No sooner has Project Restart got off the ground than attention turns to the next season – and the possibility of opening football grounds to supporters.
The FA chief executive Mark Bullingham was widely reported on Thursday as hoping that “some fans could start to return to stadiums” with the new season. His comment is necessarily cautious: ‘some’ fans, ‘start to return’, and no commitment to all stadia. But for supporters of many clubs, especially lower down the league structure, it will be enough.
At many grounds, social distancing even at two metres might already be possible with an average attendance: it would simply involve re-opening the sections of stands or, in some cases entire stands, that are routinely closed off. My favourite example of this practice is from National League Halifax Town, whose website promises: “The North Stand provides a great view, however this stand is unused.”
At one metre, an adjustment the Government might make for pubs where it wouldn’t for schools, many grounds would still look half-empty.
The problem will be getting people to and into the grounds, organising their movement within the grounds and, not least, providing facilities. At least from your sofa you can enjoy a beer with the match and not have to worry about bladder control.
This is how the season will end… not with a bang but with a whimper.
Actually, the return of the Premier League has made no difference to me so far. Too tight to pay for a subscription and too lazy to find a free live stream, I’m waiting for the mouth-watering Bournemouth v Crystal Palace clash on the BBC.
Meanwhile, there’s the radio. Radio 5’s coverage of the game between Villa and Sheffield United yesterday recalled a distant era. For the Ashes Test series in England in 1930, ‘live’ commentaries were read to the insomniac Australian radio audience by local presenters reading cables, ball-by-ball. There were no background noises beyond the hiss of steam radio; no thwack of willow on leather, no audible cries of “Oh I say, jolly well played,” and no crowd responses. Very much like most of the match at Villa Park (where, by the way, if that’s the quality of the officiating and the technology, points-per-game would have been a fairer way of finishing the season).
Towards the end of its 6.30pm bulletin on 28 May, ITV News put up a graphic to accompany its story on the return of Premier League football. The first matches to be played, it said, will be Manchester City v Arsenal and Aston Villa v Sheffield.
Anyone can make a mistake. But this one came barely two hours after a similar piece on Radio 5 Live’s Drive show, in which an over-excited reporter repeatedly referred to the Aston Villa/Sheffield Wednesday game restarting the league programme.
That’s less forgivable. What sort of an ear must a sports reporter have for the juxtaposition of Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and Premier League not to sound wrong? How come nobody else involved in the programme noticed such a simple error – or, if they did, failed to correct him?
Try to imagine the first line on the ITV caption reading ‘Manchester v Arsenal’. Or the radio presenter hearing his colleague say ‘Manchester United’ instead of ‘Manchester City’. Do you suppose the mistake would have gone uncorrected?
It’s improbable. Football is still three weeks away. But the condescension habitually shown by the media to ‘smaller’ clubs is roaring back.
When the League Two clubs voted last week to cancel the 2019/20 season, they turned the clock back 34 years. Stevenage finish bottom but (subject to ratification) remain in the league. In effect, they have become the first club to be chosen by their peers to stay in the Football League since Exeter City, Cambridge United, Preston North End and Torquay United on 23 May 1986.
It used to be known as ‘applying for re-election’. There was no formal application in last Friday’s deliberations. Stevenage were bottom of League Two with 10 games to play when the current season reached what turns out to have been its conclusion in March. They were three points adrift of Macclesfield but had a game in hand. The League Two clubs apparently took the not unreasonable view that it would be grotesquely unfair to relegate Stevenage without giving them a chance to play their way out of trouble.
The support of other league clubs also formed the basis of the re-election system. As a means of deciding what happened to the teams in the bottom four positions of the fourth tier, re-election always looked like something of a formality. In theory, 112 non-league clubs might have ascended into the Football League in the 28 seasons during which the re-election process applied, from the founding of the Fourth Division in 1958 to promotion/relegation from 1986 onwards. In the event, five scrambled on board.
The non-league community used to regard re-election as an example of the ‘Old Pals Act’ in operation. When Saturday Comes pulled no punches: “In the smoke-filled rooms of London’s Café Royal the same old representatives of the same rotting clubs gathered enough votes each year to remain stagnant at the bottom of Division Four.”
Among the repeat offenders at the league’s lowest levels, Hartlepool United successfully applied for re-election 11 times in this period. That’s not far off every other year. On the other hand, Oldham Athletic provide a kind of vindication for the system by having gone through the process twice before becoming founder members of the Premier League.
The expectation is that Stevenage’s good fortune will not be at the expense of Barrow. The Cumbrian club has led the National League since mid-November and had a 4-point lead on 14 March. Poor Bury will have to be replaced in the EFL structure and that leaves an opening for Barrow.
