Cancellation of football fixtures means a chance for solidarity was missed
Like most people, I was deeply saddened by the news about Queen Elizabeth. Events over the past few days have demonstrated how important the royal family is to our sense of identity as a nation. Even the most committed republican can share the sense of loss of such a symbol of humility and grace at the centre of our nation, someone who, as the BBC has repeatedly and correctly said, represented stability in an age of ceaseless change.
Three days after the death of King George VI on 6 February 1952, Grimsby Town beat Carlisle 4-1 in front of 16,000 fans. Before the game kicked off our then manager, Bill Shankly, stood solemnly and resolutely with his players, facing the opposition in respectful silence on frozen ground.
Looking at the image, displayed online by Mariners Archive, I was struck not only by the vast swathes of history and social change that Queen Elizabeth lived through, but also by how it underlined why many people were disappointed by the decision by football’s governing bodies to cancel the games this weekend. The decision struck me as odd because it felt like this was exactly the time and place people needed to be together, to express their solidarity and support amid a nation’s collective grief.
Like the Football Supporters’ Association, I think this was not only “a missed opportunity to pay tribute” to the Queen but also a time to demonstrate our civic unity. There is nothing more powerful than a moment of shared silence – individual silent contemplation, reflection or prayer followed by the coming together of voices.
Football games, particularly home games, can be a time for us to gather with people we love, an opportunity to check in on those relative strangers who sit around us for more than 90 minutes every week; an opportunity for the elderly and those who are less socially active to come and enjoy the company of fellow fans; an opportunity for those who feel the impact of recent national events to share their feelings with others. Feelings that may otherwise go unshared.
That moment of offering an immediate opportunity for people to come together and support one another has been taken away and, depending on the fixture schedule, could now be a couple of weeks away for some people.
Since we have become the majority shareholder at Grimsby Town we have been thinking about the role football clubs have in society and how they create unique spaces for shared experience. This is partly the idea expressed as the common good, about which Lord Glasman speaks so eloquently, with the Common Good Foundation. Every week we see people come together and enjoy not just the quality of our football but also the sense of community and solidarity that a common cause engenders.
There are few places these days where people can gather, regardless of the other dimensions of their identity, and share their experiences, good and bad, with a shared sense of solidarity. That is what many would have hoped for this past weekend. The minute’s silence at football matches, the blowing of the whistle and the astonishing sound of silence followed by the roar as the whistle is blown again is a sacred moment of complex, collective emotion. The Queen is dead, long live the King.
In 1952 there was a backlash against the decision to play the game, as some thought it a disrespectful act at a time of national mourning; the prioritisation of gate receipts over respect. To be clear, that is not my argument here. While there has been economic loss for clubs, this will mostly be recouped when games are rescheduled.
It has, in fact, been another opportunity for football to show its collective soul again, as clubs and club caterers have in many instances shared the food they had bought for the games with food banks and other charities. The nature of our society has changed significantly in those 70 years, not only in our relationship with the monarchy but also in our understanding of grief and its need for expression.
I genuinely sympathise with those in power at the associations that run our national game. It is an impossible decision in an age of performative morality, where everyone is rightly frightened of being out of step or making an inflammatory decision for fear of adverse reactions on social media. If everyone understood that the decision to cancel was an express wish of the royal family and it was guided by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, then everyone could understand and would immediately stand by the decision.
It seemed the decision was made by trying to coordinate the FA, Premier League, EFL and National League, and while I am sure everyone was doing their best with a time-sensitive decision, one of the primary motivations would have doubtless been that no one wants to be on the back end of a backlash against a lack of sensitivity. The irony of writing this article isn’t lost on me.
But we live in an individualistic society and the passion of football is based on sharing and solidarity. The minute’s silence is one of the glories of our country – standing solemnly in assembly is a profound act of respect and love. I know the football world will show nothing but the requisite respect and love for the Queen over the coming weeks. By taking away the right to choose to come together quickly, express those emotions and support each other, we missed an opportunity to be there for each other.