Football vs Coronavirus: Without Precedent

by | Mar 15, 2020

The decisions taken on Friday were, in truth, the only ones that could be taken. There may or may not be widespread denial of the peril in which we find ourselves at the moment, but the truth is all around us, in Italy and Spain, France and Germany, all over the continent and, increasingly, all over the world. While the governments of both the UK and the USA stuck their fingers in their ears, businesses had to start taking extremely tough decisions. And football has been no exception to this. As players, coaches and club owners started to test positive for coronavirus, the tenability of the football calender rapidly started to look increasingly shaky.

So, let’s tidy up a few hanging questions. No, a global medical emergency that has already killed thousands of people and which may well end up killing millions is not a conspiracy against Liverpool, against Leeds United, or against any other football club that was heading into March hoping to scratch a footballing itch that had been irritating them for some time. It’s spectacularly bad luck, and nothing else. People within the medical industry have been warning for years that pandemics are an inevitable part of life on earth for years, and that we should be prepared for the fact that they do periodically come along. And this now looks very much like it’s going to be that time.

On Friday, the Champions League, the Europa League, the Premier League and the Football League were all suspended. Non-league football continued this weekend – there was even a live match on the television early yesterday evening – but it’s highly likely that this state of affairs will also come to an end in the next few days. All of the leagues have clearly agonised over this, and it’s not a straightforward decision. Mothballing football clubs isn’t easy when the game has professionalised to a point at which billions of pounds are at stake, and thousands of livelihoods depend upon it. No preparations were ever put in place for a set of circumstances like this because where we are now is already beyond extraordinary.

There is nothing to compare it to since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and even comparing football’s response now with then is almost impossible. The end of the First World War coincided with the most serious period of the outbreak, and by the end of it all a quarter of the British population had fallen ill with Spanish flu at some point during the pandemic, with about 228,000 people having died. The game in this country was already suspended because of the First World War, though, and the end of that in November 1918 came too late for much football played throughout the 1918/19 season outside of the regionalised competitions that had been played since 1915.

It is likely, though, that the FA and the Football League didn’t rush to put anything more major before the start of the 1919/20 season for two main reasons. The first outbreak had come in March 1918, but died off a little during the summer months before mutating into something altogether more dangerous, killing perfectly healthy young people, sometimes within 24 hours of them contracting it. The rapid spread of Spanish flu in the fall of 1918 was at least partially to blame on public health officials unwilling to impose quarantines during wartime. In Britain, for example, The Chief Medical Officer of the Local Government Board, Sir Arthur Newsholme, knew fully well that a strict civilian lockdown was the best way to fight the spread of the highly contagious disease. But he wouldn’t risk crippling the war effort by keeping munitions factory workers and other civilians at home.

The British government, then, remained inert. Newsholme didn’t issue any instructions until the 22nd October, and the subject wasn’t even raised in parliament until this time. When a government film was eventually released, it came during a second wave of the mutated virus that swept through the country in March of the following year, and too few copies of it were produced. This entirely inadequate response likely led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, but understanding this should also be framed within the context of the relative lack of knowledge that even senior medical experts had of influenza outbreaks, how they spread, and how to contain them, at the time.

On top of this, the FA and the Football League probably had the events of the 1914/15 season in the front of their minds. At the start of the war, they argued that continuance of the full league programme would not only help maintain morale, but would also present excellent opportunities to boost recruitment and raise much-needed money for the various war relief funds. This was not, however, a winning argument. Critics argued that many other sports had already cancelled competition for the duration and had, in addition, also made substantial contributions in manpower to the war effort. For professional football to continue “playing the game” while young men were dying on the battlefields of France and Belgium, it was argued, was morally reprehensible.

Throughout the course of the season, though, the voices against the decision to continue to play became louder and more persistent. Questions were asked in parliament and letters were written to national newspapers. And it didn’t take long for the governing bodies’ position to look untenable. Letters were sent to each of the 11 professional clubs in the London area inviting them to attend talks on the 8th of December. Representatives from the Football League, Southern League and Football Association would also be in attendance, as would the chief army recruitment officer for London, Captain Thomas Whiffen. The meeting was to be chaired by William Joynson-Hicks MP, who had been tasked with raising it by the War Office.

Following productive preliminary talks, a further meeting was held at Fulham Town Hall on the 15th of December 1914, which led to the raising of the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, better known as the “Footballers Battalion.” By the middle of the following month, the new battalion had attracted almost half of the 1,350 volunteers needed to bring it up to full strength, bulked out with ordinary conscripts who wanted the opportunity to fight alongside their favourite players. By the end of March, it was complete. The League season was seen through to conclusion and the 1915 FA Cup final was played (it became known as “The Khaki Cup Final” due to the number of off-duty servicemen in attendance), but almost immediately afterwards all normal activities were suspended, with smaller, less formal regional leagues taking their place from the start of the following season.

