June 17 – Premier League football returns tonight after a three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic with Manchester City hosting Arsenal and Aston Villa taking on Sheffield United behind closed doors.
Manchester City will unveil a new bespoke kit for their restart with shirt sponsor Eithad Airways giving up the position to the club’s ‘Cityzens Giving For Recovery’ campaign.
That campaign is perhaps symbolic of the strangeness of the times in the most greedy and commercial of the world’s sports, and a reflection of new found solidarity football needs to find within its wider communities. The Cityzens campaign focuses on providing support directly to nine recovery-linked projects around the world via fundraising, and the use of club facilities, and resources. Each of the nine clubs within City Football Group, staff, players, coaches and fans will all be involved, providing support in various capacities.
There is a sort of poetic synergy that it should be Man City vs Arsenal that is one of the reopening games. Man City need to win to delay Liverpool’s inevitable championship win beyond the Merseyside derby this weekend. It was Arsenal coach’s Mikel Arteta’s positive coronavirus test that accelerated an inevitable shutdown of the game, a first since World War II, on the advice of Boris Johnson’s government on the weekend of March 14-15.
Since then Johnson has himself recovered from the virus and he and his government have recently drawn parallels with World War II, saying the game could “provide a much-needed boost to national morale”.
The reality is that Johnson is certainly no Winston Churchill and the route to restart has bumbled along not unlike Boris himself.
Initially, football was at the heart of a storm when culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, criticised clubs for using the government’s furlough scheme – Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur at the pointy end of that distasteful and opportunistic money grab. This was interspersed with calls for football’s financial playing elite to cut their wages and every kind of possible conversation on football’s greedy millionaires inbetween.
Then the daily Premier League conversation turned to whether to play at neutral grounds, bottom-dwelling clubs putting their interests before league, sport or national interests; and of course the discussion over TV rebates and the inevitable costs to the game, clubs and more than 100,000 people working across the Premier League.
All was underpinned by a general desire from the public for the Premier League to get back playing as soon as possible – after all, if they are returning or trying to work with pretty much no protection from the virus, why can’t the fancy footballers with their million pound salaries and more safety protocols than a Qatar 2022 building site do the same?
Eventually even the most recalcitrant of the Premier League’s delicate flowers came out to play. Some, like Marcus Rashford, did more than that and have made a real social impact – for black kids and white kids, imagine that! If there is someone who has to be nailed on as a dead cert for nomination in the BBC’s end of year Sports Personality of the Year Awards then it has to be him.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in 63,000 ‘excess’ deaths (defined as more deaths than usual for the time period covered) in the UK so far. According to the latest data from the Johns Hopkins University, the UK registered 42,054 coronavirus deaths, the third highest number in the world only after the US and Brazil. A few football matches will not cover up Johnson’s bumbling but it is perhaps part of the British (read English) condition, or perhaps tradition.
Aston Villa host Sheffield United in the early kick-off before City and Arsenal play out the first blockbuster of the restart. The teams, back-room staff, and all support personnel in the stadium will be subject to a strict medical protocol with red, amber and green zones. The red zone will allow a maximum of just 105 people, with 250-300 people involved directly at each Premier League match behind closed doors. Players are tested for the virus twice a week.
Before kick-off, a one-minute silence will be observed as a tribute to the NHS. Player names will be replaced by a ‘Black Lives Matter’ label for the first 12 matches.
The Premier League will have re-coalesced under a banner of unity. The matches will matter because the English so often define themselves by the fierce pride in their teams whatever their position in the league table or location in the country. But with all the problems facing a fragmented and fractured society and economy, the important thing here is the unity that football pretty much always brings.
Contact the writers of this story, Samindra Kunti or Paul Nicholson, at moc.l1611528015labto1611528015ofdlr1611528015owedi1611528015sni@o1611528015fni1611528015