It looks certain now that if the 2019/2020 league season is completed, it will be ‘behind closed doors’.
This isn’t quite the same thing as ‘in camera’, an expression originating in the legal system, when a judge excludes the press and public from proceedings. That means literally ‘in a chamber’.
‘Camera’ arrived at its contemporary meaning by a circuitous route but it is the same word, and if ‘in camera’ is not appropriate ‘on camera’ most certainly is. The public might be excluded from the league season’s remaining fixtures, but the broadcasters will be there.
Will we, then, be able to watch without Sky or BT subscriptions? The Government will argue for free transmission, to stop us all going round to watch games at the home of whoever has one. Or extended highlights. Or, if not on TV, via the websites of clubs.
From a fan’s point of view it hardly matters. Football on TV again on any terms would be a huge adornment to our locked-down lives. A satisfactory footballing conclusion to a blighted season might be welcomed everywhere, with the possible exception of Stevenage.
If the season does end behind closed doors, it will be interesting to see how the players react. Many clubs talk of their supporters as a 12th man; can they compete on equal terms? Will spitting become a sending-off offence? Will the pundits wear masks? Who cares. Bring it on.
When Latin was taught in schools, back in the Dark Ages, every schoolchild knew that Rome was founded by refugees from Troy. According to a vaguely related legend, one Brutus, great-grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas, subsequently wandered into the North Atlantic and became the first king of Britain.
The legend is colourful nonsense. But there are still parts of this country where the sense of strangeness (from the French ‘étrange’, meaning ‘foreign’) is so strong and inexplicable that legend retains some appeal.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Halifax is an unexpectedly exotic and cosmopolitan town.
On a sunny afternoon you could easily imagine its Piece Hall in the Mediterranean or in some Roman province. It’s a large quadrangle bounded by two- and three-storey colonnades, backed by arched rooms in which worsted and woollen goods were traded. It opened in 1779 and was beautifully restored in 2017. Today it houses specialist shops, some historic displays, the information centre and places to eat and drink.
After dark, parts of Halifax town centre – around the Town Hall and the Borough Market especially – feel improbably French; it may be the lighting and lamp standards, the sandstone and style, the mansard roofs and turrets, an occasional tall, slim gable end, diners glimpsed through an aqueous window or the tolling of the hour on the Town Hall clock. Around the town the lights on the hillsides are a profoundly nostalgic sight.
In other respects Halifax is thoroughly Yorkshire: a dark, culverted river; dramatic public buildings; old mills converted to contemporary purposes; a fine local industrial museum measuring the breadth of Halifax’s contribution to the Industrial Revolution; a lovely Minster with a feeling of great age, unusual even for a church; and Eureka!, the National Children’s Museum to which you aren’t admitted if you don’t have a child in tow.
The people were lovely too, by and large, though not in all cases with an unusual feeling of great age. It was a strange atmosphere: just two days later the Government tightened its advice on the coronavirus. Meanwhile people strolled around the Piece Hall, they went to pubs and restaurants and at 5.20pm they attended what would be the last professional football match for some time. The National League fixture at the Shay, between Halifax Town and Ebbsfleet United, kicked off at 5.20pm for the cameras. On public transport, in the street, indoors or at the Shay they gave each other space but were friendly and helpful.
At the Calderdale Industrial Museum, some of the volunteers must have been in the ‘vulnerable’ category but that wasn’t going to discourage them. Stationed around exhibits in the four-floor building, each was a mine of information (especially the gentleman in the mining section). Much of the equipment on display, though static, is impressive enough; but many machines still work and are eagerly demonstrated. At the automated sweet-wrapping device you’ll even be offered a sample of the product.
The museum celebrates the industrial history of the town in all its diversity: pottery, mining, engineering, machine tools, textiles, carpets, confectionery. It also records the contribution of individuals and, when I was there, specifically Laurie Annie Willson MBE. A suffragette, she was instrumental in getting women into the WWI war effort, pioneered works canteens and, after setting up her own electrical engineering company, she built quality homes for working people. Four of her estates are still part of Halifax’s housing stock.
Another notable Halifax woman is remembered at the Minster. Anne Lister was the Gentleman Jack of the recent BBC series. She owned Shibden Hall, just outside Halifax, was an active local parishioner and her tombstone is in the Minster.
Dean Clough sounds like a junior offshoot of a footballing dynasty, until you consider the northern geographical meaning of ‘clough’ – a valley or ravine. Here, a collection of 19th century buildings and mills has been converted into offices, a shopping village, galleries and leisure spaces.
