NEWS

LIVING WITHOUT THE COMFORT BLANKET OF SPORT

As a Spurs season ticket holder from Newport, I stood on the brink of sporting nirvana in May of last year. Newport County were a Play-Off Final away from promotion to the dizzying heights of League One and Tottenham Hotspur would face Liverpool in their first ever Champions League Final.

“If we win both of these, I’m having a year off football,” I said repeatedly to anyone, whether they were listening or not. After three decades of highs and (mainly) lows, a year off the emotional rollercoaster of football was within touching distance.

Spurs and Newport both lost. And yet, less than a year later we’re all on a sporting sabbatical in a country on lockdown. Having dreamt of a release from the sporting calendar around which I live my life, the reality is that I’m a little bit lost without sport. You might be too. And I think that’s okay.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are more important things than sport right now. That old Bill Shankly quote has been rightly confined to the dustbin of history and the majority of sporting bodies should be applauded for how quickly they have reacted to the COVID-19 crisis. It could even be said that the Premier League moved quicker than the UK government and started the process of everyday life, by shutting down to counter the pandemic.

What I’m missing isn’t even really the sport itself. In fact, the next form of social anxiety ‘FOMO’ might well be fans trying to keep up with the sheer amount of retro football, rugby, cricket, golf and tennis which is now available. There’s loads of it on every sports channel, rightsholder’s Facebook page and club Instagram feed. Maybe I did watch all of Andorra versus Wales from 2014 (we won 2-1), but re-watching games from the past is not going to fill the void where the day-to-day of sport used to be.

Sport is much more than the matches themselves: it’s the rhythm of our lives. On a Saturday you may not miss your team falling to another 2-1 away defeat and the subsequent Twitter meltdown from your fans. You probably do miss tuning into a bit of Soccer AM, 15 minutes of Football Focus and sitting down for Final Score at 5pm. Not forgetting to check how many Fantasy Football points you’ve got and where your mates’ teams are in the league table and ribbing them about it in the pub that night. These routines are what we build our lives around. Sport is our rock.

Whether you have young kids or not can dictate when you watch MOTD on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning. Sunday lunch is often fitted around that 4pm kick-off; Monday Night Football can help take the edge off the first working day of the week; and what is 7:45pm on a Wednesday or Thursday night without hearing that Champions League anthem?

I know the Europa League is on a Thursday night. Football on Thursday is wrong. You shouldn’t be missing that.

Of course, it’s not just football. In a few weeks, the slow march to summer will not begin with cricketers taking to the field in three jumpers, while rugby converts from a mud-splattered low-scoring sport to a distant cousin of basketball played on rock-hard pitches. The sight of five-a-side courts being replaced with tennis nets will be denied us, and the biggest sporting event of a British summer will be cancelled across the country – the school sports day.

Sport is our daily comfort blanket. You may not even find time to watch that much of it, especially when real life takes over, but it’s always there in the background – something you can dip into and be part of with tens, hundreds, thousands or millions of others. And now, for the first time in 75 years, it isn’t there…but when it inevitably returns, will it ever be the same again?

This current crisis is accelerating change like all crises before it; and so, with this short, conscious uncoupling comes hope. Not just the hope that your team will come back fitter, stronger and better, but that sport will come back smarter, fairer, even dare I say it, nicer.

In football right now the phrase ‘more than a club’ has never felt more universally applicable, with many local teams shrugging off ingrained partisanship to connect with fans, followers and the wider football family like never before.

And they’re not alone.

Sportsmen and women, rightsholders, associations and sponsors across the globe are all taking to social media – as well as to the streets – in their droves in support of local communities. At a time when we can’t go and gather with 60,000 others to watch a match, sport actually feels more real and increasingly human.

Yes, there’s the question of top-tier footballers’ wages, and I expect a voluntary pay-cut to be announced very shortly. Yet, however right he may be, the Health Secretary calling out players’ pay packets was an almost Mourinho-esque act of diverting attention away from his own broken promises.

Sport can escape this crisis no more than the rest of us and it feels like a line is being crossed. The behemoth of professional sport appears to be coming closer to the viewing public.

After years of drifting off into the distance, this situation could see professional sport coming back to its roots, its people and its principles.

The world may have temporarily turned upside down, but Sport will come back better.

And so will we.

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