As with many sectors, industries and hobbies, football has taken a battering in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic laid waste to much of what we enjoy as social distancing, facemasks and R-Rates became common vocabulary.
Football was no different. Back in March, when all sporting activity ceased, Gary Lineker tweeted ‘football is not that important’. I beg to disagree.
I do agree that the sentiment was right at the time. We knew a lot less about the Coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the health of the population. Sadly, many lives were lost, attributed to this new virus and the country went into its first lockdown. Football was cancelled across the board and we ended up having an extended off-season break with no definitive date of return.
But it was naïve to say that football is not that important. For many, the opposite is true – it’s a lifeline.
How many of us use football as an outlet for battling anxiety, depression and loneliness? Sport is a vital release for many who don’t have other social engagement in their lives.
I’m not being melodramatic. Hendon were applauded for their ground-breaking approach to offering free entry to anyone facing loneliness or battling depression. It was even recognised by HRH Prince William. Hendon understood that their role in the community, holding out an open hand to all, including the mentally vulnerable.
I remember talking to an elderly steward at a local South London club who tearily told me that his volunteering on a matchday was all he had left in life. He had no family, lived alone and the club was his only way of having true social interaction throughout the week.
Thankfully, we’ve since returned to grounds, albeit in a Covid-secure manner, with decreased capacities, track and trace and a ban upon alcohol sales. But the return of fans was most needed. The fixture lists were full, reports written and league tables and cup fixtures gave something for the football fan to feast upon. Many had a purpose once more.
But we tread cautiously. Many regions are about to enter Tier 3 – which could disrupt football once more. Whilst the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has decreed that fans can attend in small numbers, some leagues are already wary of the implications. The Trident Leagues (Northern, Southern and Isthmian) have halted their seasons since early November and as of writing, have no set date for a return. It was a surprise that so many of their member clubs chose not to resume playing on the 19th December as originally planned. The arguments were regarding Tier 3 clubs having to play behind closed doors and limiting travel (zero income) and those in Tier 2 having a reduced secondary income from restrictions on food and drink sales.
There’s already talk of a third lockdown proposed for January, which will likely close down football once again. We know clubs find it hard to continue without vital matchday income. Where will that leave the season? It’s already precarious. For instance, Southern League clubs, including local sides such as Walton Casuals have played just six league games going into January. How are they going to complete a 42-game season with midweek trips to the likes of Truro City, Taunton and Tiverton? That’s completely unrealistic for part-time players, volunteers and fans alike. A third lockdown will surely curtail the second season in succession, and we face another lengthy break.
I was fortunate enough to cover some games in the National League during the second lockdown (including a terrible 0-0 draw, which I fought hard not to complain about after vowing never to moan about a match ever again). Football is a lifeline to myself, to many of my friends in this vast community and people all across the country. The importance it plays in the health and wellbeing of all of us should never be downplayed, even in a pandemic.
That’s why I implore you to enjoy this moment, from walking through the turnstiles, to smelling the Deep Heat, to hearing the full-time whistle. Take it in. Lap it up. Because we don’t know how lucky we are to have this beautiful game until it’s taken away from us.