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When football met the pandemic – and how it coped

Posted on October 26, 2020

Project Restart. Real-time history about football and lockdown

My new book about football – well, football and its place in society – comes out today. The foreword to it is reproduced below. To buy your copy, go to the Pitch Publishing website where there are links to all major booksellers. Some of them pay tax.

With footballers outstripping our elected leaders when it comes to social justice and with fans contributing to food banks instead of paying (again) for pay-per-view TV, the link between football and wider society becomes more marked and important by the day.

This book captures some of that spirit and pays tribute to those at all levels who love the game and all that it can do for people.

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I’ve always known that I lived in a society where there was unfairness, inequality and tragedy. All the same, for a long time, I didn’t think I lived in one where something really, genuinely bad would happen to everyone.

Sure, we’d had those miserable climate warnings. For some, the UK winter of 2020 had already brought unbridled misery as persistent, torrential rain ruined properties and livelihoods. Doomsters had been warning us for some time that ‘freak’ weather could become the norm unless we changed our behaviour. It all seemed a bit distant, though. Stuff like that really wasn’t going to affect our lives in the long term.

Pandemics? Shocking and tragic as they may have been, they happened in other countries whose authorities didn’t have stuff under control like we had. And then it became horribly real.

Like almost every genuine football supporter I know, I frequently ask myself a question to which I don’t know the answer: why do I let the game in general, and my team in particular, matter to me? For all the jokiness, you’ll know what I mean – checking the score when you should be grinning happily at your niece’s wedding; knowing that you’ll be grumpy that evening if you’ve lost; flicking the remote from a major world event because you just need to know some  entirely inconsequential scrap of football-related nonsense. Let’s not even talk about planning holidays, arranging social events and skipping off work early.

In those first few shocking and unsettling weeks in March and April, we had to square up to what we’d always known: football really isn’t that important in the face of real danger and disaster. The impact of Covid 19 was all-consuming and despite the foot-dragging of many of those in charge, it soon became plain that professional football, played in front of crowds of people, was an unthinkable folly.

All of which lasted for about three or four weeks, by which time it became acceptable to start asking what was going to happen to the beautiful game. With plenty of time for idle contemplation during lockdown, I became fascinated by how this whole process of restarting football was going to play out.  In the pages that follow, I’ve tried to put together a living history of what happened, looking at football and its place in the wider world. At the centre of this are case studies of nine clubs operating at a range of levels. The choice was arbitrary other than trying to ensure that I got a spread of clubs from the Premier League to your local sports and social set-up.

Communicating with anyone from any of the fully professional clubs during the height of the pandemic was almost impossible. Attempts to set up online interviews, get a response to emails or find someone to answer the phone became a dispiriting business. In the lower leagues, many non-playing staff had been placed on furlough – a term which I don’t think any of us had ever used in our lives before, but which became quickly installed as part of everyday conversation. Up at the top level, particularly as the restart became a fact of life, over-stretched media teams became entirely inaccessible. 

 But there were – and are – plenty of other sources from which the temperature of the times could be taken. By trawling media – local and national – and loitering on forums and chat rooms, I’ve put together a picture that I hope will be familiar in many aspects to fans of all clubs. Eventually, I got to speak to a quite a few key people: members of supporters’ trusts and supporters’ clubs; stalwarts of non-league football who do everything from maintaining the website to painting the goalposts; managers, chairmen, chief executives, academics and researchers.

At the core of this book are the chosen clubs, from the Premier League to the parks, but there is plenty of mention of other teams and you’ll be able to find where yours features because a handy index is provided. My principal intention has been to paint a picture of what was happening in football but to do so I make no apology for looking at the game in the context of what was happening in society in general. In order to do that, I’ve had to engage in occasional political commentary. I haven’t been so coy as to pretend any neutrality; you’re at complete liberty to disagree with the opinions expressed and I’ve even furnished you with contact details at the end so that you can tell me why I’m such a fool to think as I do. 

Much of this book was written in June and July. At that time, the only two leagues who were able to get back into full action were the Premier League and the Championship. Below that level, barring some play-off action, all we could do was wait and see and hope that somehow, some sort of football would soon take place, not least so that some income could be generated and the employment of hundreds of people could become more secure. In this, especially below the top two levels, those who worked in football, in whatever capacity, were in the same boat as the rest of society.

One of the things we learnt during the pandemic was that the people who emptied our bins, stacked the shelves, drove the buses, worked at the pharmacy or delivered our post and parcels genuinely were those who kept us going. That’s even before we get to those who cared for the elderly, tended the sick, nursed the terminally ill and worked until they were emotionally and physically drained. The pages that follow acknowledge that even though we were all trying to come to terms with a world turned on its head, it was just about permissible to strive for those things we knew were trivial: we’re capable of carrying two ideas in our heads at once. We knew that it was possible to be respectful to those who had suffered while trying to grasp for some of the trifles that make life normal.

Footballers showed themselves as keen as anyone to demonstrate humility and a sense of perspective. Some went a great deal further than that. This book is written out of gratitude to the van driver as well as the star striker. Both remind us of what it is to be human.

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