Impossible Choices

by | Mar 29, 2020

Of all the words to have hit unprecedented usage over the last few weeks or so, “unprecedented” itself must be somewhere close to the top of the list. These are remarkable and frightening times, and no-one at present quite knows when it will all be over. At present, there is practically no likelihood of any football being played again before the end of May, and as the scale of the crisis continues to become clear, it’s not much more likely that there will be might not be very much by August, either.

So, what are we to do? The game’s governing bodies are in an unenviable position at the moment, on the one hand having to juggle the existential athreat to the game as we know with this degree of uncertainty, all the time being pushed and prodded to make definitive pronouncements at a time when the only thing even more difficult to issue than definitive pronouncements are definitive pronouncements that please everybody.

There is an uncomfortable truth at the heart of how we have talked about football since it ground to a halt, three weeks ago: selfishness. There is very little that I have read from within the game, whether semi-professional or professional, which suggests that anybody is interested in anything but their slice of the pie. As such, it seems vanishingly unlikely that football will be able to return looking much like what it did before. Because to do so, after such a period of lockdown and financial meltdown, would require a degree of selflessness that I am not inclined to believe is even possible any more.

Towards the end of last week, the Football Association announced that it would be ending the non-league season below the National League and expunging its record. There have been, of course, wholly predictable howls of outrage, as though any of this is anything like important at the moment. But at the same time, it was a strange decision on the part of the FA which seems to have been taken with little to no consultation with any of their stakeholders, and at a time when the truth of the matter is that no decision really has to be taken.

There are still small pockets of people who believe that this will be all over in a couple of weeks, and that life will be pretty much back to normal by the end of next month. It won’t, and it won’t. If the current statistical model is to be believed, it’s entirely plausible that the current lockdown measures will be further tightened over the nehxt couple of weeks or so, and the likelihood of normality returning this side of the autumn is looking increasingly unlikely with every passing day.

The FA should, of course, have consulted more with stakeholders than it seems to have done, with clubs claiming only to have found out that the non-league season was to be curtailed by social media. This was clearly muddle-headed thinking of the part of the FA, and they may have left themselves open to legal challenges in the future with this somewhat odd decision-making process. And there are questions to ask over why this decision couldn’t have been put back to a point when the date at which things can resume has become clearer.

So why did the FA consider it so important that they had to make a definite decision right now? They probably felt compelled to by the acres of space that have been devoted to the subject over the last few weeks or so. Just abhors a vacuum, so do sports media and social media hate there being no sport, and the result of this has been a slew from people who definitely know what the right solution to all of this is, even though there almost certainly isn’t one. They’ve been prodded for the last few weeks to make a decision, so now they have made one, and a sizable proportion of people have now thrown their arms up into the air because it wasn’t the decision that they wanted to be reached.

But the truth of the matter is that the football season, which clubs win promotion and which don’t, which get to dance around with silver trophy lids on their heads in May, is about the most trivial matter facing all of us, right now. Football is important. It’s one of the glues that bind our society together in this post-religious age. But that doesn’t make it so important that it’s akin to a human right. As a people, we have bigger fish to fry at the moment than this game, but even as I open the Twitter right now, the very latest tweet reads, “Lots of debate about “the end of the 2019/20 season. How do you think it should be concluded? (Please share/retweet. Also, if you think of an alternative, post it as a reply.)

It feels a little unfair to single this tweet when a billion of them have been sent over the last few weeks, but it does give an indication of the intolerable pressure that everybody is under at the moment. At the top end of the game, hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake. Lower down the pyramid, swathes of clubs face potential bankruptcy. It would be nice to think that our first priority should be ensure that all of these clubs survive unscathed, and that who finishes where in what league table is a relative trifle in comparison with this. But I have little faith that it will happen. People will form their opinions based on the narrow angle of their own self-interest.

But the thing is that I have no faith whatsoever in those who have given a definite answer on this question already. I have little trust in the opinion of anybody who claims to have answer in times when we simply don’t know where we’ll be in three or four months time. In an ideal world, everybody – the leagues, the clubs, the players, the broadcasters, the people who have opinions for money – would be showing the maximum about of forebearance at the moment in the interests of trying to preserve the structure of the game in this country. But they’re not, most of them. They’re after what they can get. Whether you think the Premier League season should be completed likely depends on what you think of Liverpool. And so it trickles down.

Many of us are scared. Many of us are uncertain. Few of us know who we’re going to lose over the coming weeks, but the likelihood is that many – perhaps even most – will lose someone, be it a family member, friend, work colleague or acquaintance. It might even be us. So just put it on ice, for God’s sake. Mothball it. Leave the decision for a later date. It doesn’t have to be taken now. And when it does have to be taken, treat each of the institutions that clubs represent as the most precious things in the world rather than acting in our own narrow self-interest. Because if we can’t do that, I’m not certain that the game we return to will be one that’s worth returning to.