It feels wrong to say that football can’t come back too soon. It can, and if recent reports of plans for bringing the top leagues back to training and matches are confirmed, it will.
It’s good to make plans, and everything being discussed, whether it’s about three-week mini preseasons or a 56 day target to complete the Football League season, is tentative enough to be subject to change. Whispers from within also say that there is not as much organisation behind the concepts as there might appear, although that’s more concerning, not less. The risk is that, desperate to finish the season in time to appease broadcasters, the football authorities will disregard daily death tolls, rush on with the show, and make mistakes. Mistakes that could veer from catastrophic to just grimly funny, like a biography of Shaun Harvey.
The assumption across English football now is that when games resume they will be played behind closed doors, doors that won’t just keep fans out, but Covid-19 too. While we can’t guarantee the safety of shoppers in a busy supermarket, apparently the risk from the coronavirus could be reduced to virtually zero if we were all given footballs at the entrance and encouraged to slide tackle each other in the freezer aisles.
We’re following Germany’s lead, where the top two divisions are nearing a return, completing their seasons by playing what they’re calling ‘ghost games’ in empty stadiums. Empty is relative, though, and the Bundesliga estimate that players, coaches, medical staff, officials and production staff will number around 240 at each match.
Given that a single positive test for Mikel Arteta was enough to frighten the FA into cancelling all football, making abstract thoughts of a ‘lockdown’ seem suddenly real to millions of people who had only thought of it as happening in China and Italy, 240 seems like a lot of people to be keeping virus free at every game. It’s a lot of people to test, too, and test again, something Spanish leagues want upon returning to training and Germany might be able to sustain, but England has been finding more difficult. Testing Phil Jones doesn’t feel like a priority while nurses are going to work in corona wards, terrified of the risk they’re taking every day.
In England people have spoken about creating a football sanctum, somewhere in a realm referred to vaguely as ‘The Midlands’, where the entire Premier League could be locked down together, with all 92 remaining games played as quickly as possible in maybe just one nearby stadium. Won’t somebody think of the groundstaff? Or the other staff, because if we roughly use those Bundesliga numbers and estimate each club bringing a staff of 100, first of all ‘The Midlands’ has to find secure, virus-free accommodation for more than 2,200 people. Then they have to justify giving that sanitised space and testing capability to footballers, rather than vulnerable Brummies.
They also have to keep them there, and Jack Grealish has already shown that an enforced two-month transfer from a comfortable mansion to some sort of secure student housing complex will be difficult for him to observe, even if his mates are all there too. And not just his Aston Villa mates, but every top-flight footballer in the country; 1,000 rich lads aged 18 to 35 crammed into one repurposed resort for two months in the height of summer. The flat parties will be legendary. It’ll be like setting Escape to Victory in Magaluf.
The whole thing sounds like a logistical nightmare even before you remember that the FA will be organising it, and I think we have to get what humour we can out of the idea before they actually try putting something like this into action — and give up.
One of the reasons ideas like these feel doomed is because they’re combining the worst parts of the game: the administrators, the broadcasters, and if not the players themselves, their representatives — imagine the negotiations for keeping each agent’s precious cash-cow in the manner to which they’re accustomed. And they’re leaving out the most important part: us.
Part of the justification for playing behind closed doors is that it will be done for us, the fans, who are desperate to watch live football again to distract us from the coronavirus. There is some truth in that; a unique summer jamboree of televised football would be a treat of a kind. But I’m not sure how soothing Watford versus Southampton on TV will be for anyone actually affected by Covid-19, while they can’t visit their critically ill loved ones in hospital.
The crucial word, though, is justification. I don’t believe the Premier League are hurrying to show matches as a public service. As Geoff Lemon wrote in The Guardian Australia a couple of weeks ago, the urgency being felt by sports administrators is on behalf of themselves, with broadcasters breathing down their necks, demanding games or demanding refunds. Many fans will have dire financial circumstances of their own causing more sleepless nights than the absence of a match to watch is giving them, and those with the fortune to be unscathed so far will have a realistic acceptance that much of life as we know it, including sport, can’t continue for now.
“I don’t look out my window at the sun on the foliage,” wrote Lemon, “and think my world is missing football. I look out the window and feel still. Perhaps more of us than expected aren’t missing it that much. Perhaps football is a habit, ceaselessly reinforced by those whose lives are devoted to pushing it.”
Despite the constant asking of the question about football restarting, I can’t say that the lack of a confirmed kick-off date for Burnley versus Watford is troubling me much each morning. It says something about the conceit of top level football that it should think games like those are so important they should have resources diverted to ensuring they are played, come what may. Rigorous testing and a closed environment are fine, until a player breaks a leg in a tackle and needs paramedics to take him in an ambulance to a hospital where he needs a bed and an operating theatre and doctors and nurses who need PPE.
