Perhaps the greatest irony in football is that for an industry so synonymous with ceaseless speculation and tempestuous hindsight, the history books only recognise absolutes: winners and losers. For the first time in living memory, however, this is no longer the case.
It is possible that Liverpool will not win one of the most one-sided title races in Premier League history. Leeds United may not return to the top flight at the sixteenth time of asking. Manchester City’s greatest ever European scalp might not reach its conclusion. If any of those scenarios evoke an unpleasant sensation in the pit of your stomach, it’s probably fear and that’s definitely fine.
We are living through an international crisis of unprecedented proportions; loved ones have been lost, livelihoods are under threat and our hopes and dreams are on hold. All things considered, losing sleep over the destiny of domestic league positions can seem like an act that is every bit as crass as it is inappropriate. It’s an easy conclusion to come to. It’s also a lazy one.
Throughout this challenging period, football vloggers, in particular, have been quick to appropriate any chatter of a sporting nature with a guilt-laden acknowledgment that “health and safety comes first” and “football isn’t important”.
Whilst these sentiments resonate with the present narrative, they are both flawed. Firstly, who among us truly believes the wellbeing of the most vulnerable in society is anything less than paramount? Secondly, football is important.
Football is companionship for the lonely. Football is routine for the overwhelmed. Football is escapism for the crestfallen. It is a creator of jobs, unlikely relationships and lifelong memories. At its thrilling best and crushing worst it remains all of those things and none of that changes because the self-righteous Piers Morgan says so.
Even under normal circumstances, football is a flawed spectacle and an absurd business model. The majority of fans recognise this yet emotionally invest in it regardless, sometimes to the point where the line between sport and religion blurs. Rightly or wrongly, that is not something many can simply “turn off”.
The ongoing pandemic has understandably proved to be one of the most emotive subjects for generations but society sets a dangerous precedent if it starts dictating what is and isn’t acceptable for its members to be concerned about. It is entirely possible to maintain a sense of perspective without having to sacrifice our mental wellbeing – should we all stop complaining about the length of our commute just because Neil Armstrong went all the way to the moon in 1969?
So too have footballers themselves come under fire in the pursuit of one-size-fits-all idealism. Should NHS nurses earn more and footballers less? Yes. That is irrefutable. The economic reality; paying each and every healthcare professional the same weekly wage as Watford’s Tom Cleverley alone would bring the entire health service to its knees within a week.
It is all too simplistic to scapegoat footballers for being rich and scoff at the fan bases who dare to openly miss watching them play. Perspective co-exists with our raw emotions; it doesn’t dictate them. Fans should be allowed to sweat on league titles whilst they stay at home. They should be allowed to curse the prospect of another season stuck in the same division whilst they protect the NHS. They should even be allowed to pine for a cold, wet Wednesday night in Stoke whilst they save lives.
Football is not the most important thing right now but – love it or loathe it – it is the cornerstone of identity for countless working-class towns, cities and the communities that reside within them.
If we manage to convince ourselves that that isn’t important, the “normal” life we return to will be a poor imitation of what came before it.