Time of article published

3 May 2020 – If LS Lowry painted ‘Going to the Match’ outside one of the Premier League’s designated neutral stadiums, it would look less like the prelude to a game and more like a hazardous military expedition into no man’s land. No fans and no anticipation, except the fear of where the next bullet is coming from.

I know we are all desperate for football to resume but are we so desperate that we turn a sport that we cherish for its escapism, its tribalism and its beauty into a giant sterile zone ringed by a cordon sanitaire where the ruling passions are fear and cynicism?

So desperate that in our haste to rush back with scared players and empty stadiums, we risk causing even more damage by alienating fans with a spectacle that strips football of almost everything we love it for? In that scenario, Project Restart will turn into Project False Start and the long climb back to what we once knew will look even more forbidding.

Gary Neville said last month that the Premier League are going to have to work hard to win back their fans when football resumes but this does not feel like the right way of going about it. We all want football back as soon as possible so why is there a nagging voice inside our heads saying that everything about the timing of this feels wrong?

It is partly because sport is supposed to be fun and this feels about as far removed from fun as the scene in Apocalypse Now, where Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore tries to persuade Lance to take to the waves on a surfboard while mortars are exploding in the water during a battle between the US forces in Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

Kilgore is one of those men untouched by war but as explosions throw sand into the air on the beach, he presses on with his surfing plan. ‘God dammit,’ Captain Willard screams at him, ‘Don’t you think it’s a little risky for some R and R?’ Kilgore yells back: ‘If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, captain, it’s safe to surf this beach.’

It is the same with the Premier League. This is not an easy decision for the clubs to make and, in their defence, they are being led by the Government, who have moved on from casting footballers as scapegoats and are now keen for them to give the nation a fillip by resuming on June 12.

Hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake here for the clubs and they will only proceed if the Government say it is safe for them to do so. The livelihoods of thousands of employees in our football industry are at risk, too. And in six weeks, we all hope things will look different. The plan is for a general return to work on May 26. In the States, golf’s PGA Tour is planning to return on June 11 in Texas. But golf is different. It could be made for social distancing. The same applies to tennis. Football is a team sport, a contact sport, a sport of grappling and barging and tackling and this feels too soon. It feels as if we are not quite thinking straight yet. Don’t you think it’s a little risky for R and R?

Football is not separate from society. It is part of it. Think about what it is like when you go out for a walk now and come across other people. If football’s anything like that, it will be don’t look at me, don’t touch me, for God’s sake don’t cough on me and in absolutely no circumstances whatsoever try to mark me at a corner.

I keep thinking about a scene from the last football match I covered before the lockdown. After Maidenhead United’s 2-1 National League defeat by Stockport County at York Road on March 14 in front of a crowd of 1,662 fans, a few of us spoke to Maidenhead manager Alan Devonshire about the decision to play the game. His voice was shaking with anger.

‘I can’t believe we were here today,’ he said. ‘The powers that be have done it all wrong. F*** football clubs. This is about people’s lives. My mum’s 88 and I’m worried sick about her. If one of us who was here today gives it to her, I have to live with that.’

It felt then as if football had left it too late to suspend its season and now it feels as if it is too early to be talking about going back. Fans are not part of the equation any more but there is still something oddly cavalier about the idea of football resuming so soon. Social distancing utterly abandoned for players? Quarantine after contact with an infected person abandoned?

The problem for football is that players do not exist in a vacuum. They have families. They have elderly relatives. They have friends they worry about. And you can put up screens in shops and you can rearrange an office so that people sit further apart or come in at different times. But you cannot play a football match in shifts and, even though we say some managers park a bus in front of the goals, we have not yet got to the point where they can put barriers between players.

We have to accept, too, that the Premier League will be judged by different standards to other organisations welcoming employees back to work because of their profile. What if a superstar player contracts the virus during a game? What if he gets ill? Really ill? There are other concerns, too.

‘I hope the Premier League have considered the optics of a player with a serious injury getting bundled into an ambulance and driven out of their hermetically sealed behind-closed-doors venue and into an A&E department already on its knees, all broadcast live on Free TV,’ said one chairman of a lower league club.

‘Now there’s an image that would define our game for a long time. The bigger the bubble the Premier League tries to blow for itself, the bigger the bang when it bursts.’

So maybe football should ignore the Government when they say it will be safe to surf the beach on June 12. The Government said it would be safe for thousands of people to congregate at the Cheltenham Festival in March, too, and for hordes of Atletico Madrid fans to descend on Liverpool for a Champions League tie.

So football should delay. The best option would be to wait until the numbers of new infections are negligible and the pressure on the NHS has eased significantly and the danger to players has been reduced and the idea of fans returning is not such a distant prospect. If we send out a message that fans do not matter, maybe fans will send out a message that football does not matter to them.

The preferred option should still be to finish this season. But when it is safe. When it feels right to do so. When it does not feel like a dash for cash. Or approval ratings. If that is September or October, then so be it. If that is not deemed feasible, then this season will have to be curtailed and decided on points per game ratio, as it has been in France.

It is better to delay and have public support when football returns than to rush in like fools and court public opprobrium. Football should wait. At the moment, its haste looks indecent. June 12 is too soon.

Amid the gloom surrounding the postponement of Test series and the cancellation of this year’s The Hundred, English cricket did get one piece of good news last week when Ian Watmore was cleared to take over as chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board after a review cleared him of any wrong-doing during his time on the Football League board.

Watmore is a principled man and a fine administrator. In this time of trouble, cricket in this country could not have a better person at the helm.

(By Oliver Holt Daily Mail/IOL)