The great Scottish writer Hugh McIlvanney once described sport as “magnificent trivia.” Those words have never rung more true than in these disturbing and difficult times.
Football pales into insignificance set aside the life-and-death matter of a global pandemic that has changed all our lives in the space of a few days. Suddenly it hardly matters whether the European Championship is postponed, who gets promoted or relegated, who wins the Champions League, whether VAR works properly or what Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola has to say.
Instead, the only thing we all care about is the health and well-being of our nearest and dearest, especially the elderly and frail. The heroes are not Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Bruno Fernandes, but the wonderful doctors, nurses and health workers who are risking their own lives in a tireless effort to combat this deadly coronavirus.
And yet, perhaps with a tinge of guilt, we yearn to revel in the daily dramas served up by the game we all love and for the season to be completed. Football will eventually resume, though nobody can be sure when and how much the landscape will have changed.
For example, players who were out with long-term injuries might be back for the delayed climax of what will be Europe’s longest-ever season with obvious Premier League examples being Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.
Kane, England’s captain and talisman for club and country, was on course to return in time for the originally scheduled Euros in June, but would he have been properly fit and sharp? Doubtful. Meanwhile, Rashford’s back injury was so serious that he might have been unavailable for selection in Gareth Southgate’s squad. Now, with the tournament delayed for a full year, both players can look forward to playing a major role (assuming no further setbacks).
Similarly the delay, if not the awful reasons for it, might be to the benefit of emerging young players such as Phil Foden of Manchester City, Bukayo Saka at Arsenal, Chelsea’s Reece James, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has enjoyed a breakthrough season leading the line at Everton. Euro 2020 probably would have come too soon, but now all four and possibly others, including Manchester United’s teenage striker Mason Greenwood, have another 12 months to state their case.
Against that, the delay might mean the Euros come too late for a few players for whom this summer would have been a last hurrah in international football, though you would fully expect a 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo to still be starring for Portugal.
Whenever the action resumes, there is no doubt that Liverpool will deservedly be crowned champions of England, although it will be a shame if games are played behind closed doors and the Anfield fans, who have waited so long for the moment, will not be there to see it.
There are other, major logistical problems connected with the restart, which will not come before April 30, especially if it proves impossible to complete the fixtures by June 30.
After that date, 69 Premier League players will be out of contract, with David Silva of Manchester City and Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen just a couple of notable examples. Perhaps emergency deals can be put in place, but what if they pick up a bad injury during the extension that scuppers a lucrative move? It is a complicated set of circumstances. All season-long loans are set to end in late June, too; a particular problem for smaller clubs that might lose key players.
Meanwhile, after such a long gap without competitive action, players would normally need a preseason fitness regime and warm-up friendlies to get themselves ready to play, but surely there will not be time, leading to an increased injury risk as some teams are asked to play every three days to get the season finished.
Spurs, with the return of Kane, Son and possibly Moussa Sissoko, might be the big beneficiaries in the top-four equation. Wolves, who have had to play more matches than anyone, will be rested for the run-in. Chelsea could have Mateo Kovacic, N’Golo Kante, Tammy Abraham and Christian Pulisic all fit and firing. Plus, with large gatherings banned, there might not be time for the Court of Arbitration for Sport to hear Manchester City’s appeal against their two-year European ban, raising the possibility of their two-year UEFA suspension being delayed.
At the bottom, Aston Villa might be significantly boosted by the return of key man John McGinn, while Bournemouth could at last be able to call on their excellent midfielder David Brooks, who is yet to play in this campaign.
It will feel like a new season, but it will not be — just a strange, hectic finish to the old one under summer skies. Teams who were flying might have lost their mojo after months of inactivity. Others who were struggling might be mentally refreshed and find some form.
But despite all the obstacles, it is exactly the right decision to soldier on, however long that might take. Any other way would be submerged in cries of injustice, not to mention possible lawsuits. The only place to settle football arguments is on the pitch.
The resumption will be emotional and we can but hope that the time is not only too distant, but that things can be back to normal quicker than we all fear. Whatever happens, the 2019-20 campaign is destined to go down in history with an asterisk alongside it, explaining the tragic reasons of why it took so long to complete.
Stay safe, everyone.