What the world needs is a vaccine for Covid-19. What it categorically doesn’t need is another person telling you they miss sport. Sadly, right now, that is all I can offer.
While we all try to navigate our way through the biggest global crisis in decades and what it means in our homes and across the planet, what percentage of our brains, if any, can be used up on our greatest passions?
Sport bonds families, it forges and cements friendships, it dominates WhatsApp groups. It has its own language, its own set of languages. It is simultaneously not essential for society but is a society in itself. Of course the same can be said for music, theatre, comedy – anything live. Anything that makes existence fun and worthwhile.
How quickly it has unravelled. On Saturday 7 March I previewed another “big weekend of sport” on the radio, lost a Southern Amateur League Cup semi-final and then raced to Twickenham to watch England defeat Wales. It’s not quite the script for 28 Days Later but now no one can say when I’ll be able to do any of those things again.
I have discovered the only thing that stopped me going to bed was football. Within a couple of weeks I doubt I’ll see 8pm. The morning routine has changed dramatically. Mindless transfer gossip, last night’s goals and staring at league tables have all gone. In their place: trying to work out if my wife has picked up coronavirus from one of her pupils; staring at my arid, crispy but incredibly clean knuckles; and explaining to my parents that meeting “just 10 friends” isn’t social isolation.
I have spent the past five days on TalkSport desperately trying to work out the right tone. Apologies to anyone who has heard the words “strange times”, “none of us are experts” and “we just don’t know” on a loop in that time. Sports broadcasting is going to go down some interesting wormholes in the next few months. Think of Alan Partridge lying on that hotel bed with his Dictaphone: Ben Foster’s favourite box sets; isosceles triangles with Tony Cascarino; Darren Bent’s Monopoly secrets. I’ve already been there.
Many of us in the privileged position of earning a living from watching sport are guilty of taking it for granted sometimes. Why put the Europa League on a Thursday? Why split the kick-off times for a Champions League night? If there’s no Monday night football, don’t stick a Championship game there. I have other interests.
At the start of this season we joked on the Guardian Football Weekly podcast about a gap year for all. A chance for Craig Cathcart to go backpacking around South America, DeAndre Yedlin to learn Spanish, Patrick Bamford to get his grade eight violin – and for the rest of us just to take some time off. The following August we would be fit to burst. Be careful what you wish for. And for all the creative ideas to get us through this – Fifa marathons, Football Manager’s free offer, James Milner’s Instagram – I will never moan again when Super Sunday is “only” West Ham v Everton.
All those miserable footballing constants can stay. I would do anything for Jeff Stelling to yell down the camera that Cambridge United have conceded a 93rd-minute equaliser at home to Plymouth. I need José Mourinho to publicly shame someone, anyone. I miss fans who weren’t at the Emirates ringing radio shows to hammer Mesut Özil for not putting a shift in. I want five minutes of Paul Tierney holding his hand to his ear and pointing his other hand at that hand so that players REALLY understand it’s gone to VAR. I need uninformed pundits to tell Newcastle fans Mike Ashley is all right.
I’d kill to have another existential crisis on the pitch as a 22-year-old runs past me shouting “ALL DAY grandad” while I slip over trying to control a simple ball. I dream of playing an opposition who put a massive stereo in their adjoining dressing room pumping out heavy house to get them in the mood. I’d love to have another Sunday of waking up and not being able to discern my kneecap amid all the fluid sitting above it.
Of course it goes beyond football. When will we next hear Marais Erasmus saying “rock and roll it” from the third umpire’s booth? When will we next scream at our TVs for 90 solid seconds of Olympic kayaking in support of an athlete we’ve never heard of and will forget about within three months? Will we be holding our breath as Lee Westwood lines up a six-footer for a point against Patrick Reed on the 18th at Whistling Straights to turn the screen blue in September?
Sport is flawed, it is imperfect. It is governed by money. It facilitates racism, homophobia and misogyny and fails to deal with them adequately. Marginal gains blur the lines between records and cheating. At the top there has been corruption; at grassroots referees are abused and attacked.
We do not know what sport will look like when this is over. We have to hope it looks the same – without forgetting how much it needs to improve. There is so much talk of money filtering down from the top to the bottom, from the haves to the have nots. Even if there is the will – and that’s a big if – I’m yet to see anyone explain how it will work.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone – and depending on which Twitter thread you’ve most recently scrolled through, it could be a long time before sport returns. But it will. One day. Won’t it? I’m not an expert.