What Happened To Football?

Professional cricket, golf, rugby union and rugby league. What do they all have in common? That’s right, they continued their programmes of events through the weekend and scheduled time for spectators and players to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth, who died on Thursday. Horse-racing resumed on Sunday, the cycle Tour of Britain cut short its race to make Thursday’s leg the last but it was football that wiped out all fixtures from Friday September 9th until …well, who knows? And who knows why the Premier League and the FA took such drastic action? Respect for the Queen and her long-standing association with the game suggested some. Ummm.

There might be legitimate reasons for postponing the whole football programme but I struggle to think what they are. After all, it’s football that carries the tag of ‘the people’s game’ and institutions are always proclaiming their concerns for, and connections to ‘the people’, be they the government of the day, political parties, multi-national companies or our own royal family.

Perhaps the decision to collapse football fixtures was police related. There’s no doubt that as London prepares for the Queen’s funeral on Monday 19th, officials and organisers are worried about the influx to the city and that services could be overwhelmed. But surely that wasn’t the case this past weekend? Or was it that the ‘beautiful game’ might not be able to guarantee a showing of what was thought to be appropriate behaviour? Fans have been known to boo and jeer the opposition – horror! – and chant through community singing on FA Cup Final day. They have also, however, been incredibly generous in their show of appreciation and respect on numerous occasions. Death has been met with silence and remembering and memorials and anniversaries have been met with whole stadium applause.

I was never so moved as when the City Ground played host at half-time to the Mercian regiment (previously the Worcester and Sherwood Foresters) who marched around the pitch in their hundreds. They’d recently returned from a particularly gruelling six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. Dressed in khaki battle fatigues, I caught a glimpse of them marching over Trent Bridge from where I sat in the Brian Clough stand.

When they entered the stadium as the whistle blew and players made their exit, there was spontaneous applause and it kept going. Five minutes, ten minutes. The soldiers marched, some did a cheeky jig of appreciation and a couple lifted uniform tops to reveal a red Liverpool shirt and the blue of Chelsea. The warmth generated between supporters and the weary fighting force was palpable. The applause lasted until the last soldier made his exit from the ground. It didn’t matter whether you agreed with Britain’s presence in Afghanistan or not. They had lost comrades and put their lives on the line. That would have been back in 2007. I can’t even recall who Forest played that day but the sight of those young men soaking up the respect they were shown, reduced some soldiers and a fair number of fans to tears.

Forest would, of course, have been playing Leeds United at Elland Road had normal service resumed this weekend. (As it is, the more cynical Reds’ fan might quip that at least it gives the new Forest squad time to learn each-others’ names!). Games against the Yorkshire ‘giants’ have often been feisty affairs, particularly during the reign of Don Revie and his ‘dirty Leeds’ reputation in the late Sixties. They boasted defender
Norman ‘bites yer legs off’ Hunter and captain Billy ‘scrapper’ Bremner. In one match I witnessed at the City Ground, the latter’s white shirt had turned Garibaldi red with blood and he wore it as a badge of honour as he strutted off at half time.

But those were the days when football was plagued with violence, when fans brought shame on their clubs. Times are different but football still carries the legacy of those dark episodes. Authority, in its many guises, still harbours suspicions about the game. Passions do run high – to fever pitch! – and the odd player-melee is a feature of that. So too the acerbic banter between opposing fans. And it remains a tribal game. Is there a sense that supporters of football teams may not be sufficiently reverential at this time of national mourning? That they might not comply with expectations? I wonder. As it is, football supporters have not been given the opportunity to demonstrate their affection and respect for the passing away of our longest-ever serving head of state, head of ‘the people’ of these islands. Instead, the game has been shut down and voices have been silenced. If royalty is stitched into the fabric of our society so, too, is football.

*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

*Main image @NFFC the City Ground may see a return to action for the visit of Fulham on Friday.

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