The Scottish Premiership clubs voted this week to bring forward the winter break planned for January 3 to start immediately after Sunday. Which means the traditional programme is no more. There will be no Rangers against Celtic on New Year’s Day. A bleak midwinter beckons.
Fans of English football can only hope clubs do not decide to take a similar course and vote for a pre-emptive halt. Because the truth is we need our football.
Even if crowds are prevented from attending, even if the turnstiles cease to clack, live televised football games are so important to the well-being of the clubs’ supporters that, frankly, they should be prescribed by the local GP.
We saw in lockdown times how vital the game was for so many of us. For some it may have just been an entertainment, something different to engage with than box sets of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Succession’. Though that alone made it a worthwhile process. Cheering people up with a little bit of fun should never be disparaged.
But for an awful lot of people football provides a lot more than a bit of a giggle. For those of us in thrall to its procedures, it is a central part of our life. Through our support we find identity and purpose. The rhythms of the schedule are embedded in our weekly timetables.
Getting our fantasy teams together, working out the scores for the predictions league, checking social media constantly for news of injury and form: without the game at the end of all this, much of our habits become redundant.
And during the lockdowns over the last couple of years, there was absolutely no evidence of the live game undermining the efforts to keep the pandemic under control. Players’ safety was absolutely ensured, as was that of the wider public.
Such precedent suggests there is simply no reason to follow the Scottish clubs’ lead and volunteer for a break in play now. Indeed, it might be argued that it is the duty of the clubs to do whatever they can to ensure fixtures are fulfilled.
The idea that football clubs are socially important civic assets has been constantly challenged over the past 30 years. These days, anyone with money is invited in to take them over, with precious little scrutiny or investigation. Sure, this was a game that always attracted dodgy owners. But the new breed of crypto currency dealers, oligarchs and sovereign wealth funds are buying in solely for their own financial and geo-political reasons.
They have precious little interest in their new asset’s wider meaning or purpose. But here is the opportunity for them to show they understand what their properties mean.
A mid-winter break might be the way forward, but now is not the time to start. Because, as live crowds and television audiences grow exponentially, the importance of football to so many lives only increases. For many of us in lockdown all around the world, the game offered a hint of normality, an opportunity to think about something other than the relentless, depressing barrage of pandemic news.
It was something to get excited about, something to occupy the attention, something to look forward to. It was the most seductive form of escapism at a time when reality was in constant danger of overwhelming us all
As such it provided a vital social service. Its value was made clear by the huge surge in attendances in the autumn when restrictions were lifted. And while the health and well-being of its participants needs to be considered, while it is important their fitness is not compromised by over-playing, while ultimately a mid-winter break might be the way forward, now is not the time to start.
Because this remains the game’s fundamental merit, the one that should be uppermost in any decision making: it holds a unique position in society in that it can provide a national tonic in the toughest of times.
It may not be easy, it may entail significant challenge, but football has done it before. The very fact it returned from its initial hiatus and kept going during lockdown kept a lot of us going. To falter now would, frankly, be a dereliction of duty. People need football – and all live sport – now more than ever.