The galleries are a rabbit warren but the printed guide helps and it’s worth persevering. In a random corridor you’ll find a Hockney; above a staircase, Tom Wood’s portrait of the Prince of Wales; and in a room to itself, a sensational Lego model of the complex.
I was in Halifax on a Saturday. By the following Tuesday a number of the places I visited were closed – the Industrial Museum, the Minster, the Shay – until further notice. This was football tourism to the finest of tolerances. On the day football closed down in England, then, 52 Ebbsfleet supporters made their way to Halifax and were rewarded with an away win. Some of the Halifax team played as if they were feeling under the weather.
FC Halifax Town 0 Ebbsfleet United 1 The Shay Stadium, 14 Mar 2020
When Norman Hunter died last week it was natural that the broadcast news should include clips of his career highlights, however unedifying. Hunter was one of the most significant footballers of his generation. In an era of hard men – in a teak-hard Leeds United team – he stood out.
But the highlights reels revealed an aspect of Hunter’s play that can’t help but catch the eye, 50 years later. All the fouls featured were committed with the boot. Hunter was indeed a footballer. Neither on the BBC News nor in many of the YouTube compilations will you see Hunter grappling with an opponent. He summarily chopped men down, rather than hauling them down with his hands, arms or upper body.
Is that to Norman Hunter’s credit? No, it probably made him more dangerous than would be tolerated today. But the famous ‘duty of care’ that players are said to owe opponents seems a convenient piece of hypocrisy anyway. Grappling has not replaced hacking, stamping, scraping etc – it has joined them in the modern footballer’s armoury.
On the other hand… there is a certain honesty, perhaps almost purity, about the way Hunter played. His job was to stop opponents from scoring. How much easier it would have been had the use of the arms been legitimate – or even mandatory – in his day.
In the event it was one of Hunter’s team-mates who changed football in that respect. When Jack Charlton was allowed by referees to get away with standing on the goal-line in front of the goalkeeper at corners, the game changed forever. In particular, the days of an offence previously referred to as ‘obstruction’ were numbered.
The argument Leeds made was that Charlton was entitled to stand where he liked at a corner-kick. That much was true; but his purpose was to impede, distract, perhaps intimidate but certainly to get in the way of the goalkeeper. From there it was a short step to other overt forms of obstruction – ‘shepherding’ the ball out for a throw-in or goal-kick, for example. And with obstruction effectively part of the game, it was natural that use of the arms should follow. When, then, was the last time you saw an indirect free-kick awarded for “impeding the progress of an opponent”? Instead, something similar to rugby’s ‘hand-off’ is routine whenever the ball goes near a player with a marker within reach.
It is to be expected that in half a century the game might have changed. Norman Hunter was a good enough footballer to have made a career in it if he were starting out again now.
One of the unexpected victims of the much-maligned VAR could be goal celebrations. Players who aren’t sure they’ve scored can’t help but be inhibited. Celebrating prematurely will expose them to the mockery of opposing fans, as when half the ground sees a shot hit the side-netting and the other half thinks it’s a goal.
Surely, you might reply, only an old curmudgeon would find anything objectionable about goal celebrations. Speaking as an old curmudgeon, I agree – but only up to a point. Some goal celebrations are genuine (if premeditated) expressions of joy. But others are no better than brand-building. They belong to the world of marketing and image rights. They are yet another lamentable demonstration of football’s eagerness to sell its soul.
Alex Young, the Golden Vision (Everton 1960-68), on scoring one of his 89 goals for the club, would offer a firm handshake to any team-mate in the vicinity before trotting back to the centre-circle looking godlike. That was how it was done in those days, though few managed to look godlike in the process.
The first vaguely modern, exuberant goal celebration may have been Roger Milla dancing with a corner flag at the 1990 World Cup. Cameroon illuminated that tournament and Milla scored enough goals to have partnered each corner flag in turn. He was, incidentally, the oldest footballer to score a goal at the World Cup finals at the time, but nobody spoke of dad-dancing then. And Peter Crouch’s robot was 16 years in the future.
But celebrations are becoming more and more reprehensible. Anything involving hand shapes or messages on undershirts should be outlawed, with the exception of Owen Farrell’s ‘JJ salute’ in which Farrell is promoting a charity. What Gareth Bales’s heart, Ellen White’s goggles or others (including the Mobot) are promoting is anybody’s guess. Joy unconfined?
VAR often takes an age to come to a borderline decision. That is clearly not what the procedure was intended for, and is one of the many valid objections to it. But if it takes the ‘spontaneity’ out of goal celebrations, would that be a bad thing?
