THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER

When the 48th season of the Football League kicked-off on Saturday 26 August 1939, Everton were the defending league champions and Portsmouth the FA Cup holders. By the time the season ended, Blackpool were top of the league, though the FA Cup had yet to begin because 1939/40 was prematurely curtailed after all First Division teams had played a mere three fixtures each. The outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September placed the national game in official suspended animation, from which it didn’t emerge until the inaugural post-war FA Cup tournament almost seven years later. Along with all avenues of entertainment that involved mass gatherings, football was an immediate casualty of the instant wartime lockdown; however, as it rapidly dawned on the government that the people needed their distractions, cinemas, theatres, restaurants and dancehalls soon opened their doors again. Football stadiums followed suit, though under somewhat surreal conditions.

The decision of the Football League to proceed with the 1918-19 season despite the outbreak of the First World War was perhaps a reflection of overconfidence as to how quickly that conflict would be resolved. There were no such signs of optimism in September 1939, but even when football returned as the authorities gradually recognised the demand for sport in boosting morale, the interrupted 1939-40 season wasn’t resumed; lessons learned during the darkest days of the Great War were put into practice as clubs participated in regional leagues and tournaments. The limited availability of players as the war progressed meant teams were allowed to field ‘guest stars’ in their line-ups, and the whole wartime football fixtures remain regarded as unofficial friendlies.

The national side played 29 games during the war years, though all were against either Scotland or Wales; none of them are classed as official matches in the record books. For a player such as Stanley Matthews, hostilities spanned what could have been regarded as his peak playing years – from the age of 24 to 30. Despite his international career beginning in 1934 and ending in 1958 (when he was 42), Matthews is in the record books as having a mere 54 England caps to his name due to his wartime appearances not being counted. Similarly, Newcastle Utd legend Jackie Milburn, who made his debut in the wartime league, scored 38 goals that are scratched from his record, thus enabling Alan Shearer to jump ahead of him as Newcastle’s all-time top goal-scorer.

Wartime conditions clearly have a habit of buggering-up the structure of the game, though football in the 1930s and 40s was a different (practically amateur) beast in comparison to its 21st century equivalent. Even the disruption that was a consequence of the Three Day Week in 1974 – when midweek floodlit fixtures were banned and games ended up being played on a Sunday for the first time – didn’t prevent the 1973/74 season from finishing on schedule; besides, the limitations were exclusive to England, and the respective leagues in the major footballing nations of mainland Europe were unaffected by what was a uniquely parochial problem. 2020, on the other hand, is something else.

The unprecedented suspension of all professional football in the UK and Europe as a precautionary measure against the spread of the corona virus may be viewed by some as a sensible contradiction of Bill Shankly’s famous declaration that ‘football isn’t a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that’; but the potential chaos poised to be inflicted upon the interconnected tentacles of the global game – and the vast fortunes those connections generate – is major. West Ham’s vice-chairman Karren Brady has announced she believes the Premier League shouldn’t complete its remaining 2019/20 fixtures – though play is provisionally set to resume in a month’s time – and the season should be rendered null and void as of now. With West Ham hovering perilously above the relegation zone, however, perhaps her opinion should be viewed in a specific context. It’s doubtful whether Liverpool supporters would echo Brady’s sentiments.

Liverpool, top of the Premier League by a staggering 25 points, have undoubtedly earned their first title since 1990, playing some breathtaking stuff this season, and are within a whisker of getting their hands on the big prize; but would it be fair on them should their dazzling endeavours be rewarded with nothing and their results abruptly erased from the record books? And what of the club at the top of the Championship, Leeds United? 16 rollercoaster years exiled from the top flight finally appear to be drawing to a close with the team playing the kind of football that would be more than welcome in the Premier League. The financial and legal implications of the season being curtailed with less than a dozen match-days remaining are quite a minefield to contemplate, but the investment of hardcore supporters in clubs on the cusp of success then being denied everything they’ve waited many a lean year to see would be one hell of a blow.

Down in the lower leagues, any prolonged stasis could prove fatal; this season has already witnessed the disappearance of Bury FC from the roll-call of league football, and who knows how many other clubs already hang by a thread so threadbare that this crisis could kill them off altogether? This season’s FA Cup has only reached the Quarter Final stages, so that also stands as unfinished business – ditto the Champions League and Europa League; and then there’s this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament. In order to breathe new life into the European Championships, the competition has been restructured so that ties will be played across the continent rather than based in a sole country, with the final scheduled to take place at Wembley in July. Considering the fixture congestion there’ll be when Europe’s domestic leagues eventually resume, the best solution would seem to be delaying the Euros for a year, as league football is the bread-and-butter of players and clubs alike when all’s said and done.

The losses that stand to be incurred by sponsors and broadcasters – not to mention TV subscribers paying for games that aren’t being screened – will only spiral into unimaginable areas if this suspension continues beyond the hoped-for month. The ‘winter break’ the Premier League clubs lobbied for doesn’t seem like such a smart move now, does it? And, lest we forget, this situation isn’t solely a footballing crisis. Rugby, cricket and Formula One are also on ice. The Grand National and the Epsom Derby are the great racing events still to come, and there’s the small matter of a certain four-yearly mega event pencilled-in for Tokyo this summer.

The potential financial fallout associated with the postponement or cancellation of occasions that have gone from mere sporting events to multi-million pound cash-cows for global business could perhaps be viewed as emblematic of how sport has become far too big for its boots. And maybe football fans are receiving a taste of the domestic disruption to come when the money-driven decision to stage the next World Cup in Qatar takes place in November/December 2022. At the same time, these sports remain watched and enjoyed by millions who will now have to find new hobbies to occupy their weekends. The most popular pastime associated with self-isolation might explain the rush to bulk-buy bog rolls, but where it leaves the beautiful game is anyone’s guess.

© The Editor

2 thoughts on “THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER

  1. I claim no knowledge of, or any interest in, football but it would seem a tad cruel to cheat Liverpool out of the title which they were inevitably going to take this season. Leeds United seems less certain, as I believe they have a habit of bottling at the last minute.

    Herr Klopp of Liverpool struck the right note when he acknowledged that football counts for nothing against the scale of even one person’s health. Good man, that Klopp (for a kraut).

    Football is just one part of the ‘bread & circuses’ mix provided by our masters to distract us from more important matters – and now that even the ‘bread’ part (in the form of bog-roll) is fast disappearing from the shelves, how soon before the revolution begins? As I’ve just had a flight cancelled today, I’ll use the free time to build the guillotine. . . . . .

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    1. Leeds did screw it up at the eleventh hour last season, so it would be consistent if this season was cancelled and rendered null & void with them at the top of the Championship. Sorry about the flight, btw. If the powers-that-be required a fitting environment in which to introduce draconian legislation, it would appear they’ve got what they wanted now. Clever sods that they are.

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