The return of the match
It was one of the single biggest hardships for many of us during lockdown; no live sport. Nothing to watch, no one to follow, nothing to break the monotony, nothing to bring joy. And we’re not simply talking of those Liverpool FC fans who worried that the club might be denied the trophy that they had craved above all others. For the team here at Wonderly, we’re not so much football fans as fans of football, whether that’s following a team or taking part in the game at grassroots level. Just ask our clients at The FA (we’re still smarting from losing to them last season).
The broadcasters did their best to help slake our thirst for football: ITV chipped in with re-runs of Euro 96 – sadly, it seems that many of the matches that so many of us delighted in at the time were, in cold harsh light of HD TV 20+ years on, rather insipid affairs; the BBC pioneered Match of Their Day, inviting their favourite pundits to reminisce about their favourite games of the Premier League era.
Meanwhile, the Premier League drafted a plan of how they could return. Neutral venues were discussed, but thankfully rejected in favour of teams playing at their home grounds, a move that would seem to give credit to football fans for the ability to act like, well, human beings.
The grounds themselves were divided into red, amber and green zones – much as hospitals have been during the pandemic – with strict protocols about who could access the various areas which reflected increasing levels COVID testing and screening.
Sterile routes to and from coaches to pitch were established. At Everton, the away teams had to get changed in the car park. The reason given was that the tunnel to the pitch at Goodison is too narrow to allow social distancing, and certainly NOT because this gave the home team an advantage and unsettled the visitors. Perish the thought!
No fans! Now this was a big one. Fans are often referred to as the ‘12th man’ in an acknowledgement of their influence on a team’s performance, so would players be affected? Well there were certainly some dull games, but weren’t there always? TV viewers on Sky had a choice of watching with crowd noise – lifted from FIFA as if the match is some kind of studio-based American sitcom from the ‘80s with canned laughter – or without, which left you able to hear exactly how eloquent our players and managers are… I’ll leave that one with you to contemplate.
And what about the heat? Football is a winter sport, we can’t have players overheating in the hot weather we are so accustomed to in England. Drinks breaks and an increase in the number of permitted substitutions fixed this, though it did seem ever so slightly odd to see players ‘rehydrate’ on a cold wet ‘summer’s’ evening in Wolverhampton.
So yes, football returned and Liverpool claimed the prize they craved. It’s back; perhaps not as we know it, but frankly, who cares; it’s simply a joy to see the beautiful game return – a sign that we can adapt in these unprecedented times and still get to enjoy the beautiful game.