We are going through the UK's worst crisis and direct threat to life in over a century. Yet planet football continues on regardless. Nick Hayhoe explains why, at the moment, there is no justification for it.
Listening to the radio, as I do as my main way of consuming football these days, cleaning my rat’s cage. Mark Chapman starts his “around the grounds” preview from the main FA Cup ties of the day. It is here, after a brief few moments of disjointed serenity and mind wandering that I am thrust back into the harsh light that is living during a major pandemic. “…are Covid hit…” “…suffering from a Covid outbreak…” “…had a number of positive tests…”. The same lines of the reporters at practically every game were going around and around. Teams up and down the land are being decimated by coronavirus. Not just some single positive test here and there, full scale outbreaks in football clubs are being reported up and down the country.
It turns out, despite the rigorous testing, the bubbling, the precautions, that football is part of the real world after all and, with the pandemic reaching screaming-into-a-pillow-from-the-stress levels of nadir, it too is suffering immediate effects and consequences.
Of the all of the FA Cup ties played at the weekend, practically all of them had some sort of Covid issue somewhere along the line. Some fixtures, like Norwich’s, only had a couple of players affected. But do not be lulled into a false sense of security by Norwich’s relative serendipity. Others, like Aston Villa, Leeds, Derby has whole first and second elevens wiped out: that god-like, mythical being – the TV contract, forcing them to play wide-eyed youth players.
On occasion the inevitable has been impossible to avoid. Further down the pyramid, and now further up, P-P is appearing on results pages as much as actual results. League tables look lopsided, with some clubs having four or five games in hand. Saturday/Tuesday has gone become the norm simply to crush the matches in – in the worst case of fixture congestion since the winter of 1963 wiped out nearly three month’s worth football. Some non-league football has stopped. Scotland looks to be on the brink. Down the road, Ipswich’s game against Swindon was their first in over a month and Leagues One and Two also seem to be delaying the inevitable. Yet it, in the higher echelons in England, it all carries on regardless. Trying to drag itself, wounded, to a supposed May finish line.
Footballers’ livelihoods are in danger. This is increasingly, and alarmingly clear. Some of the fittest athletes in the world are finding Covid is hitting them hard.
Newcastle United were affected early by the winter outbreak. After two months out Jamaal Lascelles has only just resumed training and Allan Saint-Maximin, still feeling long term affects, has not laced his boots up since he was struck by it. Steve Bruce, (a manager oft unfairly mocked and lumped with some other English managers perceived as backwards in their style) raised genuine concerns about the welfare of his two badly hit players with the media, not wishing it to happen elsewhere, yet it all fell on deaf ears with the authorities and the media. His call for football to stop immediately has become a “talking point” for Sky Sports News Zoom chats and podcasts, but his has otherwise barely registered as a serious voice.
Lewis Hamilton, one of the fittest men on the planet as a result of having to take 5-6G forces that driving a Formula One car places on him, was made badly ill by the virus and lost 6kg in muscle weight. Had this happened in the middle of the season, judging by his poor performance at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after supposed recovery, it would have been a serious setback to his otherwise inevitable World Championship. And while Hamilton could ride such a crisis in his career out, many, many footballers – especially further down the league pyramid – can and would not. Losing a month’s worth of physical training and then having to build it up again for a League 2 footballer would be disaster. Many months of trying to get fit to make a come back. No place in the side. Being released. Missed mortgage payments. Ruin. It’s utterly insane that the PFA continue to sit on their hands over the issue, but how can they not? Any outcry would simply mean a peppering of abuse. “Pampered footballers.” “Compare yourselves to key workers.” “We appreciate the entertainment actually, so carry on.”
Football is not a socially distanced game and simply can’t be. And this, aside from the obvious health concerns for all involved, creates its own problems.
Players are still gobbing on the pitch, cuddling each other, shaking hands. Distancing is practised in the stands and nowhere else. Players are celebrating by piling onto each other. Pre-match handshakes are banned, yet post-match is the same ritual free-for-all of shoulder grabs and palm slaps – as though there’s some sort of notion that the virus doesn’t affect anyone who is sweating. Then, amongst an otherwise brilliantly, and much needed, feel good football story of the Marine FA Cup game, a moment of absolute lunacy as the people of Crosby decided to gather on the street en masse to greet the Tottenham team coach that decided to park in full public view on the main road into the ground (as opposed to players travelling privately and separately to Merseyside to minimise the likelihood of such an incident).
This image of football, right now at this moment in time of history, is not just bad for PR – it’s potentially dangerous. I am sure we have all heard over the last nine months someone complain, not unreasonably in many circumstances, “well if x can do y why can’t I do z?” and when it comes to why football seems to be not enforcing rules that others are adhering, it is hard to challenge this when the likes of Celtic jet off to Dubai and return with 13 players in isolation. It is during such frustration that people get fed up and then break the rules anyway themselves. “If we’re not all in it together, why do I need to be in it?” People who do not like football and footballers really do not like football and footballers. Now is not the time to give them further ammunition against a game that is bad enough at trying to destroy itself on top of allowing outside forces to do it.
Yet, as per usual, the game is intent on ruining itself. The ties between money in football has now gone to such a grim level that is now willing to risk it all for the chase of it – which in many circumstances actually means survival. All of the FA Cup games in the weekend just gone went ahead, despite the aforementioned covid outbreaks – all because of TV contracts. A spate of walkovers would have caused a mockery to the competition, sure, (which still has a level of integrity despite the best efforts of the FA and England’s leading clubs) yet is this really comparable in level of disaster to further making a bad situation worse? On top of this the notion of fitting games in before a mythical Euro 2020, from any logical perspective, is insanity. The idea that this competition, spread across Europe, will go ahead as planned in four months seems laughable.
Yet, we must remember with football, there’s no law saying that Euro 2020 must go ahead. Like every other competition within football, it can be cancelled and guess what? The only consequences will be economical. Hard economical consequences yes, but that has, and always needs to be, worth less than human lives.
It’ll be a tough one to take. It will make things boring. But the health issues are clear. The morale issues are clear. Suspend it.