When the sport shut down for the virus last year, some people took it very seriously, others thought we would be back to normal in a few weeks, club CEO's recommended that the season be voided, while politicians wanted football and all other sports activities cancelled. As the world shut down and health ministers news conferences became box office television, bored footballers who rarely spent any time at home now had to find new ways of keeping themselves occupied, while sports broadcasters found new ways of giving us our daily fix, with retro shows and watchalongs to top up their regular schedules.
In our neck of the woods however, we had our own concerns to worry about. Twenty five points clear of the opposition and with just 6 more required to get over the line, it was all over bar the shouting, but there was a lot of shouting to hear. Debates about when we wanted to win the league, became debates about if we would win it at all. None of us believed the arguments that the league should not resume, but nobody could say so with any certainty, as the leagues in France, Holland, Belgium, and Scotland pulled the plug.
Today is 1 year since football returned in the Bundesliga. It had already resumed in Poland and Hungary, but never has the 26th matchday of the German Bundesliga been so eagerly anticipated at home and abroad. Live football was back but as these things do though, there would be a cost. Cauldrons of noise would now become theatres of silence. It was the first time a Dortmund v Schalke game would have a phone box atmosphere. The world watched as the league became the blueprint of how to run sport during a global pandemic. Fans protested that it was a ghost game, others said they were turned off by the empty stadiums, while other sports intially refused to resume until fans could attend. Sure it would only be a few weeks and everything would be back to normal. We can thank god they were not in charge of health departments.
As May became June, other leagues slowly resumed. Portugal, Italy and Spain joined the summer football merry go round. They all scheduled the remaining games in the season to be played on every day of the week, as the Euros which would normally be on every day of the week was postponed. Eventually though exclusively live coverage of Braga v Rio Ave and Udinese v Sassuolo lost it's appeal however as our league resumed, after 100 days away. After just 45 minutes though, technology was back in the headlines, as Hawkeye was still in a virus induced coma. Goalline technology failed to work for the first time in 7 seasons, Aston Villa kept their point from the game and stayed up with it, 6 weeks later.
So the game was back, just not quite as we had known it. The first 12 games of the resumption had a slogan on the back of the shirts, and a public health message on the front, while every single game from there on in had the knee taking ritual to go through immediately before ko. Games themselves turned from 2 halves to 4 quarters, as tactical water breaks were brought in, in anticipation of scorching summer heat, rather than the sub 20 degree weather most games were played in.
After the annual turgid derby away from home, it was time for us to face the flags at home instead of the fans for the first time. The media were fascinated by the fact the Kop couldn't help carry us over the line. It made no difference whatsoever as we coasted to a 4-0 win and just 2 more points were needed to end the famine, either off our own bat or a favour from someone else. 24 hours later, VAR stepped in to give a penalty against City, and after 30 years, finally the quest to bring back the title was done. The next target was to break the 100 point barrier to get the most amount of points ever in a campaign. It didn't quite happen, but holding the English, European, and World titles simultaneously was more than enough compensation.
By then, even the most stubborn sports authorities realised that if they were ever going to resume, it would have to be either a tv event or not at all. There was very little alternative. So reluctantly in most cases, they all settled for the former. Cricket, rugby, golf, motorsport, and every minority sport you can think of. It was tv cash rather than fans cash, that paid for it all and kept it going.
As the winds changed, the waves of the virus hit us again. The Brazil variant, the British variant, the African variant, combined with the wear and tear of international travel, all contributed to rising cases of the virus, and threatened to cut more seasons and sports off. Crowds that had returned to games across Europe saw them swiftly banned again, and the status quo resumed. But the British Government still considered it safe enough to allow crowds back into stadiums with the onset of winter. The first day with them back should have been a celebration, but the fans at Millwall let everyone know what they thought of all the knee taking, and that was in the headlines instead. Within 2 weeks London was back in lockdown, and 2 weeks later so was the rest of the UK, as the winter and Christmas factors, and the new variants of the virus brought case numbers and the daily death toll back to what it was at the beginning. 2,000 fans was too many at Anfield, so the flags had to come back out in their seats, for the next home game against the mancs. Within weeks Anfield was less of a fortress, and our season became less about retaining the title and more about damage limitation.
So how did other countries manage the virus?Most had lower death tolls than the UK. Some imposed every rule and guideline to the letter, others picked and chose the ones they liked and took their chances with the rest, with varying results. New Zealand crushed the virus at source. Like every other country, they couldn't travel anywhere, but watching sports events there with full capacity crowds and no masks or social distancing, was a flash of life as we know it, in an uncertain world.
As they enjoyed what normality is, the rest of the world discovered a vaccine. Then another and then another and then another. Like buses, they all came at once. So it was time to get them out of labs and into arms. The UK got them into so many arms that it's now possible to open up Anfield and other stadiums again. And finally we can look forward to the end of the zombie style existence we've had to put up with for the past 365 days. Football as we know it, is slowly coming back. The Euros will be played, the Olympics will be held minus the fun and the fanfare. But how soon will it be before life is back to normal?