Whether it’s behind-closed-doors football or debates about how and when the season restarts, Covid-19 has had a dramatic effect on people’s feelings and perceptions of the sport. But maybe football can help us on the journey from the ‘new normal’ to the ‘old normal’, says Paul Severn
Next door to my block of flats is an Indian restaurant. It is an independent business and was forced to close due to government restrictions. On its Facebook page, the owners said they needed support from government, the local council and their landlord.
“Without this, we won’t open again,” said the post.
Six weeks later, the same restaurant reopened its doors. Rather than the bustling, busy restaurant it normally is, takeaways were collected by customers outside the restaurant and Deliveroo drivers waited to dispatch orders to customers. I had total respect for the owners, standing outside, wearing face masks, risking infection and trying to save the business they have built.
This situation is replicated around the country as industries from cinema to fast food plot a course to continue trading in the ‘new normal’. And football, as an industry severely impacted by Covid-19, is going to explore its own course thoroughly.
I completely understand the feelings of football fans who are left cold by the prospect of behind-closed-doors football. When I was watching the Bundesliga on Saturday, I tried to imagine what it might be like watching Forest fight for promotion in such a fashion. Will it be possible to get excited about the games as we did before? We have to be honest about that and accept it will be less satisfying. I don’t think there’s anyone involved in the game who thinks football doesn’t need its fans. The strangely symbolic celebration of the victorious Borussia Dortmund team in front of the eerily empty Die Gelbe Wand (The Yellow Wall), was a nice acknowledgement of that fact.
Perhaps it will be a similar feeling as a player who is out for the season and misses the title push – or an unused substitute in a final. You want your team to win, you are happy when they do, but it’s not quite the same as being part of it. I think we have to be ready for that emotion.
Obviously, the key question is whether returning is safe. It’s almost impossible to answer that question without significant expertise and access to a range of data sources. In a similar way it’s hard to say when schools should reopen, offices and other aspects of society. The true answer is buried in a maze of interconnected risk factors which play out in the short- and long-term. Risk is something that we all manage every day, but getting that balance right is crucial and that’s why we should listen with respect to all genuine concerns throughout society, whether these be from footballers, teachers or factory workers.
The restart of football is an aspect of this wider risk management discussion. I can see why it may appear non-essential, but like all industries many jobs and livelihoods are attached to it in some form. And the repercussions of not restarting at all are obviously immense.
The debate between health and economy is the primary discussion of our times.
This fascinating article on the measures that the Bundesliga are implementing to restart the top two leagues shows how concerns are being addressed. The figure that jumped out at me was the €750m cost of not restarting. There have already been missteps, but the top leagues in Europe will attempt to put the protocols in place to make it work. Only time will tell whether it is a success.
One of the things I’ve noticed during the crisis has been that football’s stock has fallen somewhat. As a symbol of perceived wealth and decadence, it has become a target at a time of economic crisis. In my last piece I talked about how football (and indeed Forest) does not sit in a bubble outside the wider economics of society. The sport has never, and never will be, without its moral dilemmas and considerable flaws. Criticism has been thrown at all manner of individuals, clubs and bodies and various blogs and posts have talked about how terrible football has become. But part of this frustration is because football is special to us.
When we talk about owners such as Mike Ashley or Fawaz Al-Hasawi, we rightly recoil. But even in these worst-cases, they are not especially drawn to football to make money. Indeed, it represents a risk far greater than many business leaders would normally countenance. Money is ploughed into the game because it is utterly unique. It moves us in ways that other aspects of life just can’t. Many owners are looking for something different. Something that their retail or air-conditioning empires simply don’t offer.
Because we care about the game, we want to see positive changes happen. We want our clubs to survive this crisis and we want to see a more robust, fairer and more prudent game emerge. That remains to be seen, but we shouldn’t lash out and start hating football, our clubs and players. Obviously, everyone has a right to decide to spend their time in different ways in the future, but we should also ask whether turning on things we have loved is a positive coping strategy?
Over the last few years I’ve become very interested in the power of football to improve and maintain positive mental health. I’ve had the good fortune to speak to a number of experts about the positive role football can play in relationships and communities. But we have to set football in the right context in order for it to have its healing effects. We can’t pretend it doesn’t matter, or hold it to standards it can never reach.
One theme of lockdown has been trying to find light in dark places. Over the last few weeks I’ve seen many people struggle to cope with the uncertainty that the crisis brings. As Forest fans we are immensely lucky to have something to anticipate. The restoration of our routines, our community and way of life gives us hope and something to aim towards. Many people do not have that in their lives. We have also seen examples within our own club of how football can heal – whether through partnerships with local charities, or simply through a bed-time story for younger supporters.
Watching football behind closed doors hurts, because we aren’t going to be part of things in the same way. But it may be a staging post to something better. It is vital that any return is done as safely and respectfully as possible.
Health, ultimately, must be the top priority. Therefore, football may look odd for the coming months – only last week I imagined a scenario of Lewis Grabban missing the play-off final with a cough. It’s going to be messy and it’s going to be weird. Like the takeaway chicken tikka jalfrezi I ordered last week from my neighbours, it isn’t going to be quite the same as being in the restaurant, having a few beers and enjoying the company of friends.
One day, we’ll be back at the City Ground, back in restaurants, and life will start to resemble the old normal. It’s a journey, but we should take football with us on that journey, rather than leave it behind. The other day, I saw Sabri Lamouchi’s unforgettable celebration after the second goal against Leeds. It is everything that is good about football. Only this sport could see a goal by a homegrown player elicit such passion in a man born in Lyon. Lamouchi charges down the touchline, punching the air three times. And being French, of course the stylish scarf stays neatly in place. Around him, the City Ground is erupting, fans and players alike. Who doesn’t want that as part of their lives?