Nature Is Healing

Do you hear that sound? That unmistakable, undeniable and unrivalled roar? The primal bellow of approval that comes from the deep and flies forward to crash together with thousands of others, creating the most perfect noise known to mankind.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the sound of football fans being back in great numbers. That is the sound of nature healing.

While we are still living with a global pandemic, many countries are successfully rolling out vaccines. The UK has recently overtaken Israel as “the most vaccinated country” with the highest % of people having received their first jab.

Cases and hospitalisations in the UK are much lower than anticipated and though we cannot act naively or downplay the current situation with so many restrictions still in force, things look to be heading in the right direction.

Nowhere has this been more evident than at the football.

To be able to stick the telly on to be met with packed out, raucous stadiums has been the shining light at the end of an incredibly dark tunnel. The noise and colour of full stadiums (or close to) across the continent has helped to melt away many worries or work stresses over the past few weeks.

As long as those fans and the people they come into contact with remain safe it bodes very well for the start of the domestic calendar.

The test events at the FA Cup final and final Premier League games were a start but it was still a stark and sanitised reminder of the situation. Having real, true crowds roaring their teams on has been the battle cry that we could have done with at the start of the pandemic.

In a world that has stood still since early 2020 in mourning and frustration, it has been the sublime soundtrack to an eventual return to normality.

It was in Budapest where we first heard that roar again. For the opening game in the “Group of Death, Hungary were backed by a fit to burst Puskás Aréna, as they took on Portugal.

After months of automated cheers and ghost town grounds, it was a joy to see a buzzing mass of fans being led by an army of black-shirted behemoths who booed every Ronaldo touch and bounced to a heavy drum beat. With arms aloft, barking songs and driving on their team who were massive underdogs in a group that also included France and Germany, it felt like the perfect backdrop.

It was a shame then to learn that the organised Hungarian support who’d gathered plenty of praise for the atmosphere they created, the Carpathian Brigade, are a bunch of racist, homophobic wankers.

In keeping with the beliefs of their Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who recently passed legislation that outlaws any content that is seen as promoting LGBT beliefs to under-18s (including support and advice for young people), these Hungarian fans brought several anti-LGBT and racist banners into their games during the tournament. Everyone loves an underdog until you find out it’s feral.

They got a sliver of comeuppance though when Leon Goretzka celebrated his equaliser that saw Hungary eliminated in front of the Carpathian Brigade in the Allianz Arena, making a heart symbol with his hands. That’s something else we’ve missed during the pandemic, players giving it large to fans and on this occasion it was richly deserved.

On a lighter note, the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen showed the power of love as a red and white decked out crowd helped to drag  Denmark into the Round of 16. Having been stunned into silence as Christian Eriksen had to be revived on the pitch against Finland and now laid a hospital bed 500 metres away from the ground, the Danes smashed through Russia to snatch second place in Group B.

Each goal was a cathartic release for everyone in attendance as Mikkel Damsgaard, Yusuf Poulsen, Andreas Christensen and Joakim Mæhle fired Denmark to a 4-1 win.

The lead up to Christensen’s thunderbolt which secured qualification was a cocktail of agonising groans and moans as Matei Safonov pulled off a remarkable double save before the Chelsea man struck from 30 yards as a glorious “SHOOOOOOOOOOOTTAAAAAARRRGGGGGGGHHHHHH” and a shower of beer came from the stands.

When something terrible happens in football, as it did with Eriksen, we’re often quick to say “football doesn’t actually matter, it’s just a game”. Yet, as the Denmark team celebrated and with many of them close to tears, it was obvious that football does matter. It matters a whole hell of a lot.

Somewhere else football matters a hell of a lot is in Hartlepool. After four years in the National League and fighting the threat of liquidation, Pools are back in the Football League after beating Torquay United on penalties in the Play-Off Final.

A lot of Boro fans have quite a soft spot for Hartlepool after they helped us to keep playing games during the dark days of ’86 and there’s plenty of crossover between fans of both clubs. That it was a former Boro lad Luke Armstrong and current Under-23s ‘keeper Brad James that provided the biggest highlights last weekend made it all the more sweeter.

Armstrong’s first half goal looked to have sealed the deal before Torquay’s smug goalie Lucas Covolan equalised in injury time. Football, bloody football eh? It really is the best.

Pools were in good voice all day and the proper English sarcy cheers that followed both of Torquay’s disallowed goals were welcome returns but they saved their best until last. With the penalty shoot-out in sudden death territory, Ryan Donaldson had given the Poolies match point, Matt Buse saw his effort pushed onto the crossbar by Brad James.

As the ball clipped the bar and went away from goal, the Hartlepool end erupted. Not only had they ended their EFL exile, but they’d secured at least 12 months of extra business and trade for the local community who will be looking to bounce back from multiple lockdowns. Well done lads, you earned your party in Millenium Square.

These shoots of hope sprouting in the summer sun finally came to Teesside yesterday. While we’re still a few weeks away from being able to travel round the country following the Reds and returning to the Riverside, next season’s fixtures were released.

If you’re a great big “you play everyone twice anyway” bore, look away now.

The fixtures being announced kicks off the season because we can start to make plans. Marking down where we’re going to be spending boozy weekends or tactically putting in holidays for midweek trips.

They’ve been particularly kind to us this year. We’re at home to Forest on Boxing Day, a feisty festive fixture in front of a bumper crowd still merry on leftover Turkey and Christmas spirit. Then we’re off to Blackpool for a night or two during that mystical, magical time warp before New Year. We get to go there in August too in the League Cup for a bit of seaside sun.

The Easter weekend will be starting off in Bournemouth while a lovely Lancashire away day at Preston offers a great opportunity for the Red Army to celebrate promotion en masse (optimism wooo). It all starts down at Fulham and fingers crossed it isn’t moved to the Friday night for the TV.

There was also an audible sigh of relief in our group chat as a day out on the lash to see The Courteeners was confirmed as it coincides with Reading away. I’d rather get soaked in piss at Old Trafford Cricket Ground than go to Reading.

Despite all of this, there are still some obstacles to overcome and we can’t get ahead of ourselves but we’re close. So please, everyone keep safe and keep your heads up.

We’re nearly there, Reds. Nature is healing. Football is healing.

Now get us back in the ground so we can join in the fun.

Photo Credits: Middlesbrough F.C., Hartlepool Mail, 

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