‘My girlfriend’s favourite colour is yellow, I learnt that today’ was just one of the many jokes going viral this weekend, as we settled into being a nation without football to watch.
Usually on a weekend in the UK, the games will start just after midday and it will be a constant stream of matches to pick and choose from, either watching at home, down the pub or in the ground.
Not this weekend, and not for the foreseeable future. No one knows how long the coronavirus lockdown might last, or if it will abate and then return, but one thing is for sure, while a European Super League may have threatened football as we know it, a pandemic certainly wasn’t on the cards to change the face of the sport we love.
But here we are.
Now, with all due respect to Twitter jokes about how the loss of football has forced users into learning their girlfriends names, it’s much more serious and far reaching than that. So many people in and around the game rely on football to help with their mental health, and it’s been sobering to see the wide-ranging impact this ban is going to have and is already having.
Health must come first; the only sensible option was to postpone games. While no one is suggesting lives be risked, the impact of a blanket ban on football also cannot be ignored. Yes, it might be for the greater good, but it could well cause irrevocable harm to some, from the fans, to journalists, to your next-door neighbour who relies on that weekend kickabout to keep them sane.
The obvious place to start is with the fans. They are a huge part of football – without them, the game is nothing, and seeing games played behind closed doors is eerie, but it’s more than that. For regular people, going to games can be the one thing they look forward to all week. It’s a chance to both watch the team they love and a reason to get out of the house.
I mainly work from home and am doing all the time at the moment. I also live alone, so I have to get out and do things regularly to stop anxiety/ depression! I have a set of friends I go to football with from different backgrounds and so that’s a huge miss. The fact there is just no normality doesn’t help!Liverpool fan Nicola
Liverpool fan Nicola spoke to me about the impact this has had on her mental health.
She said: “I mainly work from home and am doing all the time at the moment. I also live alone, so I have to get out and do things regularly to stop anxiety/ depression! I have a set of friends I go to football with from different backgrounds and so that’s a huge miss. The fact there is just no normality doesn’t help!”
The mention of 'normality' struck me particularly hard when reading Nicola’s comments, as I thought back to the weekend. Be honest, how many of us sat there wondering just what to do, because the routine that football provides for us has gone? That routine can be crucial for people who suffer from mental health issues. That’s before we begin to think about the implications for those struggling with loneliness.
John Gibbons, Head of Partnerships at the Anfield Wrap, spoke about what match going means to him, and how the assumption it is ‘only football’ can be harmful.
Like many of us going to the football has got me through some tough times and my football team, and the people I watch football with, have been there when I've needed them most.John Gibbons
“Firstly as a football fan it is hard because, as everyone knows, Liverpool fans have waited for 30 years to win the title so to have it within touching distance and then taken away, even temporarily, seems cruel or unfair. And unfairness in the world is certainly something that is a trigger for a lot of people's mental health.
"It might be 'only football' but you invest so much of yourself into it that there will naturally be a void whoever you support. It is part of people's identity that has been taken away indefinitely. At best this will create unease.
“Like many of us going to the football has got me through some tough times and my football team, and the people I watch football with, have been there when I've needed them most. Now they won't be and that is difficult. We will have to find something to replace it, but in times of recommended isolation and social distance, it is hard to know what that is.”
WORKING IN SPORT
Of course, there are different types of health, all of which can then have a knock-on effect on mental health. Financial health is a huge worry for those working in sport right now. If there aren’t any games, the vast majority of us worry about where our income will come from, and it’s particularly hard for freelancers.
Jason Pettigrove, a freelance football writer living in Spain and a content editor for Barcelona, spoke to me about the implications on his life, now work is in doubt.
“In terms of my mental health, I never worry about things beyond my control, [but] in terms of my financial health I’m buggered. I’ve lost eight clients in three days and hanging on to the last two by my fingernails.”
As someone who works in the football industry, the issues Jason has faced in the last week are certainly ones I’ve also worried about, and no matter how strong I consider myself to be mentally, I know that when I worry about my financial health, my mental health can suffer as well – and I asked Jason if this would also be the case for him.
“I'm pretty strong mentally to be honest, so I don't think it will affect me, but I guess you never know right? It depends how long this goes on for. With five adults at home, living on a potential £94 SSP (Statutory Sick Pay) through the DWP won't do!”
This was echoed by John Gibbons, who touched on the impact this could have on not only his business.
“From a business point of view, I think all small business owners will be feeling anxiety. We are a football media company and suddenly there is no football. You plan for the summer, but you couldn't plan for this.
"Our offer is varied and we are being creative, but it is undoubtedly the case that the matches are a huge part of our schedule and our post-match reaction shows are our most popular. We are lucky in that we have a very loyal listenership, but you still worry because there is no definite time scale on any of this.
“Everyone is just trying to do the best they can day by day and is completely unaware of what tomorrow will bring. Which is scary.”
THOSE WHO PLAY FOOTBALL
So far, we’ve focused on going those to watch games. People who work in the industry. Those who watch football on the TV or in pubs and use that as a way to interact. But what can easily get lost is the fact a huge amount of people actually play football themselves as a way to not only get out and about, but also to aid their mental and physical health.
Another thing John Gibbons mentioned when we spoke was the league he plays in and how that’s now going to be impacted.
“I play in a league called Manwell which is all about improving men's physical and mental health. The aim is to lose weight and play some footy, but many of the players have mental health issues that are linked to being overweight and vice versa.
“For many of the lads it is also their social life, or their escape. It's a great support network for whatever it is you are trying to achieve in improving yourself. I know the trustees are very concerned with what happens if it has to stop or people lose access to that network.”
For many of the lads it is also their social life, or their escape. It's a great support network for whatever it is you are trying to achieve in improving yourself.John Gibbons
While things seem hard now, it’s not all doom and gloom – and it’s vital we remember this. The football community has banded together and people are looking out for each other, with clubs donating to food banks and creatives in the industry looking out for each other.
It can be hard to keep your head up and wonder where the next article or game is coming from, but one brilliant tip from football writer, book author and broadcaster Daniel Storey, is well worth taking note of.
“Spread out their work if there's going to be less of it. I'm the sort of person that would rather work 12-hour days and write and write and write and read and read and read, but it might be that I go down to six-hour working days to keep my brain busy over a longer period. That will help maintain a sense of normality over the longer term.
“In terms of getting the football fix, there are so many other ways. Books, documentaries, articles, YouTube - it's all there.”
Football, it turns out, is not more important than life or death, but it is key for our mental health. It’s a huge part of people’s lives - far more than many realise if they don’t live, eat, breathe it.
But the great thing about football is how entrenched in community spirit it is, and now more than ever we all need to be a little bit kinder and more aware of our teammates, our colleagues and our friends, and come together as a team on and off the field to get through this.