Covid-19/20 or: As long as it lasts

THERE has been no football since the 7th of March when 5,806 fans gathered at Roots Hall to see the shrimpers beat Bristol Rovers 3-1. Prior to and since that date the rapid spread of Covid-19, a novel strain of coronavirus with no cure, has brought the entire world to a crawl. Soon, if not already by the time you read this, that attendance figure will have been eclipsed by the UK death toll alone. A vaccine is, in an ideal world, around eighteen months away from distribution. World leaders have not prepared for this. PPE is needed for healthcare workers across the planet, ventilators and oxygen are now limited resources and battlefield triage is being used to decide who is given access. Thousands more will die as the virus cuts scythe-like through the developing world where those who once sewed garments for Primark and H&M live in cramped, squalid conditions unable to effectively isolate themselves or care for those whose immune systems aren’t strong enough to protect them. In this chaos, football means nothing. The industry built upon its back has ground to a halt; the subscribers and advertisers that have been milked suddenly find themselves out of pocket and out of product. It’s for this reason that the premier league will likely finish the 2019/20 season behind closed doors, the idea of a class-action lawsuit from various international broadcasters is a terrifying prospect to an organisation that has put the accumulation of wealth above all else. But where then for the rest of the football pyramid? What happens to Southend?

At the time of writing the premier league, EFL and national league have suspended all fixtures indefinitely and all records for football below the national league north & south has been cancelled with the record books scrubbed for the 2019/20 season. Southend were due to play Rotherham on the 14th of March but it’s hard to predict when that match will ever be played, if at all. The upper echelons of football have moved past the point of needing bums on seats but the financial future of the vast majority of football clubs across the world still depends on ticket revenue. Matches behind closed doors might preserve the integrity of the football league but they will not save Southend United. Uncle Ron, evidently, cannot continue to put his hand in his pocket but will have to if the turnstiles aren’t allowed to open. Games behind closed doors allow the competition to finish, it appeals to our sense of fair play but then there is the safety risk to the players. Football is a contact sport and it might only take one player carrying the virus to spread it to a dozen when crowding the penalty area for a set piece. A dozen new infected players continue to travel across the country infecting others and training with their colleagues and picking up fruit and veg in the shops because they didn’t wear disposable gloves or wash their hands? There’s a risk to players, club staff and the general public for games to go ahead behind closed doors. If the clubs will lose money anyway, who benefits?

So cancel the league then? Well that hardly seems fair. Coventry are currently top of League One, seven points ahead of the playoff spots with a game in hand; Southend as we all know, need 17 points to escape the drop zone with a maximum of 27 available should all the fixtures go ahead. The idea that Southend United might not get relegated this season is, objectively, deeply unfair having established such a deficit after completing 80% of their fixtures. But equally, just like bringing dirty plates to the counter next to the dishwasher but not actually putting them in the dishwasher and turning it on, the job isn’t finished. Arbitrary lines in the sand can’t be draw because it’s convenient. The football season is the season, everyone plays everyone home and away. Until each team has been fairly measured against others in the same league, we cannot move on. Going backwards and starting again feels a rotten solution for the same reasons as finishing the season now. Nothing is finished, and nothing can begin again until it is.

Perhaps then, the key is Qatar.

The winter world cup in Qatar now gives us an event, far enough in the future to manoeuvre around. The intense heat means that the 2022 world cup is due to be held in November and December, over two years from now allowing plenty of time for an adjusted fixture list to complete this season and perhaps one other. In the hope that this season’s fixtures can be fulfilled by the end of 2020 and beginning the following season in Feb 2021 we may see a cycle that allows for summer football in the northern hemisphere before resuming some sort of normality once the world cup and a vaccine can be found. Another idea might be to play cup competitions outside of league fixtures. This would keep players fit and busy but remove the need to squash matches too closely together.

Realistically, there is no timeline here. There is no exit plan and it feels very possible that we will continue in this holding pattern for months or perhaps longer. Social distancing and spectator sports are mutually exclusive so until reliable antibody testing can be rolled out to confirm immunity, we aren’t likely to be returning to Roots Hall soon. Postponing fixtures seemed drastic at the time but the consequences for those that attended the festival at Cheltenham, merely three days later, are beginning to be felt now as the virus continues to be spread across the UK & Ireland by those in attendance. Until that day when we return, the best thing to do is to stay at home and watch the full replay of the 2015 playoff final on sky+.

Now wash your hands.

Liam Ager – @realliamager