Ben Humphries appreciates tackling coronavirus is the most pressing item on the nation’s ‘to do’ list right now. But he also knows, from bitter personal experience, that being denied the opportunity to watch their heroes in action will be taking a huge emotional toll on many people. Particularly those feeling vulnerable, isolated and lonely before the country was even placed into partial lockdown.
Humphries should have spent Saturday afternoon making his regular pilgrimage to Bramall Lane; chanting, cheering and cajoling Sheffield United through another Premier League game. Instead, with the fixture calendar now approaching its fourth week in suspension, he spent it thinking about how watching Chris Wilder’s team helped him through the darkest period of his life.
It began, Ben explains, when he left his home in South Yorkshire to enroll at university.
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“Following Sheffield United was one of the only things that got me through my first year there.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t take to life there quite as well as most others. I felt homesick, lonely and as if I didn’t fit in. My room was small and it felt like a prison cell, where I was chalking off the days, if not the hours, as they passed.
“One of the things, if not the only thing, I really looked forward to was when United were playing and every week I was like a young child counting down to Christmas as I waited for the next match. I was fortunate enough to get to most which was bliss as it gave me a few hours of respite away from the torment of university, a few hours where I could forget my worries, be somewhere I felt I belonged and where I felt like I had a purpose. I was amongst my own watching the team I dearly love.”
Ben’s story will be recognisable to thousands of people and understood by all of those who, now faced with a gaping hole in their diaries, appreciate how sport is part of society’s very fabric. Watched by billions and with millions filing through the turnstiles of English grounds every single year, football provides a sense of belonging, inclusion and a vital source of escapism like no other.
It also, as Jack Bows can testify, brings people together too.
“In 1947, I was at City Grammar School, and I sat next to a lad called Colin Batty,” Jack, now in his Eighties, remembers. “We played in the school team and got called up for that but we told the teacher we couldn’t go because Sheffield United were playing that weekend; we had Wolves in the FA Cup and Colin and I were going.
“The teacher told us we couldn’t go but we already had tickets. So we got sent to the headmaster and he ordered us to sell them. But we didn’t, we went and ended up getting a sine die ban from playing for the school. So that was the end of our football careers.”
Jack and Colin are still best friends now and, until Covid-19 also forced them to close their doors, attended Senior Blades luncheons together.
United were also responsible for introducing Jack to someone even more special; his late wife Janet.
“We set up a supporters club back in the old days at The Old Crown Hotel, then at The Empire which was right next to the theatre and all the celebrities used to come in. Eventually, we moved to The Sheldon Hotel where Tommy Hoyland, who played for United, was landlord and he let us decorate the upstairs room how we liked it. One day, a man walked in with his daughter and that was Janet.
“We ended up getting married - she was Miss Sheffield United Supporters’ Club Queen one year, I’ve still got all the stuff from that - and we were so happy together.
“Janet passed away 14 years ago but we had 34 wonderful years. I’m indebted to Sheffield United to finding me my wife and giving me the great times I had with her.”
Like Ben, Jack was planning to spend Saturday at the place he calls “home.” But the postponement of Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to United, coupled with social distancing measures introduced to try and combat the virus’ spread, put paid to that idea.
“It was my birthday and I was going to go out with my son Steve, who’s a huge Blade as well,” Jack says. “He was taking me for a pint at The Queens and then we were going to watch the lads.
“The isolation won’t affect me but of course I miss going because of this bloody virus going about.
“I’ve met so many friends through football. Football has shaped my life and when we were rebuilding the ground, I asked if I could have some concrete. It’s still there, in the rockery in my garden.”
“To be a member of Sheffield United is a privilege. It’s a one-off club and for me, there’s no other like it in the world. When I walk into the car park, I feel like I’m coming home. Sheffield United has changed my life and it’s shaped it. Really, it has.”
Gary Chester, aged 48, knows where Jack is coming from and echoes Ben’s sentiments about football’s power to do good.
“I’ve been a Blade since I was little and used to go to football with my mates,” Gary says. “I used to go with my mates and then when I became a father, it was a case of ‘Do I go with them or my kids?’ I chose my kids and now, if it wasn’t for football, I probably wouldn’t see as much as them as I do. It’s our church.”
Going to games with their mums, dads and other family members is a rite of passage which, for the foreseeable future, is being denied to the next generation of fans.
“My sons, Luke and Matthew, grew up going with my friends,” Gary, a United season ticket holder who lives in Barnsey, adds. “Now I go with their friends. That’s what football does, it brings the entire community together which is why this coronavirus thing, and what has happened because of it, is such a shame.
“Even if we can’t make it to a match, we all get together as a group and watch it on the television. I’m thinking of moving back to Sheffield because, even though I’m not far away, it’s my city and I want to be closer to my club really.”
Ben’s passion for United and football in general has manifested itself in a different way, with the youngster now producing a series of matchday vlogs and publishing them on the internet. That process also made him feel part of a wider family.
“Even if I couldn’t get there, I still looked forward to following the boys in some form because it gave me a sense of excitement and a distraction. Further to this, I started the matchday vlogs which got a lot of positive feedback and that helped no end. I wasn’t doing well at uni but if I got back and saw a positive comment about one it made my day.”
“It gave me something to live for, I suppose,” Ben continues. “Something to look forward to. I went through some dark days that year but then I’d go on a great away day watching United, where we’d grab a goal or two, and the pure elation I felt was the perfect antidote to my struggles, I’d come away feeling like the clouds had cleared.
“I might head to some games feeling upset or anxious but then I’d leave the game feeling reborn almost. That bit of exhilaration for a few hours really revitalised me and helped me carry on.”
Ben has been on a hugely fulfilling journey in recent years, watching United win promotion from League One and then the Championship while his mental health has improved.
Seventh in the Premier League and preparing for an FA Cup quarter final against Arsenal when competition ground to a halt, he is looking forward to the day when Wilder’s side receive permission to resume their season.
“I’m missing United and I’m missing football,” Ben admits. “I used to get up at a quarter to six in the morning when I was at school to do a paper round so I could afford to go and watch them. Even when I moved down to London for university, I took a four hour coach journey to watch home games and travelled to as many as I could away on my meagre student budget. The more I go the more I get hooked.
“Even during the season when it felt like I was going out of a sense of duty, when things weren’t going well, I enjoyed it because it made me feel like a ‘Proper Blade’ and not just someone who turned up when things were great. What Chris and the lads have done is brilliant. Unbelievable.”
“I love to go and support the lads and shout them on,” Ben adds. “But I actually feel, over the past few years, they’ve supported me as well. I was there for them when they were going through difficult times and they’ve been there for me when I’ve been through difficult times.”
A powerful retort to those who still try and pretend football doesn’t matter.