Weekly football conversation since 2009, with Graham Sibley, Jan Bilton and Terry Duffelen. Listen on Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or your podcatcher of choice.

The Premier League's Project Restart is here but real football feels as far away as ever

The clock hits 93 minutes. We’re now into time added onto time added on. From the resulting corner, the ball falls to Lewis Dunk. The centre-half steadies himself before blasting over the bar, costing his side a share of the spoils. Boris Johnson briefly looks up from his bacchanalia and gives a weary thumbs down. Two heavies march onto the pitch and drag the defender off to be fed to the Roy Keane. On the touchline Sean Dyche wildly beats his chest. Are you not entertained?

Clearly, this particular event didn’t happen but with Project Restart now underway and the brave gladiators of the Premier League competing in their semi-virtual amphitheatre, it’s hard not to feel there’s a touch of of some pre-democracy authoritarianism about the resumption of Liverpool’s coronation. The morale of the nation must come before everything else.

Anyway, apart from ensuring children in poverty don’t get fed, taking a stand against racial injustice, and donating money for medical equipment in the fight against COVID-19, what have Premier League footballers ever done for us?

It’s possible to feel both enlivened and uneasy at the return of football in the United Kingdom. One one hand, for those of us who build their weekends around the game we love, watching Manchester City rip through a David Luized Arsenal, or Spurs and Manchester United trade blows like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed is as compelling as ever.

Equally, watching an activity that requires a not insignificant amount of people to come into close contact with each other when the United Kingdom has 42,288 deaths from the virus and counting and is still seeing over a thousand new cases every day, seems a little excessive.

Granted, twenty-two men officially sanctioned to be running around White Hart Lane under relatively strict conditions isn’t quite the same as, say, a coronavirus case driving to look at bluebells in Barnard Castle, but if you were forced to choose between risking the lives of elderly and vulnerable friends and family and having to dive into some of Netflix’s lower quality offerings for another couple of months then it doesn’t seem a hard choice to make.

In the Premier League’s defence, it’s hardly their fault that the UK government’s handling of a global pandemic has been less effective than Alan Partridge pitching Youth Hostling With Chris Eubank to the BBC's light entertainment division, or that health secretary Matt Hancock’s daily impersonation of Comical Ali has singled out multi-million footballers as recidivists of lockdown solidarity.

In an ideal world, a half competent leadership would have suppressed the virus to a point that restarting the Greatest League In the World didn’t feel like one of Lynton Crosby’s dead cat distractions from whatever cock-up is unfolding in Westminster on any given day. But equally, it’s hard to pretend that Project Restart is really about getting the game we love back on and giving footballers the opportunity to raise the morale of the nation.

When you’re talking $5bn riding on just domestic TV deals and the prospect of a £500m collective loss for clubs, according to Deloitte, not to mention the sheer nakedness of self-interest from clubs throughout the pyramid, then 22 men officially sanctioned to run around a field most definitely in the eyes of football trumps risking the lives of elderly and vulnerable friends and relatives of footballers. And this is before you go anywhere near sub-Tweeting banter to any BAME footballer who may express a concern that we might be starting a little early.

While the pandemic might not necessarily have been the great leveller that we’re lead to believe - to paraphrase Orwell, we’re all in this together equally, but some are in it more equally than others - it has shown football two things.

Firstly, in the grand scheme of things, it’s nowhere near as important as it would like to believe. And secondly, the ability of football clubs to fritter away vast sums of money as if it’s going out of fashion remains unparalleled.

You could say that the coronavirus has shown that even football adheres to investor Warren Buffet’s oft-repeated observation that it’s only when the tide goes out you see who has been swimming naked.
But an equally profound observation would be from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police, where hero Gary Johnston justifies killing Kim-Jong Il. “Pussies don't like dicks because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes. Assholes that just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way. But the only thing that can fuck a asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem with dicks is they fuck too much or fuck when it isn't appropriate. And it takes a pussy to show them that. But sometimes pussies can be so full of shit that they become assholes themselves. Because pussies are a inch and half away from assholes. I don't know much about this crazy crazy world, but I do know this. If you don't let us fuck this asshole we're going to have our dicks and pussies all covered in shit.”

Or, to put it another way, during the pandemic, key players in football have shown that they live in an asshole-fluid world.

Ultimately, while it might be a pleasant distraction to have football back, complete with the excitement of Choose Your Own Crowd Howl Of Despair, it doesn’t really come close to why football really raises your morale on a daily basis.

 It’s not about the beauty of 90 minutes of Kevin De Bruyne, the endless debates about VAR, or even the existential angst on the faces of a crowd at the Emirates when they see David Luiz’s name on the teamsheet. It’s not even about the return of the Premier League, given the total volume of support for clubs further down the pyramid. Watching synthetic crowd noises from your sofa may be an inevitable future for top flight football anyway, but it’s not football that really brings a glow to your heart.

No, what really raises the morale about football, is the camaraderie and simple joy of detaching yourself from the world for an afternoon or evening, of meeting your friends at your usual pre-match drinking or eating spot, of creating sweepstakes on the terraces between your usual match going set as you try to predict the number of times your hopeless team of cloggers shank the ball out of the ground, of long rail replacement bus trips on bitterly cold days to the likes of Colchester, of spending 90 minutes chatting about anything and everything bar the godawful 0-0 in front of you, and of taking that first sip of beer in after the final whistle as you start to pick over the bones of what you’ve seen. 

So for all the joy and beauty about seeing Actual Football on our screens again, what would really raise the morale of the nation would be getting the virus under control, being able to lift restrictions to a level that most of us felt comfortable and safe, or at least not guilty, in leaving the house to watch football at all levels of ability.

Or, quite simply, getting to the point where we can all go back down the pub again.

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