There’s a certain arrogance, too, being flagged up by supporters’ groups in Germany, in thinking that games can go ahead despite being stripped of the two things that give them most meaning: fans and geography. Without supporters and regional rivalries, what is the point of Burnley versus Watford being played at Villa Park? The desires of what were once called armchair fans are increasingly valid, and televising football without crowds to serve that large worldwide audience might be fair enough. But it might be difficult for anyone to watch those games without wondering what the point of it all is. Once football is reduced to televised entertainment, it risks being exposed for how often it is not entertaining at all, how boring games can be, how much it relies on atmosphere and historic rivalries to hold viewers enthralled. The sad thing about Steve Evans’ Leeds was that for many clubs it represents the norm; Marcelo Bielsa is exceptional. Leeds fans know very well the dangers inherent in watching the actual football during the times when it’s been the last reason you’d want to go to the game.
Lemon suggests in his article that the frantic attempts to ensure top level football’s survival — which means, the league administrators’ survival — will soon contrast with the resilience of the grassroots. If the Premier League did fall, if it did have to repay £700m, if international footballers had to take dramatic pay cuts — would it matter? To enjoy football, I don’t need Jack Grealish. I need a ball and some grass, then a club to feel attached to, games to watch that mean something. Many clubs will not survive this crisis, but the sport will, and non-league football is much more used and arguably better equipped to handle the club mergers and league reorganisations they will need to get going again. There will be sadness for clubs lost, but that has been a constant theme in non-league through years of FA neglect. The sadness can be lessened by knowing that future clubs can be built, because they have been built out of necessity so often before.
Leeds United have that in their history, Leeds City forming after Hunslet AFC spent a year dormant without a ground, until Holbeck Rugby League lost a promotion play-off to St Helens and decided their Elland Road stadium would be better off hosting soccer. Manningham Rugby League had made the same decision a year earlier; fed up losing money in rugby, they switched to the more sustainable association football and became Bradford City. But try making the economic argument to a Championship club now that, rather than lose money every season, they might be better trying a different sport. Leeds City only lasted from 1904 until 1919 anyway when, closed by the authorities, the fans reorganised and started Leeds United as a new club.
Crucially, those decisions were made back when clubs were much closer to the fans who enthusiastically support them, who still provide the momentum needed in grassroots football, who can make organising players into teams and teams into leagues seem like a doddle, compared to the agonies the Premier League and Football League are going through to meet their broadcasting commitments before all else. Above non-league that spirit can be found at AFC Wimbledon, but the punishments imposed on them by the Football League for their attitude towards the franchise that made them necessary suggests they’re still regarded as cranks by the so-called professionals in charge of the game.
Grassroots football has been in this situation hundreds of times before and has the muscle memory to come through it again. I don’t believe the Premier League has that resilience; try telling Liverpool and Everton that the only economic solution is to merge. In some ways, Premier League clubs are at their best right now, despite the arguments over collective wage deferrals; stadiums are being repurposed for medical facilities, players are organising fundraising efforts, clubs are offering resources to their local communities. The longer they’re not trying to put on football matches, the more helpful they might be.
Playing behind closed doors has quickly become seen as the common sense solution, but we will need to watch Germany carefully to see if it works there, then decide if that means it can work here. Those doors are closed upon a multitude of problems that might be better faced head on, with patience, instead of trying to make the pandemic spread of a virus fit into television scheduling deadlines.
Perhaps trying to make a plan to complete the season without fans is the circle football can’t square, because the penny still won’t drop that supporters are more than just a backdrop to make games look good on television. They’re the people who give football its meaning, while paying for the privilege with match tickets and television subscriptions.
Maybe the solution is to make fans central to the game again. Forget about evacuating players from their comfortable homes into whatever secure accommodation their agents will allow, or negotiating complicated methods of traversing a virus stricken country in lockdown so some lads can earn millions for kicking a ball about in front of the cameras. Football fans have been proving for 150 years that they will put up with anything for their clubs, so get a squad of supporters from each one, stick them in a Midlands Ibis, and let them pull on the shirts for their teams in their remaining fixtures. Would I watch eleven Villa fans battling for 56 days to keep their club in the top division? You bet I would. Let Jack Grealish stay home. My love of football does not miss him one bit.
I do miss, specifically, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United. I also have hopes that if he was put in charge of our team of fans he’d soon train them up to walk the league anyway. And we all share, in our own ways, Norman Hunter’s poignant dream of seeing Leeds United promoted to the Premier League. But we’re all sadly aware, as fans, of how unequal football has always been to our dreams. We are, whatever reality says, the Champions of Europe. The record books are a poor substitute for what we love about football.
I also know, as a fan, that I have the resilience needed to still be a football fan after this crisis. Broadcasters might leave, sponsors might walk, the transfer market might collapse. Leeds United might be promoted behind closed doors, or not promoted, or have to start again like 1919. But football will still be here, and I’m prepared to wait. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)