STEVE ANGLESEY on why focusing on football as part of the government’s ‘Project Restart’ proposals is another own-goal for Boris Johnson’s team.
‘It only takes a second to score a goal,’ said Brian Clough, and coincidentally that is also the amount of time it must have taken the Premier League to come up with the codename for their plan to resume the 2019/20 season, ‘Project Restart’. It’s not even ‘Project Reboot’, for crying out loud, although no doubt its sheer lack of imagination will appeal to Steven Gerrard, Neymar, Rio Ferdinand, Kelly Smith, Paul Scholes, Paul Gascoigne and Sven-Göran Eriksson, all of whom called their autobiographies My Story.
A second is also more time than most Conservative governments usually devote to thinking about football. Cricket fan Theresa May had no real interest in the game; David Cameron supported Aston Villa only because his uncle used to be chairman, and embarrassingly once confused them with fellow claret and blue wearers West Ham.
Boris Johnson does not follow a club and treated his 2006 appearance in a ‘legends’ charity game against Germany like he treats so many things, as a well-planned but seemingly hapless publicity stunt. Of his senior cabinet colleagues, only Rishi Sunak (Southampton) and Michael Gove (QPR) are noted as fans.
Which is why it’s suspicious that they are suddenly interested in football. With the Premier League due to meet on Friday May 1 to discuss its excitingly-named plan, ‘there has been a significant shift in the past few days in favour of restarting sport,’ reported the Times, adding: ‘There is a view that the prospect of live sport returning would create some much-needed positivity.’
It goes without saying that adequate amounts of PPE, testing and tracing would also create some much-needed positivity and save more lives than Southampton v Brighton, originally scheduled to take place this weekend. But in the absence of those, or any concrete plans to ease the lockdown, in the belief that people can’t be trusted not to start flooding the streets, bread and circuses will have to do.
To facilitate this, the culture, media and sport minister Oliver Dowden – another MP with no apparent interest in football – told a parliamentary committee last Monday, ‘I personally have been in talks with the Premier League with a view to getting football up and running as soon as possible.’ You can only hope he gives it a bit more thought than he gave the proposed Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle United, waved through by Dowden’s department a week ago despite the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the kingdom’s dubious human rights record and the regime’s alleged involvement in pirate Premier League broadcasts there via beoutQ set-top boxes.
And would Premier League football, as imagined under Project Restart, really lift the national mood? The matches are likely to be sombre affairs, played in empty stadia that will still have to be policed to stop intruders and with health workers and ambulance staff still in attendance in case of serious injuries.
Players will be under-trained and therefore more injury-prone in a schedule which seeks to compress nine league games and up to three FA Cup matches into 50 days. Those who were allowed to return to their homes overseas before lockdown will face an added disadvantage if they have to observe the planned new quarantine rules on re-entering the UK. All players will be sequestered between games.
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The games themselves will feature new rules (no contact at corners, five substitutes instead of three) which were not in play in the corresponding earlier fixtures. There will be no ‘home advantage’ of your own crowd roaring you on – a nebulous benefit, you might think, but ask any footballer who has been involved in a successful battle against relegation how much it spurred them on. The overall effect will be, yet again, to the benefit of teams with more money and more gifted squads.
For match-going fans, the raison d’etre of the game – the chance to come together with friends, to support your team in person, to be part of a huge group all willing the same result, all feeling the same feelings – will be missing. It will be like watching a stream of a night in your favourite pub without being allowed to be there, or a broadcast of your favourite band playing a gig to nobody.
And to what end? The first round of matches will be compulsively weird and widely-watched (although football is less popular than you think; more than 100 of Sky’s 128 live Premier League matches drew fewer than two million viewers last season). But Liverpool, justifiably streets ahead, will wrap up the title in lockdown matchday two, and then all we’re left with is relegation and Champions League qualification (though even when the games are wrapped up we won’t be sure who’ll actually qualify, given Man City’s appeal of their Uefa ban).
In short, even the government’s hoped-for distraction won’t end up being much of a distraction. Ending the season as the Dutch and French have done, with the table as it was and no-one relegated, is a better solution. So (sorry, Liverpool) is voiding it altogether.
Project Restart, on the other hand, is a scheme as half-baked as Colin Moynihan’s supporter ID cards, Matt Hancock’s pay cut for players without taking one himself, and Margaret Thatcher’s plan to withdraw England from the 1990 World Cup finals, which turned out to be the catalyst for the game’s regeneration. In short, Project Restart should be Project Nonstarter.