It was probably not the first time football had been accused of being ‘out of touch with popular sentiment’. It was certainly not the last.
It was February 1952 and Britain was mourning the death of King George VI. Shops and factories closed, along with cinemas and theaters, as the country came to a standstill. The BBC has canceled all programs other than solemn news bulletins and essential marine forecasts.
The majority of sporting events have also been postponed, including a rugby union match between England and Ireland.
But the football continued.
Stanley Rous, the FA secretary, has sent a letter to all clubs proposing that playing the games scheduled for this weekend provide an opportunity to pay tribute with the game of Abide With Me, followed by a minute’s silence and the national anthem. Rous said it would be “a simple but heartfelt tribute (…) to the memory of our beloved late patron”.
Inevitably, some took umbrage.
A search of the archives reveals a letter written to The Times that week by a Mr HM Gordon Clark of London, who complained that “while rugby football, racing, hunting, racing and many other sports are all respectfully silent in the face of the nation’s grief, football clubs are advised to content themselves with exhibiting mere outward signs of grief.”
Mr Clark went further, expressing his hope that ‘loyal citizens will themselves censor such conduct by staying aloof (…) and thereby show the purveyors of their entertainment how out of touch they are with popular sentiment’ .
Football continued, paying homage in its own way.
The most eye-catching league game this weekend was the North London derby in which Arsenal beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1, but that says something about when The Times led its sports coverage with a report of Wimbledon’s victory over Corinthian Casuals in the third leg of the FA Amateur Cup – “an uninspiring match in which skill played a poor second fiddle to enthusiasm”, preceded by an “impressive minute’s silence (. ..) in simple homage to a king who had so loved sport”.
How times change.
Seven decades later, following the death on Thursday of Queen Elizabeth II, UK shops will be open today, stage productions continue (with preparations for theaters to dim their lights for two minutes at 7pm each evening as a sign of respect) and even this weekend’s rugby matches are taking place, as is the Great North Run Half Marathon which raises admirable sums for charities and other good causes.
The opening of the cricket test match between England and South Africa at The Oval in south London was postponed on Friday, but play will start on Saturday, with a minute’s silence and players and officials wearing armbands black.
The British Horseracing Authority has announced that all meetings on Friday and Saturday will also be postponed out of respect for the late Queen and her “enduring and unique affinity and connection” with the sport, but meetings (and tributes) will take place on Sunday.
But the football stopped. All matches scheduled for this weekend in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been called off, as a mark of respect.
Following the publication of national bereavement guidelines and consultation with the Government, other sport and Rugby League stakeholders, including clubs, the RFL can confirm that fixtures at all levels will take place this weekend.
– Rugby League (@TheRFL) September 9, 2022
It’s not just a Premier League decision. It’s all the game, down to grassroots level, where, to take one example, volunteers in south London have expressed dismay at the need to cancel a junior tournament involving 30 teams and more than 600 youngsters.
It’s a curious situation and while there is a range of opinions on the matter, a personal view is that the football authorities have it wrong.
Not because it adds to the growing problem of device congestion at the highest level, but simply because while a national mood can be discerned at the moment, the “stop all clocks” approach seems at odds with it.
As the Football Supporters Association (FSA) said in a statement on Friday afternoon, “We believe football is at its best when it brings people together at times of great national significance – whether moments of joy or moments of mourning Our view, which we have shared with the football authorities, is that most supporters would have liked to attend matches this weekend and pay their respects to the Queen alongside their fellow supporters.”
The FSF acknowledged there was ‘no perfect decision’ for football authorities to make; they know better than anyone that their members are a diverse group with differing views not just on this subject but on the larger question of the monarchy. But, as he added, “many supporters will feel this was a missed opportunity for football to pay its own special tributes.”
That’s precisely what the game did 70 years ago, playing and paying homage to George VI in its own way.
And that makes it all the stranger to take the opposite course now, at a time when society and sport seem more comfortable with the approach football took at the time.
FA and Premier League officials clearly felt otherwise.
On the one hand, they feel they would have been criticized no matter what decision they made – and they’re probably right. On the other hand, they point out that the Queen was the patroness of the FA and her grandson William is the chairman. The EFL statement referred to football as a “national sport”, implying that it conferred a greater sense of duty.
It is strange, however. The “national sport” part is difficult to reconcile when one measures the difference between a cricket test match in which England face South Africa, a Commonwealth nation, and a series of football matches at the level of the clubs which are local affairs played to a worldwide television audience.
Does football overstate this?
Athleticism‘s Jack Pitt-Brooke wondered on Twitter if gambling authorities could demonstrate “a bit of a self-flagellation instinct, a ‘We can’t be seen playing’ type thing.” dare we try to carry on as usual?’.
“It’s almost ascetic.”
Trying to think about how football went so badly and so out of step with the national mood. Is there a bit of self-flagellation in football here? “We can’t see that we’re playing on” something type. “How dare we try to carry on as usual?” It’s almost ascetic.
— Jack Pitt-Brooke (@JackPittBrooke) September 9, 2022
It just seems like football is so desperate to be seen doing the right thing that it struggles to see what the right thing is. Or maybe he’s just terrified that his product and brand will be ransacked by the type of newspaper columnist or radio presenter who would rush to call the Premier League a national SHAME for continuing as a habit (never stopping once to question his own decision to do the same).
There are so many practical questions for those affected by this weekend’s postponements: supporters who have booked their travel (especially those from abroad) and those who may not be able to make it on a date. refurbished; casual workers who are increasingly dependent on their income on match days as the cost of living crisis deepens.
There are also obvious questions about fixture congestion.
In any season, with the Premier League suspended between mid-November and December 26 to host the World Cup finals in Qatar, the loss of a full weekend program (and most likely a second a week from now, coinciding with the Queen’s funeral) will wreak havoc. For the 10 British clubs involved in the three European competitions, the calendar already looks very busy.
This does not seem to have been taken into account here.
It shouldn’t have been either.
When it comes to paying tribute, it should be a matter of principle rather than convenience. To have continued reluctantly, on the basis that a crowded match schedule left them with no alternative, would have been a mistake.
But play on the way British sports such as cricket, rugby (both union and league) and ice hockey will today – and even the Queen’s beloved horse racing will tomorrow – seems right.
If society continues to operate as normal, from stores to factories to theaters, you might have imagined football would feel comfortable doing the same.
It felt like an opportunity. We got a glimpse of it during West Ham United’s Europa Conference League game against Romanian visitors FCSB on Thursday night, barely an hour after news of his death was announced, as the pre- match was preceded by a spontaneous rendition of God Save The Queen. and a round of applause.
Tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the London Stadium tonight. pic.twitter.com/Ef2jE50h0S
– West Ham United (@WestHam) September 8, 2022
Not every fan of England – or even Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – would pretend to rival West Ham when it comes to royalist sentiment, but it was a powerful and meaningful show of respect.
It could have been widely replicated this weekend, with hundreds of thousands of people across the UK coming together to pay their respects to Elizabeth II just as football fans were asked to pay their respects to his father 70 years earlier. .
It’s like a missed opportunity.
(Top photo: Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images)