When the beautiful game becomes the waiting game

The Championship should’ve drawn to a close this weekend, and clubs would be gearing themselves up for the play-offs. Instead coronavirus has put paid to normal life. Paul Severn considers what happens when the beautiful game becomes the waiting game

In a parallel universe, the 2019/20 football season has just ended. We have watched the last game of Forest’s season at home to Stoke and are now scrambling for play-off tickets. We are trying to move that annoying 4pm meeting so we can get to the first leg. Brentford have come second due to superior xG and we face Leeds in the semi-final who have flunked automatic promotion again.

But in our universe – there’s nothing but a vacuum. No matches, no discussion on whether João Carvalho and Tiago Silva can fit into the same starting line-up. Even the thought of Matt Smith planting another header into our net seems a distant memory.

Of course, football fans are used to this vacuum, it’s called ‘summer’. The celebrations and frustrations make way for other activities – holidays, gardening, cricket and that flat pack unit you bought last November from Ikea that needs assembling. I enjoy the break, but I’m not enjoying this one so much.

It’s difficult to write about football when football isn’t happening. With a horrendous daily death told rising each day and jobs being lost in the economic shutdown, I feel conflicted even thinking about it. It feels wrong to discuss the reopening of pubs, so why is football any different?

I’ve seen attempts to shut down conversations about resumptions and conclusions to leagues because the bigger picture is deemed more important. While I understand it is more important, I don’t agree we have to sideline genuine emotions. It is possible to feel two emotions at once. We can care deeply about PPE shortages, the NHS and care homes and the big issues around the pandemic, yet still miss everything that football brings to our lives. At the same time.

Trying to shut off or delegitimatise those feelings or convince each other we can do without things like football can be damaging in my opinion. Football offers far more than 22 players kicking a ball around a field. It binds families, friends and communities together. When that is suddenly cut off, it hurts. It matters. In a similar way a grandparent hugging a grandchild isn’t a matter of life and death, but it really does affect people if they can’t do that. The little things that make life better are so important and many have been taken away by this pandemic.

Like everybody, I find hope in having those little things back one day, when it’s safe to do so. That means time with family, friends, trips to the pub, meals out, and yes, being back at the City Ground. As fans, obviously it feels like our role in the season is over. As a fan that attends games, behind closed doors sport just isn’t going to be the same. If football is only on television for the foreseeable future, I will watch it, but it will be hard to emotionally invest in it the same way as before.

There has been a lot of discussion about whether behind closed doors football is safe and sensible. I am not an expert in these matters, but there are clear suggestions it could be in certain circumstances. In Taiwan and South Korea, very thorough and swift action was taken to change the outlook of the pandemic, with contact tracing driving down cases, transmission, deaths – and crucially – risk. This has led to some resumption of sport without fans. Taiwanese baseball, with its cardboard cut-out fans, is an interesting window into what sport might look like in the coming months.

Can it happen here? Maybe. The recent positive tests of three people involved in the Cologne squad shows that it is not going to be easy in Western society that puts a premium on personal liberty and privacy. That is problematic in this scenario. Start things like sport too early, and you can misjudge public mood and see further outbreaks grind the resumption to a halt. Attitudes, morals and ethics are changing rapidly in this crisis and every business and industry needs to be alive to unprecedented movements in public opinion and behaviour.

I can see why behind closed doors may emerge at some point as a stopgap solution at high levels of professional sport. It opens ups revenue streams that have been cut off and it isn’t realistic to expect that it won’t be fully explored. It will create a level of interest and drive viewing figures – even as a curiosity, or a precursor to crowds returning. Perhaps crowds may return in a phased way using technology. At the same time football has a number of different business models in place. At lower levels where gate income is vital, behind closed doors is costly and far less attractive. It’s absolutely critical that every decision is made first and foremost with the survival of every club in mind – over the short- and long-term.

This is made more difficult by the inherent problems within football. The huge rewards and massive losses associated with promotion and relegation have made decisions around football much more complex and heated. Other leagues, and indeed other sports, have been able to quietly end their seasons. But the stakes are high in football. Perhaps too high.

However, we need to asses this in a clear-minded way, which isn’t easy. Frustrations with clubs and individuals shouldn’t be disassociated from wider issues within football. And our frustrations with football should take into account wider flaws in our society and economic system. This situation is complex and nuanced and some discussion I’ve seen seems rather naïve as to how other business ventures are financed and run.

Footballers themselves are not uniform and earn vastly different amounts with vastly different career prospects. In the same way, a struggling actor is affected in a different way in this pandemic to Daniel Craig or Tom Cruise. It’s the same with clubs. There is no one size fits all solution or viewpoint.

I think there is some evidence that football and footballers have become a target in the crisis – perhaps sometimes wilfully used by politicians to deflect from bigger questions. Football has its faults, but it is one of many industries that just isn’t set up to thrive in this scenario. There is a time, and place to learn lessons and make much needed changes to sport and wider society. But in the short-term, it’s about getting through, and having clubs across the country at all levels survive, and offer the many community, mental health, and societal benefits that sporting institutions bring.

We don’t know when normality will return. That’s perhaps the hardest thing to digest and process. I am wary of any timelines being shared in clickbait media. I hope that improved contract tracing, treatments and adjustments to the way we live will allow some aspects of normal life to return. We have to be willing to compromise and be flexible in the short term to reap the long-term benefits. I remain positive and hopeful. I live just a few miles from Bletchley Park – a monument to how the biggest crises can accelerate human innovation and brilliance in a way we can’t currently perceive. I know the Alan Turings of our generation are working away as I write, beating this awful virus and saving lives. That’s inspiring.

I personally can’t wait to be back at the City Ground. I can’t wait to have that part of my identity back and all that football brings. But for now, I know I’ll have to wait. I’ll have to make do with quizzes, Zoom calls and wonderful replays of Julian Bennett smashing the ball in the Yeovil net. It’s going to be tough, but the waiting game will be worth it in the end.