On 13 March 2020, English Premier League giants Liverpool faced Spanish club Atletico Madrid in the Champions League before a capacity crowd of 52,267, of which 3,000 had made the journey from the Madrid.
At the time, the Spanish capital was one of the hotspots for the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic that had put the world on alert of a new and lethal threat. With restrictions having already been imposed on Spain’s premier domestic league, La Liga, it seemed incongruous that the game was taking place at all.
Two days later, the inevitable happened – football in England was suspended indefinitely as the virus spread exponentially throughout the country,
Between that date and 17 June, English football in its four professional divisions remained suspended, only returning, tentatively, from that date, first with the Premier League, and then with the second tier, the Championship. The lower leagues, meanwhile, ended their seasons early, save for a handful of matches to determine promotion issues.
On this limited resumption, much had changed – players would be regularly tested for the virus; training would take place in bubbles so as to reduce its spread; fans would not be allowed to attend games.
It is this last change that has had the most profound effect on a national sport.
Severed of fan attendance, English football continues – some of the world’s greatest players still grace the Premier League, their skills as mesmerising ever. Meanwhile, armchair fans still tune in to watch Premier League matches, but nowadays they’re shown against a backdrop of empty seats and with fake crowd noise. Meanwhile, despite its resumption, English football – and a way of life – surely faces a fight for its survival in its current form.
The Premier League, awash with money from lucrative worldwide TV deals, can probably sustain playing behind closed doors as long as there is an appetite for paying to watch matches on TV. For example, whichever club wins the 2020/21 Premier League season can expect to make around £150m in prize money, Indeed, even the club finishing bottom is guaranteed around £95m.
Even then, suggestions the whole of the 2020/21 season might be played behind closed doors have been met with scepticism by fans, with some questioning the point of playing at all if fans can’t attend.
However, it is when you look beneath the Premier League that greater cracks begin to appear. Since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, when the top flight began negotiating deals separate from the other three divisions, the gap between those in the top tier and the rest has been growing. Without fans attending matches in the lower divisions, it is likely many will not be able to survive.
Within a couple of weeks of football’s resumption, troubling signs began to appear. Championship side Wigan Athletic (themselves a Premier League club as recently as 2013) were placed into administration on 1 July and ultimately deducted 12 points, a move that saw them relegated.
Indeed, many lower-division clubs were struggling financially before the pandemic (Bolton Wanderers and Bury being particularly stark examples, with the former securing a last-minute takeover to avoid liquidation in August 2019 while the less fortunate latter was expelled from the league). Against this backdrop it is hard to envisage things returning to normal once the pandemic is over.
Initiatives have been put in place to counter this, such as smaller clubs offering fans the chance to watch their matches online for a fee, but it is akin to placing a towel under a leaky bucket – it can’t hold indefinitely.
And what of the fans? Stripped of their ability to attend matches, hundreds of thousands of people are denied things that, for many, were a facet of their lives for decades – the travel to areas they otherwise wouldn’t dream of visiting; the adrenaline buzz of the approach to the stadium; the socialising and sense of belonging that for many is a weekend release and for others a crucial component of a healthy mind.
For now, there is a sense that the focus should be on the greater good, and if that means watching football from afar for a while, so be it.
But what of the future? What if COVID-19 strengthens its grip as winter bites. What then for the clubs struggling to make ends meet? And what of the fans whose allegiances to their club are so strong they will travel thousands of miles a year, at a cost of thousands of pounds, to watch their team lose – again – in the teeming rain?
The answers to those questions might become distressingly apparent in the coming months.