I’ll be honest. When football was first put on pause in mid-March, I quite enjoyed the break. It was an opportunity for a recharge, because frankly I was a bit football-ed out. My mind needed to think about something else. However, much like the Zoom quizzes, the guitar learning and getting up to do PE with Joe Wicks every morning, the novelty soon wore off. I was left bored and unmotivated, with no real indicator of when Saturday was.
It’s fair to say when the EFL announced yesterday that they had set a provisional date of June 20 for the Championship to return, I was absolutely delighted.
In May, foreign secretary Dominic Raab suggested that the return of football would “lift the spirits of the nation”. Yet a week later, a YouGov poll disagreed. In a survey of over 2,000 people, 73 per cent said the Premier League and EFL coming back would not boost morale. This is likely to be the only time I’ll say this, but I was Team Raab.
Football is a massive part of my life. If I’m not watching it, I’m reading about it. If I’m not reading about it, I’m listening to podcasts about it. It’s absence over the last couple of months has left a rather large hole. It’s return, albeit in a sanitised form, is a sign that things are slowly returning to normal.
Football is an escapism. For 90 minutes, all life’s worries and distractions are put on hold as we enter a far away mindspace where everything is ok. Psychologically, this period is likely to be one of the toughest that many of us will experience, but the return of football is a ray of light. In a world that can often be portrayed as depressing and bleak, perhaps more so now than ever before, football is the antidote. As Daniel Storey explored brilliantly for The i last month, we crave ‘meaningless jeopardy’ - the ability for something that ultimately matters little to provoke such emotion and desire. It is a light relief and creates a buzz like no other.
Being able to look forward to those 90 minutes of escapism is massively rewarding. A difficult week is always made easier when you know there’s a game at the end of it. The days have all tended to blur into one in lockdown, but the return of football will provide a much-needed structure to many lives. Even better, with the Championship play-off final provisionally set for July 30, you’re looking at two Reading games every week to get the schedule completed in time.
Make no mistake; the fight against coronavirus is far from over. The daily death toll in the United Kingdom is still far too high, and social distancing measures will rightfully remain in place for the next few months. I would begrudge no player if they refused to play during this time. Their health and well-being, as well as that of their their families, must always be the priority.
But measures are being put in place to ensure that the environment in both training and games are as safe as possible. A strict testing process is already underway, while the Premier League have told captains and senior players that changes to the way they play will need to be implemented, such as turning their face away when getting up from tackles and generally trying to avoid face to face contact wherever possible. Clubs are being encouraged to regularly disinfect playing surfaces, corner flags, balls, cones, goalposts and all other equipment used in training.
It will not be the football we know, that’s for sure. Any viewers of the German Bundesliga over the last few weeks may have been left unfulfilled by its return in empty stadiums. There is no question that football is far less of a spectacle without supporters, but it is certainly not unwatchable.
Various classic matches from throughout history being shown over the last few weeks has been great, but however enjoyable it is, you do ultimately know what’s going to happen before it starts. The unpredictability of live football cannot be replicated, and that brings with it added entertainment. The feeling of anticipation - the butterflies in the stomach - that comes before a game is one of the things I’ve missed most about football.
It will be a long time before football returns to a true ‘normal’. Nothing will beat the moment when fans are allowed back in the Madejski Stadium for the first time. When people can meet up for a pre-match pint, make their way through the turnstiles and celebrate a goal altogether once again. But for now, I’m just happy that we can cheer on Reading once again, even if it’s from the comfort of our own homes.