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 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?
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.
Suppose you were on trial for murder, in a country where the death penalty was still applied. With the trial more than two-thirds complete – just a few more defence witnesses and the summings-up to go – suppose a virus put a halt to court proceedings, as jurors fell ill and social distancing made further hearings impossible.
How would you want the thread to be picked up when the court system could begin functioning again?
Three possibilities come to mind: ● The judge reaches a verdict based on the evidence heard so far ● The trial is resumed from the point at which it was interrupted as soon as it is possible to do so ● The trial is abandoned. A new jury is sworn in and the process begins all over again.
Surely the first option can be dismissed out of hand. Without all the evidence having been heard and, in cross-examination, tested, no final verdict is possible. Unfortunately, then, Liverpool cannot be awarded the Premier League title. Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Norwich cannot be relegated with 27-30 points each yet to be contested.
The third option also presents problems of consistency and fairness. Starting again does not move all the pieces back to where they were. In the courtroom analogy, a new jury might have other sympathies; witnesses might no longer be available; new information might have come to light. The trial could be quite different.
Regardless of your view of the concept of natural justice, or of Liverpool FC, for Liverpool to be denied the title arbitrarily would be grotesquely unfair. As the table stands with the league programme suspended, Liverpool need just two wins from nine games to be sure of the title; they have 27 wins from 29 at this point.
And so on down the leagues. In the Championship, Leeds and West Bromwich have pulled away in the automatic promotion places, as have Coventry in League 1. They and their fans would justifiably feel hard-done to if their efforts to March were expunged. At the darker end of the tunnel, poor Bolton are almost certain to be relegated from League One and Stevenage from League Two. Reprieves for them might condemn two other clubs next year.
But there is a quarter of the season outstanding and few issues are clear-cut. The problem with the second option is time. Nobody knows when football might resume. As things stand the Premier League has proposed fixtures from 2 May, but that seems optimistic. Beyond that point, the 2020/21 season will become a factor in calculations.
One idea offered as a potential solution is quite ingenious. The Premier League is apparently looking at the possibility of an accelerated finish to the season in conditions resembling an international tournament: all the clubs gathered in a small number of neutral locations, playing out the remains of the season behind closed doors.
They would hope to be able to do this through June and July. The close season, officially defined in FA rules as June, would thus be sacrificed. But everybody would arrive at the 2020/21 season in the same state of exhaustion. And the investments of time, effort, money, emotion etc in the 2019/20 season would not have been wasted.
It may not happen. First, the infection curve may not be sufficiently flat for anyone to embark on such a project with confidence. Second, complications may arise not only from the fitness and health of players but also from their registrations and contracts. The expectations of broadcasters and sponsors will also be a factor.
Even so, a continuation of the present season must be the fairest course. Even if it runs well into 2020/21. Clubs should be allowed to complete this season’s competitions on the terms under which they entered them; if those terms need to be adjusted for next season, so be it. No League Cup, perhaps, to free up mid-week nights; only one league fixture between clubs, to halve the length of the season; no winter break. If the terms are understood and accepted before the 2020/21 season begins, there should be no problem.
But the example of the play-offs gives grounds for doubt that the current season will be allowed to finish. The play-offs suggest that the people who run football have little regard for the time, effort, money, emotion etc invested in a season by a club and its supporters. Ask anyone whose team has ever finished in third place, streets ahead of fourth but obliged nonetheless to play three more games at the end of the season to gain a promotion it has already earned.
The idea of football tourism as a leisure pursuit depends rather obviously on two things. With football no longer a possibility, is tourism alone a legitimate substitute?
Of course it is under normal circumstances, although even then it might seem perverse in some cases. At one end of the scale, people flock to Venice in their millions without the city having had a half-way decent football club for decades. But at the other, the questionable lure of the sights is now compounded by the closure of many attractions and facilities.
Towns of Two Halves has always maintained that any town can be regarded as a tourist attraction if you approach it with the right attitude. That becomes a difficult position to maintain when towns are shutting down. You’ll have seen a lot of newspaper columnists lately pretending to have read La Peste by Albert Camus; Nevil Shute’s On the Beach also comes to mind, with the old boys in the Melbourne club wondering whether they have time to drink their way through the port collection in the cellar before the fallout cloud arrives.
It was possible on the 14 March to watch Halifax play Ebbsfleet in the National League and to visit the Calderdale Industrial Museum, Halifax Minster and the Square Chapel Arts Centre. A handful of days later, all were closed until further notice. Now public transport is beginning to wind down – by this time next week travel in general might be discouraged, which would finally knock any idea of tourism on the head.
When the crisis has passed – and China appears to have got on top of the coronavirus in about four months – both elements of football tourism will probably take much longer to recover. Many football clubs seem ill-equipped to cope with the routine demands of the season; a prolonged shutdown will sorely test their viability. The EFL has made a fund of £50m available for clubs in difficulties. It’s a tidy sum, but if all 72 clubs applied, it could pay their players’ wages… for a month. Some of the local museums, galleries, country houses and other establishments so beloved of Towns of Two Halves also exist only where tolerances are so fine that a feeler gauge is necessary.
They will need all the help they can get. It’s hard to imagine that lower league football clubs or local cultural enterprises will be high in the Government’s list of priorities. When football returns, revel in the chance to be a tourist again. Any day can be a festival, just as any town can be a tourist resort.