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Project Big Picture an unseemly noise against football's backdrop of silence | Simon Burnton

“It is your custom to receive my plays with the most generous and unrestrained applause,” wrote George Bernard Shaw to his audience in 1913. “You sometimes compel the performers to pause at the end of every line until your laughter has quieted down … Do you not think that the naturalness of the representation must be destroyed, and therefore your own pleasure greatly diminished, when the audience insists on taking part in it by shouts of applause and laughter? Can you not imagine how a play which has been rehearsed to perfection in dead silence must be upset, disjointed, and spun out to a wearisome length by an audience which refuses to enjoy it silently? Will you think me very ungrateful and unkind if I tell you that the more applause there is during the performance the angrier I feel with you for spoiling your enjoyment and my own?”

Reasonable as some of his arguments appear, it does seem strange for anyone whose ambition was to delight and entertain the public to find a delighted and entertained public quite so offensive. Shaw could always have reduced the chances of his audiences interrupting simply by making his plays less funny, or reduced his audience by making his plays less good, or just given up and wasted his days at home in miserable isolation, much as many of us do these days.

Given these opinions Shaw might have enjoyed the direction of travel across the last half-century or so in the performing arts, the gradual shift of power away from concert halls and their inherently limited (and noisy) audiences to cinemas and then to television, from local theatres to national broadcasters and irrevocably onwards to international subscription-based content platforms. He would probably have penned a smash hit Netflix series or two, and watched them in appreciative silence while, scattered in their living rooms, his audience brayed and cheered to their moronic hearts’ content without making the slightest jot of difference to anything except with the constant drip of money from their bank accounts to somebody else’s. Remove art from audience and this is the path it sets upon.

Don’t worry, you are in the right place. This is all obviously relevant to sport, which is essentially just a framework of rules which, with the right cast and equipment, enables the production of great, improvised, one-night-only drama. And it is a drama that is best when created by cast and audience together, in very noisy collaboration. Shaw, who notably described cricket as “a game played by 11 fools and watched by 11,000 fools”, didn’t like that much either.

Personally I stand with another playwright, Terence Rattigan, who insisted that “a play can neither be great, nor a masterpiece, nor a work of genius, nor indeed anything at all unless it has an audience to see it. Without an audience, it simply does not exist”. There is probably a football club near you that is discovering at the moment how close that last sentence comes to applying to them as well.

Even before coronavirus, elite football in England had allowed a particularly unhealthy chasm to open up between boardroom and terrace, a relationship between executive and audience which often appeared almost Shavian in its contempt. With fans forced out of stadiums and now existing only in memory and potential pay-per-view cashflow calculations, it has not taken long for it to weaken still further. Which is why the only surprise about Project Big Picture, the attempt by a couple of large football clubs to reshuffle a game already heavily weighted in their favour until all smaller sides are basically Oompa-Loompas to their Willy Wonka, was the speed with which it arrived, and in the end, at least for now, unravelled.

Arsenal and Sheffield United prepare for kick-off before another silent 90 Premier League minutes, with the money from 60,000 paying supporters again missing. Photograph: Andrew Fosker/BPI/Shutterstock

That old stereotype of British footballers, that they could talk a good game but lacked their continental colleagues’ basic capacity to control a ball, is now true of British governments and viruses. Crowds of some sort have returned to top-flight football in France, Italy, Germany and Spain but England of all countries could least afford to have the already eroding relationship between club and supporters further diminished by governmental insistence or ineptitude, or a combination of both.

The plan unveiled by Liverpool, Manchester United and their henchman, the Football League chairman, Rick Parry, had been gestating for a while and has been seen off for now, but its adoption became more likely as soon as football resumed without a public there to watch it and has increased in inevitability with every subsequent, silent matchday. The return of supporters to stadiums is vital not only for clubs’ finances but because their absence is corroding the game, fraying the twine that however loosely bound it together, and leaving it susceptible to certain opportunists and their nefarious plans. Matches are still played, superficially much the same as they always were, but it is not only the computer-generated crowd noise soundtracking television broadcasts that is fake in the absence of supporters, it is everything.

The Premier League responded to Project Big Picture by “urging football’s stakeholders to work together for the good of the game”, which was a hoot. There is a phrase that any long-term follower of football administration will recognise. “For the good of the game” used to appear on the Fifa logo, and we know whose good they tended to work for. In 2005 the Fifa Task Force for the Good of the Game was launched, “to discuss and propose possible solutions to problems involving corruption” and other issues – by financial irregularity’s own Sepp Blatter. When a football administrator tells you they are working for the good of the game, it’s probably time to panic.

Back in May, when the return of football behind closed doors was being discussed, Boris Johnson said it “would provide a much-needed boost to national morale”, and it might for a while have done so. But it is hard to see what the experience is now boosting, except the diminished cashflows of the few clubs it is not actively destroying. The issue of fans and football grounds has diminished in importance as viral prevalence has increased in recent days and weeks, and rightly so, but an ailing game badly needs a transfusion of humanity. Anything that accelerates it will deserve the most generous and unrestrained applause, whatever George Bernard Shaw would have to say about it.

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