Dover Western Docks was once one of the most romantic destinations on Britain’s railway network. To have a ticket to Dover Western Docks meant you were traveling on the boat-train; your eventual destination was probably Paris. If, like me, you were thrifty, you were probably traveling at dead of night into the bargain, which added to the romance. Theoretically, at least.
Before ever I made the trip I thought the boat-train somehow trundled from the pier right into the bowels of the cross-Channel ferry. It was a disappointment, then, to have to disembark at a cold, dark, anonymous railway terminal and walk the last couple of hundred yards. Any remaining shreds of romance were irrevocably whisked away on to the chill night breeze by the state of the vessel at dead of night. Squalor is the word that comes to mind. And yet when I think of that first trip the chief memory is of Ilse and the sense of romance returns refulgently.
The last train arrived at Dover Western Docks in 1994. The listed station building remains on Admiralty Pier but the lines are long gone. Trains to Dover now deliver you to Dover Priory station, which sounds an acceptably historic alternative. Don’t get your hopes up.
In March 2020 it was hard to be sure whether they were knocking down Dover Priory station or renovating it. Perhaps they plan a future diametrically opposed to the fate of Western Docks – the rails will stay but the station will disappear. Either way, any romance or sense of history attached to this element of your visit will depend entirely on how you feel about your companion.
One final announcement from Platform 1. In March 2020 the UK, as elsewhere, was trying to keep Covid-19, the coronavirus, under control. The official advice was for us to wash our hands, long and often, with soap and hot water. The Gents at Dover Priory had neither soap nor hot water. This comment is not aimed at the station management; I mention it to illustrate a common British inability to match ideals with the daily reality experienced by most of the citizenry.
If Dover were a golf course, you’d splash out on a buggy. The flatlands of the town centre don’t require it, and here you will save further money by finding the Transport Museum and the Roman Painted House closed through the winter and Dover Museum is free. But up the hill to the west are the Western Heights and associated redoubts, plus the Templar Church. Up another hill to the east is Dover Castle. Even the football ground, at Crabble, is up a slope that would be regarded in most towns as challenging.
From the railway station, the hill closest takes you up to the Western Heights. The fortifications here are from the Napoleonic Wars originally. “The exterior and moat can be viewed daily during any reasonable daylight hours,” says English Heritage. As for the rest, then, you’d have to be lucky about the date of your visit.
It may nonetheless be worth trekking up there. For one thing, it will warm you up for the walk to the castle later. For another, it gives you fine views across the town, harbour and, indeed, the English Channel. Dover Castle is at a similar altitude on the other side of the town but unfortunately the photo opportunity is compromised from some angles by a pair of masts rising out of the landscape beyond.
Alternatively, if you turn left out of the station you’re into the town centre very quickly. Here you will find Dover Museum.
The Dover Museum has galleries on three storeys, one of which was closed when I was there, for an exhibition to be set up. No matter; the remainder was excellent. They soften you up with attractive displays of Dover through the ages, including an especially effective room devoted to the town’s military history. This included a sequence of seven or eight chronological models and, suspended from the ceiling, a V1 flying bomb. Not as obvious but worth equal attention is a portrait of Elizabeth I painted in about 1598 and displayed in Dover Town Hall during her reign.
And then we come to the pièce de résistance, the Bronze Age boat which merits its own gallery. This is fairly dark. If you have reactolite spectacles you may need to give them a few minutes to calm down.
The boat is apparently the “oldest sea-going vessel known”. It may be 3,500yrs-old. Laid out behind perspex in the middle of the room, it was apparently built of hollowed-out trunks strapped together. At intervals along the length of the base are what look strangely like the wheel-arches of a small car. At either end there are obviously bits missing, but most of it is astonishingly complete. Around the sides of the gallery, related exhibits and explanations complement the vessel perfectly.
From there, it is no great distance to Dover Castle. But Castle Street, encouragingly flat for the first hundred yards or so, soon takes a turn for the worse. Experienced travellers will think nostalgically of European cities like Ljubljana and Salzburg, where castles are served by funiculars. Press on. It’s worth it, even at £20.90 a pop.
You could probably spend most of a day at Dover Castle. It covers an enormous area and has several set-piece attractions from various eras. The castle itself includes a keep with rooms presented as period halls, kitchens, bedrooms and so forth, and with access to the roof with wonderful views. Around the keep’s courtyard is a museum devoted to the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment and The Queen’s Regiment and these help to maintain a sense of chronology. And that’s not easy, partly because the eras rub shoulders with each other on a large scale – a Roman lighthouse alongside a Saxon church – and in the general feel of the place, with WW2 artillery pieces in one direction, a trebuchet and cannon in another. Some of the more prosaic buildings are equally intriguing, from barracks to holiday accommodation.
