So, the show doesn’t have to go on after all. Most elite sport in the UK has been postponed because of coronavirus but there are two shows in 21st-century sport – one at the stadiums, one on the TV – and the latter is going to continue in the form of wall-to-wall nostalgia. There is endless airtime to be filled: Sky Sports have nine channels, BT Sport three, Eurosport two, and there are also the traditional sport slots on free-to-air TV.
The announcement that the BBC would replace Match of the Day with an old episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys achieved the impossible: it managed to unite social media. Admittedly the common reactions were contempt or disgust but it was still an achievement of sorts. Many appealed for the BBC to show a classic MotD episode instead; others suggested Test Card F would be a preferable alternative to the slapstick travails of Agnes Brown.
Although there was no Match of the Day, the Beeb did continue with Football Focus on Saturday lunchtime. “Good afternoon,” said the presenter Dan Walker. “Don’t worry, no Mrs Brown’s Boys, but we do have a slightly different Football Focus for you today.”
Dion Dublin, Tim Cahill and the journalist Rob Harris were the studio guests and did a good job in such surreal circumstances. They had the unenviable task of telling people what they already don’t know: when football might resume, what might happen if the 2019‑20 season cannot be completed, what on earth is going on. All delivered the sincere and previously sacrilegious message that football really doesn’t matter.
Another staple of weekend football, Sky Soccer Saturday, was quietly removed from the schedules. Filling half an hour of Football Focus is one thing; five hours of Soccer Saturday quite another. The presenter, Jeff Stelling, did offer his services in a couple of (imperfectly spelled) tweets:
“Anyone need an odd job man. Previously worked Sat 12-6 but now available all days . Sadly useless at most things !
“I can wash cars, cut lawn, wash pots, shout loudly and tell you how many goals Southend have conceeded. Any good ?”
Sky Sports Main Event, usually reserved for their most enticing live action, was taken over all day by Sky Sports News. This channel is usually the world leader in hype, so it was slightly surprising to turn over and see that they had not turned the entire screen into one big yellow ticker. “BREAKING NEWS: THEY TOOK OUR SPORT AWAY.” In fact, the coverage was subdued and pragmatic, with a matter-of-fact tone and a relatively understated yellow ticker at the bottom of the screen. There was no scaremongering, no unconfirmed reports that a reserve left-back from an unnamed Championship club had been seen in Morrisons with a trolley full of toilet rolls and tomato soup.
The closest they came to self-satire was with the announcement that Spurs are interested in the Valencia midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia. Honestly, folks, it can wait. But the only visual indication that things are different was a slightly dramatic red backdrop with molecules floating around, and the sporadically visible words “Coronavirus Pandemic”. There were also an unprecedented focus on the minutiae of the Vanarama National League, where six games were played, and a number of Skype chats with people whose apparent self-isolation was hopefully only for the purposes of their interview.
All the main sport channels cherished what little live sport remained – and, no, they didn’t stoop to showing four hours of live Monopoly, or an evening of competitive banter from Lambeth Wetherspoons. BT Sport had live coverage of Halifax v Ebbsfleet in the National League and the All‑England Open badminton, while Eurosport had Gibraltar Open snooker. Sky showed Super Rugby in the morning and horse racing in the afternoon.
That aside, there were replays on every channel, and most of the archive footage was familiar. There was the chance to rattle through a few seasons of Premier League Years, or to be reminded, via highlights of the 2015 Carling Cup final, that José Mourinho used to have a lovely smile. Over the next few weeks the past may cease to be a foreign country and become more of a home county – a warm, comforting place where we can escape from the alien, unsettling landscape of the present.
As any cricket fan will know, there are usually two ways to fill a live sport void: by showing replays or having discussions in the studio. The latter is not so easy when there is no scheduled sport in the first place, and there’s a significant difference between a panel of former cricketers filling a rain delay by discussing their England top order for the next Test and a panel of former footballers trying to make sense of the biggest health crisis in decades.
The way Sky and BT use their abundant archives will probably become a bit more imaginative as we settle in for the long haul. For now, everyone is still trying to make sense of the new sportlessness. Nobody on Sky Sports News branded it as such but there was an implicit understanding that this was an extremely Surreal Saturday.