‘And here we are at the Kassam Stadium for Argyle’s League One match against Oxford United, joining me is Martin Gritton’.
Was it actually Martin Gritton for that game? I can’t even remember and whilst I could look it up on my iFollow account, the truth is I don’t really have the energy to do so. That’s sort of my point – but I’ll come to that in a minute. Argyle’s trip to everyone’s favourite three sided ground was when most fans had reached the nadir of follow apathy.
Argyle were on appalling form. I don’t need to remind any of you how the season ended. You no doubt all recall it all too well. We’d just lost 6-0 at home for the first time since 1962. Harold MacMillan was still prime minister and England had never won a World Cup. All that not withstanding, with nothing better to do under coronavirus restrictions, I purchased a match pass for the game at Oxford, setting myself back £10 in the process.
Argyle played better, for spells. There was a 25 minute spell at the start of the second half where we actually looked really good but for most of the game we were still below par. We lost. 3-1 an improvement on 0-6 but a loss nonetheless. I joined a friend on a Facebook messenger voice call and we watched the game in sync, a habit I’d got into over the season.
In all honesty, we spent much of the game (bar Argyle’s aforementioned purple patch) chatting about football generally, politics and other trivial matters. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the game. Despite the mundanity of the experience, I kept tuning back in for the last two games against Sunderland and Gillingham. These were also losses and yes, pretty inadequate performances to boot.
The Descent to Apathy
All in all, the final third of Argyle’s season was just AWFUL wasn’t it? There’s no denying we all signed in. A quite staggering statistic emerged this week. Argyle were the third most watched club on iFollow behind Ipswich and Portsmouth. There is an asterisk next to this stat. A lot of the other big clubs like Charlton and Sunderland used their own streaming platforms (which Argyle now plan to) but nonetheless it’s a great indictment on our fanbase to constantly outsell better performing clubs out of loyalty to our side.
But, I suspect I’m far from the only one who was doing it out of habit in the second half of the season. Results were absolutely turgid. We ended the season with 8 points out of a possible 45. An absolutely shocking statistic that would see us rock bottom if repeated over a season. Performances, whilst rarely hitting the horrific lows of Exeter Away in 2019 (even the 0-6, in truth, wasn’t really a 6-0 game to look at it dispassionately) were nonetheless bog standard. There is a time and place to assess why that was, but not here. Let’s just agree it was bad.
It wasn’t just that. It was the volume of the games too. We had to fit in so many fixtures in such a short space of time and that’s not withstanding postponements within the season due to Covid outbreaks. There was a spell where we had a game every single Saturday and Tuesday for well over a month. The spiral of negativity continued to unwind yet still we turned in.
Furthermore, the follow experience had became totally sterile. Let’s be honest, it was quite fun to start with. In the same way that lockdown was fun, for about a week. It was quirky, different and something to remember. Cheering goals from your sofa. Syncing your streams with your mates. Turning off your notifications in case you saw the goal alert come through before it was on your screen.
Reckoning with the Argyle teams frequently weird and wacky camera angles and direction was always unique too. As much as I’m a big fan of Conor Grant, one memorable decision to zoom in on him as he was about to shoot from 25 yard was certainly an unconventional creative choice. The replays always had humour potential too. At Ipswich away, we cut back from a replay of something that had happened before to see their striker one on one with Mike Cooper.
Again, I digress from the point. Despite my light-hearted ribbing, Argyle and iFollow did a fantastic job to provide reliable streaming in very difficult circumstances. But, nonetheless, it had got stale. When we concede a goal and I’m in the crowd, I’ll be a lot more angry knowing I’m in the heat of the occasion and quite possibly have a long trip home to follow. When we score, the ecstasy is similarly heightened.
Only once did I celebrate a winner with the same passion that I would have done at the game: Joe Edwards’ winner vs Lincoln, you need say no more. That wonderful moment of magic aside, the quirks became less funny and more frustrating. iFollow football had gone rotten. I can’t recall a season we were all collectively so happy to see the back of.
The Paradox of Apathy
Even writing became a chore. This may seem a little self referential but there’s a reason I didn’t write a single article on Argyle in the second half of the season and even my enthusiasm for rambling away on a podcast (subscribe via iTunes or Spotify, it’s really very good). My passion for Argyle was being slowly chipped away by the knawing beast known as apathy. I wasn’t the only one.
So, why then, when we were all so sick and tired, did we decide to renew our season tickets in such overwhelming numbers. Our current renewals have already beaten those of 17/18, 19/20 and 20/21 and threaten to overtake 18/19 too. Why, indeed, did 97% of fans secure a loyalty discount by declining to request a refund last season, at a time of financial hardship for so many?
The answer can only lie in the love we fans have for our club. Everyone has their Argyle starting experience. Mine was an unseasonably cold March night in 2002. The year Argyle won 102 points. We won the game 1-0 with our winner coming not from an Argyle player but from an own goal by a man currently managing in the Premier League. I’ll leave you trivia minded folk to see if you can guess who, no cheating.
Cliched a tale it may be, but from minute one I was hooked. The joy of being at the ground, among a community of equals, just as invested in the game as you are. The 6am alarms (often earlier) to take you up to the other end of the country. As I grew older, the joy of a pre match pint. The smells and sounds of match day are still hardwired into my brain. Beer, burgers, janner accents and loud 50/50 salesmen.
The football itself is great but it’s only half the story really. It’s just not the same being at home. So, it makes total sense that having missed it for so long, fans would be desperate to pour back into stadiums. So this begs the following question. Why, despite the inferior matchday experience, did we continue to tune in to follow in our droves?
In truth, the two answers compliment eachother rather than contradict eachother. We DID feel apathy, bordering downright misery at the turgid way last season ended but we kept buying iFollow tickets because we wanted to get the closest thing possible to that matchday adrenaline rush, even if we knew in our hearts that it would never quite be the same. We also cared deeply about our club and wanted to safeguard its future.
The Way Out
And now, apathy is dead. Whatever happens in terms of transfers, this close season is going to see unprecedented excitement. Because whatever happens, Argyle fans are going to be back where we belong. Yes there might be some slight delays to full capacity stadiums. This new, contagious variant of Covid has come at a nasty time. In truth through, that’s just a bump in the road. I’m no epidemiologist but it’s clear that vaccinations are our road map out of this disaster, even if it does take longer than we first hoped.
Irrespective of this, at some point next season, fans will be back. Whether it’s August, September or later that capacity restrictions are lifted, lifted they will surely be. Fans will not simply be back, socially distanced, with a one way system like some were for the ill fated game in December. Away games will be back. Chanting will be back, mass celebrations will be back. The Argyle experience will be back in every way that matters.
This pandemic has given us a lot of time to think and a lot of time to re-assess what’s important in life. It’s also given a lot of time to appreciate the things we all once took for granted. In truth, I can’t imagine ever feeling apathetic about Argyle again.