Sport means nothing if it is not about passion and connection and nowhere is that more sharply defined than in football, as we have witnessed since coronavirus ripped it from our lives in recent weeks and days. Once, though, it was cricket, the summer game, deeper in history, richer in symbolism, that held the national sentiment in its gentle palm.
As Derek Birley relates in his excellent A Social History of English Cricket, when Sir Gordon Home wrote in the September 1939 issue of The Cricketer, he went straight for a contemporary metaphor. “England has now begun the grim Test match against Germany,” he said. “We do not wish merely to win the Ashes of civilisation. We want to win a lasting peace with honour and prosperity of all.”
As it happens, West Indies had been and gone that summer of ’39 (a little eerily, they are due to visit again, and offering, instead, to host a short series in the Caribbean so we can all sidestep our new enemy, Covid-19). The counties did not quite finish the cricket programme; in the autumn of the 2020 football season, we have stalled again.
An aside: football continued uninterrupted for the opening year of the first world war; in 1939, after an initial ban for all but services football, matches went ahead in front of maximum crowds of 8,000 in evacuation areas and 15,000 elsewhere. Football was seen as a fitness and morale booster, part of a national statement to the enemy. Peace (however fragile) came, along with oscillating measures of honour and prosperity. The modern foe, as the prime minister reminded us this past week, is invisible, gliding through our streets like TS Eliot’s yellow fog, rubbing “its back upon the window-panes”. Windows are unopened and stay firmly shut. Everyone looks out, isolated and fretting. What’s the point of looking in to see only a timorous image of yourself?
If Home, an admired landscape artist of his day and cricket enthusiast (like most of the population), was worried about Hitler dropping bombs on Lord’s, Gary Neville was concerned about the prime minister and, to a lesser degree, what might happen to the rest of the football season. Chatting on Sky with Jamie Carragher about the obsession du jour, and how it has wrecked the football programme, threatening clubs with bankruptcy and fans with creeping lunacy, Neville did not have much faith in Boris Johnson’s half-pledge that we would be out of the coronavirus woods in 12 weeks. It made no sense; nor did football’s planned return by 30 April, a mere six weeks away. Everywhere lay confusion.
“Every time I see the chief medical officer stood next to Boris Johnson,” Neville said to his rock-jawed scouse sparring partner, “he looks more and more uncomfortable. I’m not a scientist, but you have to have consistency of messages and leadership.”
It is only a few months since Neville accused Johnson of fuelling racism with his views on migration. On Wednesday, the former United full-back offered up rooms in his Manchester hotel to frontline medical staff and promised his employees their jobs and salaries were safe. Last winter, he took in the homeless in the same premises. Neville is a footballer with a world view beyond VAR and money and mere championships – not unlike another ex-footballer called Gary.
When Lineker G had the audacity to voice his doubts about Brexit last year, the Daily Mail was quickly on his case, which confirmed he must have said something worth listening to. And when Neville G, who has hinted for a little while there is a conscience ticking behind that straight face, stuck one in the back of the net this past week before Sky Sports could hit the pause button, there was cheering behind closed curtains across the land. Or, it would be nice to think so.
With every gloomy bulletin, the notion that there might be no organised sport in a public place anywhere in the world between now and Christmas is not as unhinged as it might have seemed even a week ago. This is our war cloud. Not only football and cricket. The lot. Including the Olympics. It is not just absurdly optimistic or inappropriate to believe Tokyo will welcome the world in July, it is bordering on the irresponsible.
For those of us waiting for old certainties to waft again on the summer breeze, just like Sir Gordon Home nearly 80 years ago, there is almost certain disappointment. For the time being, we have only the TV zapper. There we find, paradoxically, comforting scenes of the past, near and long ago.
How good, for crying out loud, was Jack Nicklaus, the ugliest putting genius in the history of golf? More readily, you might remember Stiliyan Petrov’s left-foot screamer for Aston Villa against Sunderland in 2011. No? Perhaps a half-hour of your time to dwell on Lothar Matthäus, capped 150 times for Germany and an England heartbreaker. Tony Greig is at the microphone again, guiding us through England’s second Test against Sri Lanka in Kandy 19 years ago (England won). Darts from Aberdeen, snooker from Gibraltar, cycling from Flanders. Wrestling from who-cares. It’s all there, none of it live, little of it relevant any more.
Now we need (and surely will not get) nostalgia to morph into a crisp, bright spring, perhaps allowing us out of our confines for a jaunt up to the Parks or Fenner’s to watch the county champions joust unevenly with the students and get the blood racing for … the Hundred?
Another Neville – Cardus, who long ago graced the sports pages as beautifully as anyone who sat idly on a boundary – once observed: “It is far more than a game, this cricket. It somehow holds the mirror up to English nature. We are not hypocrites, but we try to make the best of things of contrary appeal.”
So, it’s not just about them. It’s about us, too, who sit and watch. That should keep us going for a bit.