IN A strange turn of events, the Asian Netball Championships showed the English Premier League how to pay tribute to an English queen.
Before the semi-final between Singapore and Malaysia, the giant screen displayed an image of Queen Elizabeth II and the OCBC Arena fell silent. Men, women and children, most of whom were Asian, bowed their heads for a foreign royal.
Applause followed the silence. The image of Queen Elizabeth II faded. The scoreboard returned and life continued, as it must, an obvious point surely underlined by a pragmatic woman who devoted her life to duty and service.
The netball in Singapore carried on, but the football in England didn’t, as the professional pyramid closed its doors. The game’s governing bodies assumed the best way to pay one’s respects was to disappear.
Queen Elizabeth’s age of stability effectively ended with a demonstration of instability, not to mention economic uncertainty for those adversely affected by the fixture cancellations.
No one was going to make such an obvious and seemingly crass observation initially, of course, as a nation mourned. But as shock and sadness slowly gave way to reflection, one or two questioned the decision to postpone all fixtures, sticking their heads above the parapet and risking the shrapnel of performative morality.
Peter Crouch and Gary Neville would’ve known that their potentially divisive views were probably out of step with those well-versed in performative morality, those who read public sentiment like tidal charts and drift along accordingly. The pair raised the question anyway.
Why call the games off? There is no greater representation of public emotion, good or bad, than a full sports arena, singing as one voice, or saying even more in silence.
Speaking from personal experience, the minute’s silence conveys respect, love and loss in a deeply unique and profound way. Because it’s not just the silence. It’s the primeval roar that follows, the collective, cathartic release of repressed emotion. It’s not perfect, perhaps, but the minute’s silence works as an act of shared solemnity.
And the reason it’s not perfect is the idiot. There will always be idiots. Idiots boo. Idiots jeer. They bring their political grievances, legitimate or otherwise, to the wrong occasions. They cannot be controlled in a lengthy, orchestrated demonstration of Establishment control that begins with Queen Elizabeth’s death and ends only when she is buried.
Why take a risk that isn’t worth taking?
But the cricket did. So did the rugby, as other sporting events continued with rousing renditions of God Save the Queen and impeccably observed silences. Why was football not allowed, or trusted enough, to do likewise?
Chance for celebration replaced with suspicion
It was in the past. Just three days after the death of King George VI in 1952, Grimsby Town and Carlisle’s players stood across from one another, in silence, revealing the best of the game at the worst time. A full stadium expressing solidarity says more than an empty stadium.
Unfortunately, a chance for a celebration was replaced only with suspicion. What did the cancellations suggest about the perceptions of different kinds of supporters? Social media has enough conspiracy theories online, if that’s your thing, but the economic ramifications were undeniable. The matchday ecosystem was disrupted.
The Football Supporters’ Association has already called for fans left out of pocket by the postponement of matches to be treated sympathetically. The standout quote came from Malcolm Clarke, the chairman of the FSA, when he said: “It’s not a good time to ask fans to spend money on things that don’t happen.”
It never is, but this incident seems particularly awkward. As the United Kingdom endures the biggest fall in living standards since Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, it seems a tad off-colour to penalise those with the most to lose from cancelling fixtures – the travelling fans and the eco-systems that they feed.
From coach drivers to cabbies and food vendors and publicans, the financial network that surrounds every football stadium was dismantled. Despite the good intentions, the cancellations arguably amplified the negative aspects of an entrenched class structure of inherited privilege and prejudice, with the folks upstairs effectively saying, “We are taking the working man’s game away this weekend to pay tribute to the longstanding inequities of the status quo.”
A tad melodramatic, perhaps, but that’s effectively what happened. And it cannot happen again.
Reports already suggest that this weekend’s fixtures may also face disruption, as the huge police operation required for the funeral next Monday could make it difficult to organise matches safely.
But any further cancellations may prove unworkable in a truncated season. Thanks to the vagaries of that inherited privilege and prejudice holding up the longstanding inequities of the status quo – also known as elite football – this campaign must be raced through to accommodate a winter wonderland in Qatar.
Between now and 20 November, when the EPL season is put on hold for a month, there are no available dates for make-up fixtures. Not one. In 2023, there are three vacant midweek slots, but they are included for clubs still involved in the latter stages of the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup to rearrange league fixtures. For a lucky/unlucky few, the Champions League is an additional headache to consider.
Postponing one EPL fixture is just about manageable. Missing two is unthinkable in a long, wearying season that cannot be extended beyond the Champions League final date of 10 June as Euro 2024 qualifying matches follow soon after.
Further cancellations also send a contradictory message. Queen Elizabeth attended every major sporting event, at one time or another. She lifted more FA Cups than Arsene Wenger. Her famous white gloves passed the Jules Rimet Trophy to a sheepish Bobby Moore. Whether it was Wembley or Wimbledon, she recognised the value of a shared experience uniting people in an increasingly individualistic culture.
So she got on with it.
Football should do the same. Open the stadiums and trust the game to follow the kind of disciplined stoicism that defined the Elizabethan epoch. Keep calm and carry on.
Open the stadiums and trust the game to follow the kind of disciplined stoicism that defined the Elizabethan epoch. Keep calm and carry on.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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