the pull of the South Bank it does not happen. That is why the club exists. Permanently entwined with the community, the supporters and their hearts. It does not stand alone.

The Europa League campaign was not just Wolves versus European football teams. Behind that tightly packed goal at Crusaders’ Seaview home in Belfast, the fans were on their way. 48 to Yerevan, the pizza and pasta in Turin, turning La Rambla gold and black. For many, lifting the trophy in an empty Cologne stadium would have rung hollow.

But these fixtures need to be played. The football authorities and the clubs have risen to the challenge. The effort and work behind the scenes has been phenomenal.

The alternative is nothing. We are not living in a world where the ideal choice is an option. Behind-closed-doors fixtures offer something, so appreciate them even in this form. It is the most progressive outcome available to us. But that does not mean the cloud hanging over them has dispersed.

Attending matches has been a strange experience.

Back in July it was a privilege to witness David Silva’s final Premier League match at Manchester City. The deft touches and adroit feints were there. Still a master of his craft. Yet there was no sense of occasion. It was more dismay, that one of the league’s greatest ever players exited his arena without saying goodbye to the people he really wanted there.

Something similar sprung to mind when Conor Coady stepped on to the Copenhagen turf in midweek. From his very first steps in football to his monumental ascent to England international, his family have been with him every step of the way. Watching with just a handful of others at junior football matches or joining the thousands of Wolves fans on trips to Old Trafford and Anfield. Yet on the proudest night of all, they were absent.

The sense of dislocation is being felt by the clubs, too. Throughout the country they are working tirelessly to engage and involve their fanbases in any way they can. Many are in a seemingly insurmountable struggle for survival.

Sometimes it feels like we are all in a struggle for survival. That fragility again. Navigating this new world; scared for our families, our livelihoods, our futures. That grip on our emotions is not going away soon. It is why we need the closest things we can find to routines and reassurances.

So, definitely, enjoy the football. Talk about the football. Take it for what it is. Savour Wolves building something we have never witnessed before.

But if there was one wish for the 2020/21 season it would not be to see the club qualify for Europe again, or to win a trophy. It would not be for Nuno to agree a new long-term deal or to retain the services of Raul Jimenez, Adama Traore and their ilk, or to sign another wonderkid from Porto. No, it would be that, whatever is riding on the outcome, when this team walks out of the tunnel for the final match against Manchester United at Molineux in May there is not an empty seat in the house.

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