In November 1918, then, in such an information vacuum and with no real need to restart anything like a full Football League and FA Cup programme until August of the following year, football remained off the menu for a full nine months after the end of hostilities. The reputation of the game had undergone considerable damage throughout the 1914/15 season, and the governing bodies’ caution in reintroducing a full league and cup programme was understandable. It was a lesson that they seem to have learned, just over twenty years later. When war broke out again in September 1939, all regular competitions were suspended immediately. The FA Cup returned in 1945, the Football League a year later. For the 1945/46 season, the FA changed to become a two-legged competition, in order to ensure a slightly fuller calendar and at least some form of revenue for clubs.

Professional football has changed a lot since then. Sponsors, broadcasters, and more money that could ever be considered healthy have come into the game in the decades since then. And cancelling sporting events because of an outbreak of war is somewhat different to doing so on account of a pandemic. Quite asides from anything else, the patriotic fervour that usually accompanies a declaration of war has been pretty thin in the ground over the last week or so. Small mercies, and all that. But saying that the football should stop alone is one thing – and it was something that I was prepared to say earlier this week – but understanding the whys and wherefores of this is something else altogether.

Football has an economy, nowadays, and that economy may well be shattered by what’s to come. If the stock market behaviours of the last week have been anything to go by, there’s no reason why dozens of clubs who live a hand to mouth existence from week to week might not all go bust. But there are difficult questions that we have to answer, at this point. At present, there are three likelihoods for what happens next, with regard to the Premier League and the Football League:

– Declare this season to be null and void:

Pros: It seems vanishingly unlikely that football will return at the start of April, as this is closer to the anticipated peak of this round of the virus than we are now. If there is no realistic chance of this season’s remaining matches being played, maybe it’s best to just close this season up as though it never happened.

Cons: This would be desperately unfair on clubs that have worked a very long time (and in some cases have invested substantially) towards getting this close to winning trophies. We have been talking about, say, Liverpool winning the Premier League as an inevitability since before Christmas.

End the seasons now and declare the current league tables as final:

Pros: This would, at least, be fair on teams that have been successful so far this season. It would be tidy, drawing a line and ensuring that, should things have returned to somewhere approaching normal by August, the league season can start again afresh.

Cons: The very principle of a league is that everybody plays each other twice, and a league season that is just ended with games to spare may be considered fundamentally compromised. It isn’t just about who wins what titles, either. Relegation from the Premier League costs a lot of money. How would, say, Aston Villa feel about being relegated when they’re two points off the relegation places with a game in hand on the teams around them? Should relegation be stopped? And if so, what is the knock-on effect down through the divisions? Where would this leave all leagues in relation to their contracts with broadcasters and sponsors?

Mothball the leagues and resume when all of this is over:

Pros: League seasons could finish, just delayed over time. Sponsors and broadcasters may be placated, and there could be little argument from clubs that this wasn’t fair.

Cons: Considering the game’s tight timetable, when would these matches be played? Any rescheduling for a later date would have to fall in line with UEFA and FIFA competitions that are also scheduled but which have already been (or may yet be) postponed. How can this decision even be made when we’re far from certain how long it will drag out for?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I can’t tell you which of these is fairer or which is more legitimate. What I do know for certain, however, is that all of this will require co-operation between and across different divisions in order to rectify, no matter what decisions are finally reached. Without match day revenue, dozens of smaller clubs are immediately financially imperilled by the suspension of the football. This is likely what informed the decision of some non-league divisions to doughtily continue through this weekend.

The ultimate facts, though, remain the same. An economic whirlwind is likely coming, and only some degree of solidarity between all clubs will be considered acceptable behaviour. Using this disaster to act like vultures will tar the reputation of all who do so irrevocably. The question of whether football’s governing bodies and clubs can be trusted to do the right thing, whatever that may be, will be put to its ultimate test over the coming weeks and months. Without precedent, we are heading towards all of this with little idea of what the future will look like.

Where we are right now might even be considered an opportunity to think about what we want the modern game to be. There are plenty of people who are dissatisfied with what football looks like at the moment. This pause for breath could be used to reconsider our dependency on money, our clubs’ relationships with us, and whether we wish to continue down the reductive-looking path that the biggest clubs are pushing us towards. This, however, would require many, many people to think selflessly, and this isn’t something that seems particularly lightly, and it’s also a question for another day. For now, all we can say is good luck everybody. Much as I wish it weren’t the case, it feels as though we’re all going to need it.