By Iwan Lehnert
For such a simple game, football doesn’t half make life complicated. After last week’s grand announcement, we’re a little over two weeks away from the return of the sport’s most popular league and that mere fact is deeply divisive. For the excitement brewing, it’s hard to separate the Premier League’s return from the fact that we know that one of the primary reasons behind it is the need to continue its financial churn; it’s difficult to forget those political debates that its ‘overpaid players’ sparked in the last few months and you can’t fail to notice that at the time of writing, only the richest two divisions in the country that will get a chance to finish the 2019/20 season.
Not long ago, footballers were asked to sacrifice at least some of their wages for the ‘good of the nation’ during the Covid-19 lockdown by a government that will surely be more than happy to use their return to work as a convenient distraction for their own horrific inadequacies. Now, they’re being asked to suit up and put a bow on this campaign for the purposes of entertainment and in some cases, the continued financial health of their clubs.
You could be forgiven for feeling excitement coupled with deep cynicism, or for not feeling much excitement at all given how compromised the sport will be upon its return. If fans aren’t able to ironically jeer the referee for finally making a decision that goes their way, is it even football?
Flippancy aside, the return of England’s favourite pastime should prompt a lot of awkward questions given this country’s wholly inadequate and deeply damaging response to the global pandemic. How should fans feel about it? From a United perspective, it feels difficult to mentally gear yourself up for another battle for Champions League qualification given that next year’s competition remains a vague concept, at best. Sure, the extra money might be nice, given that United aren’t immune to the effects of Covid-19 and winning a first trophy since 2017 would be a boon for a Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, but what good is winning a trophy if no fans are there to see it being raised?
There’s a raft of interesting talking points to consider with United, as ever; will the team quickly slip back into their pre-lockdown form or resemble the rabble from earlier this season? How well will Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba slot back into the side after their long-term injuries? Will a consistent partner for Harry Maguire please make themselves known to management at some stage?
That doesn’t answer the legitimately important question of whether we should even be talking about a return to Premier League action given Britain’s current Covid-19 death rate, much less the intricacies of it. As much as we love this sport of ours, the last few months have offered a timely reminder that it’s not that important. Not really.
Football’s return was always going to be compromised, with social distancing likely needed for some time to come and the dangers of widespread stadium attendance still too large to consider ignoring. It’s far from ideal, but it’s what we’re getting later this month and for the foreseeable future. I’m sure plenty of players and coaches are happy to return to the thing they love most even with some major concessions and many day-to-day employees can look forward to coming back to work, but it shouldn’t be lost on the general public that football is one of few industries that is plotting a return to business during a time of unparalleled health risk.
After Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s ill-advised pop at the league in April, it’s also worth noting that plenty of players and clubs have been keen to support their local communities as best as they can during these last few months, even as countless other citizens in privileged positions with deep coffers have stayed schtum. Not to suggest that football is filled with virtuous, responsible flower people; we knew that it wasn’t before Kyle Walker, Jack Grealish and Serge Aurier broke lockdown rules. But it’s an industry that has been and is still being asked to do more than most at a time where the accepted global advice is to stay home, and that’s worth recognising.
It’s often forgotten, but underneath the wealth and talent, footballers are often just dull, ordinary people like the rest of us. They don’t want to put their loved ones at risk unnecessarily yet the criticism levelled at Watford captain Troy Deeney for not returning to training for family reasons suggests that plenty of people still expect players to constantly put football above all else in life, just for our entertainment. Some will have lost family members, loved ones, friends, or struggled with their own mental health during lockdown and they’re being asked to jump back onto the pitch and perform without a care in the world while we sit at home.
Like many of you, I’m still interested to see where my club finishes this season, along with the conclusion of competitions across the continent, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of ignoring the sacrifices that people are having to make in order to get football going again.