The best way to annoy a group of scholarly historians, if you ever have an urgent need to annoy scholarly historians – perhaps in some kind of emergency situation – is to propose a counterfactual analysis of events.
You know the kind of thing. What if Winston Churchill had died of a heart attack in 1941? What if skiffle, rather than the music of the Beatles, had seized the imagination of the world in 1963?
This is an inflammatory line of reasoning, interesting to readers of alarming pulp novels about the Third Reich taking over the world, but likely to cause an outbreak of pipe-chewing, tweed-flapping rage within the common rooms of Big History. It is also an interesting dynamic when applied to sports writing and sports analysis. Most of it would collapse if the counterfactual analysis were outlawed.
What is Expected Goals, or the Expected Points Table, or a counterintuitive stats-based gallery of the leading creative left-backs in Europe (No 5 will surprise you!) if not the type of “unhistorical shit” that so enraged the 20th-century historian EP Thompson? What is a revisionist colour sidebar take on the managerial achievements of José Mourinho, but the kind of counterfactual “parlour game” EH Carr, chronicler of the early Soviet Union, would have raged against?
And yet right now counter-facts are all sport has. In the Guardian’s pages this week you will have seen detailed analysis of a significant staging point: 100 days since coronavirus took hold and changed the world. This has mainly been a business of hard facts, sifted out from an overload of actual real-world news.
But not in sport. It is a month now since the first cancelled Premier League Saturday, a month since sport basically stopped. And this is the one significant event sport has to offer, its own cancellation. The story didn’t happen. That’s the story. It feels like counterfactual history in action. The best way to understand what happened in sport between March and April 2020, is to understand what didn’t happen.
At which point wind chimes tinkle, the screen starts to dissolve, and we’re back in the undoctored timeline, the one where sport still exists, where the talk of an illness in China remained talk of an illness in China, and where the wheels of Big Sport have continued to grind on.
In counterfactual April 2020 more than 300 unplayed professional men’s and women’s football fixtures have been played in the last four weeks. Close to £1bn in revenue has still been raked in.
In the Premier League Liverpool stuttered a little, then romped across the line, clinching the title with victory at Manchester City on 5 April, a moment that confirmed once again in its sheer operatic sweep that Premier League football is, and always will be, the most important thing currently happening to human civilisation.
Pep Guardiola declared himself “so very, very happy”, albeit in a murderous, glassy-eyed sarcastic whisper. The Liverpool board announced that the title win was “vindication for a community club where finances take second place to our football family – and let’s face it nothing’s ever likely to test this idea so there you go.”
Elsewhere news of Cristiano Ronaldo’s agreement to sign for Manchester United on a world record weekly wage led to questions in parliament over footballers’ salaries. “We have always backed the right of the market to decide how much individuals earn, this is all good for Britain,” Matt Hancock, MP for West Suffolk, announced, to cheers from the benches.
England’s cricketers continued to rebuild the Test team along strict attritional lines, battling out all 10 days of the two-match series in Sri Lanka to seal a triumphant 0-0 series draw. At home the ECB continued to plan for the Hundred, the nonexistent tournament involving nonexistent teams played out in front of nonexistent fans, which actually doesn’t sound such a weird idea these days.
Meanwhile, in the one really astonishing turn of the non-Covid timeline, Formula One announced that it would cease to function with immediate effect, having re-evaluated its place in human society, renounced its role as a carbon-fed playground for the mega-rich, and apologised in particular for the last decade of watching the best car win in dubiously-framed locations around the world. So congratulations, there, Formula One.
Away from all this the real business of sport didn’t un continue. It was announced that a combined one million miles would not go un-run in the postponed London Marathon, and £50m of charity donations not be deferred in the process. Around the country 350,000 amateur cricketers would not miss their final winter nets, and continue to look forward to another endless summer.
The FA would not cancel completely the seasons of at least 100 leagues in men’s and women’s non-league football. Similarly the results of the entire sub-pyramid of the amateur game – hundreds of leagues, thousands of clubs – were not declared null and void and scrubbed from the record.
In the wider world hundreds of thousands of coaches, teachers and volunteers did not stop working away at grassroots sport and the shared health of the nation. A combined two million people from the age of four upwards didn’t fail to participate in cancelled parkruns. And beyond this an unquantifiable mass did not fail to take their first step into sport or to come back to some kind of a more active life.
This, then, is the counterfactual history of sport March-April 2020, a month of urgent unhappenings and eventful nonevents. There will be quite a bit more of this to come from here. The important part, when it all starts up again, will be to remember which of those absences seemed to matter the most.