The Naafi Restaurant attached to the castle was closed for refurbishment. English Heritage broke that lamentable news in a peculiarly jolly-hockeysticks fashion. “We’re excited to announce that major work has begun to improve our catering facilities.” So I looked for lunch down the hill and wandered at random into the White Horse on St James St. It was an inspired choice.
When a pub is busy and you have a deadline – 3pm in my case – it helps for the staff to warn you that you might wait 40mins for food. But when they realised I was a party of one (no-one Ilse on this visit) they accommodated me and fed me promptly and well.
The pub itself is extraordinary. All over the walls, ceiling and doors are notes left as in a Visitor’s Book but in this case by Channel swimmers. A typically matter-of-fact entry, on the back of the main door, reads: “Cedric Bird, Jersey, E-F 13/9/08 11hrs 46mins For Charlie & Hannah”. Some include an inspirational message: “Life dream is now a reality. Chase your dream!” Many immortalise the support crew. One or two are illustrated, especially with flags. And there is humour: “For Lil and George, It Was Only One Length! Rebecca Simmons, First Guern! 19-9-09 11-4.3”
London Road is down-at-heel, enlivened by some notable architecture. The shabbiness increases with distance from the centre. Or, to be more generous, the grandeur fades. The Royal Victoria Hospital and its annex are still pretty grand. But Kings Hall, described by the estate agent trying hard to drum up interest as “an impressive and attractive theatre hall”, is startling. Certainly, very few English towns are too grand for a bit of Romanesque frontage and a pair of Doric columns, but painted yellow, white and sage green? A little further along is Jasper House, built I believe in 1954 as a Working Men’s Club. Is this very late Art Deco or early retro?
I realised too late that I had been walking parallel to the River Dour, and that it might have been possible to walk alongside it rather than beside a busy road. On the other hand its name doesn’t inspire visions of sylvan tranquillity. In the long run, it supplies the adjective that my memory will attach to the fixture at Crabble that afternoon.
‘Confident’ is the word for a football club that prints the its name in type no bigger than 8½pt on the front of its match-day programme, relying instead on the initials COYW as a masthead. Come on you whites… and with cliffs that colour, what else would Dover Athletic play in?
Dover Athletic 0 Yeovil Town 1 Crabble Stadium, 7 March 2020
YouTube preserves many wonderful treasures from the past, rarely more golden than when Eric Cantona bestrode the earth. And in almost all the epic goals that decorate this five-minute compilation, Eric is wearing a long-sleeved shirt.
At some point in the intervening quarter-century long sleeves, along with the Anglo-Italian League and black football boots, have disappeared from the game (though not racism, homophobia and intolerance of all kinds). And yet football is a winter sport, surely ill-suited to what is in effect a T-shirt (albeit with miraculous wicking properties). Have footballers become more hardy and virile?
‘No’ is the short answer. On the contrary, it can only be a matter of time before players take the field in overcoats. Sir Stanley Matthews would not have rolled his socks over his knees. He would not have worn cycling shorts except perhaps on a bicycle. If he ever played in gloves it would surely only have been as an emergency goalkeeper in the days before substitutes. As for tights, in Sir Stan’s day running around kept you adequately warm.
‘No’ is also the longer answer. Short-sleeved shirts enable players to get away with a bit of layering. Beneath the maillot du jour, the colour, design and detail of which will vary according to venue, occasion and time of year, players wear long-sleeved undergarments. This untidy habit is only slightly mitigated by the regulatory insistence that the visible long sleeves should match the colour of the outer short sleeves. Such under-sleeves do not, of course, bear any stripes or other patterning. They do not have a noticeable cuff. They aren’t always a particularly good colour match. They can, however, bear a logo or message to be revealed when a goal is scored. No doubt footballers think they are ‘edgy’.
Can clubs not afford two sets of shirts, then? Again, ‘No’ is the obvious answer. Clubs produce new strips at the drop of a hat and customise them to commemorate special events. In former times a player would have been offered a choice of short or long-sleeved shirt. His selection would then have been drawn from a hamper containing 20 freshly-laundered shirts: one short, one long-sleeved for each of the 10 outfield players. (According to legend Arsenal was an exception: there, the captain decided what sleeves the whole team would wear.)
Does any of this matter? Once again, no. But you can’t help feeling that it’s all part of football’s determination to milk as much revenue as it can from fans, perhaps in this case by getting them to buy twice as many shirts as they need.