It is hard to believe now, even harder when you are shoehorned into one of the most cramped and restrictive press boxes in England, but Goodison Park was a World Cup stadium once.
That was in 1966, obviously, and on many occasions it has been remarked that to all intents and purposes the ground has hardly changed since. If physical distancing is now to arrive in the media areas it will certainly not be before time. Yet people are fond of Goodison, it will be missed when Everton move out to their shiny new home by the docks. It is not just the Archibald Leitch architecture, the boxy stands or the pub across the road where Bill Kenwright has a habit of fraternising with his public after famous victories, it is the way the place sits, like Arsenal’s Highbury used to, in the middle of a community. “Turn a corner and there’s a football ground,” as Arséne Wenger said when introduced to the odd concept (for a Frenchman) of a stadium surrounded on all sides by housing.
These thoughts came to mind through consideration of why Goodison might be unsuitable for its next scheduled fixture, the long-delayed Merseyside derby that could still – assuming local authority permission and Manchester City losing against Arsenal – see Liverpool collect the league title on their neighbours’ patch. Some of the concerns to be raised at the Safety Advisory Group meeting on Monday apparently include the difficulty of throwing a no-go zone around a stadium when people actually live in the streets that require closing off, the relative pokiness of the changing rooms and the fact that the players’ tunnel is too narrow to allow proper physical distancing if the teams are to emerge together. In which case, you might think, let the teams emerge one after the other. Or from different sides of the ground. This is an empty stadium we are talking about, after all.
Heck, if Liverpool wanted to they could get changed in their own dressing rooms at Anfield and stroll through Stanley Park to the game.
Just about anything is possible if the game is going to be played behind closed doors, and while the television companies must be excited now that they have been granted their wish to place cameras in tunnels, one hopes they too will realise that safety considerations must come first.
It will be interesting to see what objections are raised to a football match taking place at a venue that has been hosting them for the last 128 years. Granted, Goodison might not be ideal in every way for lockdown football, but none of the above considerations seem weighty enough to warrant taking the game elsewhere. If the last few months have taught us anything it is how to be adaptable. The local police have said they are happy for a game to go ahead at a ground designed for the purpose, so surely physical distancing measures inside the stadium are secondary to the fact that once on the pitch the players will be in full contact with each other. The congestion in the tunnel or changing rooms will be nothing compared to the congestion in the penalty box at the first corner, in other words, and it is important to remember that games are being sanctioned in the first place only because there is confidence that players have been tested often enough to deem the restart safe.
Without wishing to pre-empt the SAG meeting’s conclusion, it would be a shame were a neutral ground to be recommended. Goodison will not see many more Merseyside derbies and it will certainly never see another World Cup. Even were Fifa to grant England the privilege tomorrow Goodison would fail to meet most of the modern criteria for staging games, mostly for the same reasons of compactness that make it such a coronavirus risk. When Fifa chooses World Cup venues it tends to go for the ones that are as far away from human habitation as possible.
It prefers stadiums built in parkland, or at least in open space at the extreme edge of cities. That way it can throw its own no-go zone around the games, pitch its tented villages for corporate guests and provide plenty of car parking, while the actual fans with tickets come by train or bus from miles away. Quite often Fifa World Cups go to countries willing to build new stadiums in out-of-the-way places that conform to such guidelines, even in the knowledge that after the tournament their usefulness and practicality will be limited. The idea that England deserves a World Cup because it has modern and capacious stadiums already in place, venues that are seen around the world full to capacity most weeks of the year, is not the sort of argument that sways Fifa committees at all, as might be guessed from this country’s lack of bidding success in recent years and the fact that the next World Cup will be played in a country not remotely famous for football.
At least, with any luck, the coronavirus pandemic might be under control by the time the Qatar World Cup takes place. By then Goodison will be 130 years old and possibly staging its last season of football, hopefully with the necessity of playing games behind closed doors just an unpleasant memory. Many more years hence, when everyone is playing on trading estates or brownfield sites, the notion of football clubs operating on streets with pubs and houses is going to seem equally strange and unlikely. One trusts that when fans are allowed back into grounds, after this weirdly unnatural interlude, a few minutes will be spent fully appreciating what we have long been taking for granted.