Mapperley-based sports writer Marc Williams shares his own opinions and thoughts on national footballing topics.
When some people questioned whether football was a matter of life or death, one Ayrshire-born former Liverpool manager William Shankly once famously affirmed “I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”
‘Bill’ had a point.
Throughout the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, the world shuddered to a standstill. Schools closed, bars and restaurants indefinitely ceased their trade and life as we knew it completely changed, as we all socially distanced ourselves from everyday normality.
The sporting calendar was yanked from the bedroom cork board and crossed off with red marker pens as we await with bated breath any further updates from the Prime Minister behind a centred podium, or in front of a lavish fireplace at 10 Downing Street.
Understandably, sport was always going to take a back seat in these times of great trepidation as we rightly concern ourselves with personal safety, friends and family wellbeing and to reduce any additional strain on our magnificent heroes at the National Health Service.
However, our sportsmen and women play a huge role in tackling mental health, temporarily placing sufferers in a warm, secure bubble otherwise unfamiliar to them but when lockdown measures were sporadically introduced worldwide, their go-to was torn away.
And with the Euro 2020 Championships cancelled alongside the likes of Wimbledon and the Olympics, the postponement of sporting events, professional or otherwise, is true social isolation for millions of people across the world.
On May 16th, over two months after announcing their own lockdown restrictions, Germany’s Bundesliga resumed with Matchday 26 as Dortmund humbled Revierderby rivals Schalke 4-0 at the Westfalenstadion, in the country’s North Rhine-Westphalia.
The stark difference? Zero fans were in attendance as history played out, made even more poignant when striker Erling Håland celebrated his 28th minute opener by ‘distancing’ himself from celebratory teammates – an evidential jibe to the globe’s ongoing crisis – as only hushed echoes and mild applause rang around an eerily quiet 80,000+ capacity arena.
Games in Berlin, Frankfurt and Leipzig followed, before the weekend’s fixtures concluded on the banks of Weser when Leverkusen romped to a 4-1 at Werder Bremen.
The 27th series of games subsequently went without incident and what seemed a foregone impossibility several weeks ago, relative success had been achieved – much to the delight of anticipatory supporters who watched, listened and streamed in record figures.
A review on Germany’s decision to restart their season earlier than most will follow, and an outcome on the overall impact it played toward the inevitable Coronavirus concerns will hit worldwide tabloids in the coming weeks as other major leagues hope to follow suit.
Until then, however, we know this – for those who turn to football in their darkest hours, those fans who will do anything for football, their ninety-minute happy place was back.
Five years ago, the Football Association signed the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation – a framework on how sport can use its collective power to challenge mental ill-health as governing bodies, former stars and donors all hope to rid of a once-taboo that saw the beautiful game rear an ugly head.
Fans and followers also benefit, but when facing an indefinite amount of time away from the packed stadia closer to home, there is forever a risk of added hurt, worry or relapse as the pandemic continues.
The reaction from the community to the suspension of events, meanwhile, has been excellent, as engaged fans are entertained through a plethora of nostalgic quality, providing a much-needed lifeline for those desperately awaiting a return to the game we love so dearly.
England-Scotland in Euro 1996, classic FA Cup finals, that Kieran Trippier free-kick after only five minutes against Croatia in Moscow and despite the heartache of that particular contest, it really shows what impact football has on folk, even if it is as a temporary void.
They are all revisited with fondness and excitement ahead of the game’s eventual resumption, but a light has been shed on other avenues people can turn down to help combat their issues, with football as an aid to further assist in finding help and common ground.
Wigan-based Place2Place Football Club are a five-a-side team set up in 2017 by Peter Hill for following the devastating loss of a best friend to suicide in 2014 and another a year later.
Aimed for those facing challenging circumstances, it offers a safe environment for people to escape and play football with an impetus on providing a support network for members to open up and rely on at any time.
Community Trusts, which work in partnership with professional teams up and down the country, are aimed to create connected and more resilient communities by helping those with personal issues improve their well-being through football with reward and incentive.
Nottingham Forest’s ‘It’s Tricky to Talk’ scheme, in collaboration with the Institute of Mental Health and the University of Nottingham, encourages fans to share their worries and talk more openly about mental health, offering informal support to anyone in need.
The fantastic Harry’s Heroes: Euro Having a Laugh, which aired on ITV recently, raised well-received awareness on mental health when former pros Lee Hendrie, Neil “Razor” Ruddock, Vinnie Jones, and Paul Merson were all disarmingly frank about troubled pasts and insecurities.
Alpha males, all of whom were portrayed as on-the-field villains and hardmen, have experienced emotional battles, fuelling a lifestyle of drinking and gambling and the show’s format was praised by helping to remove the stigma that prevents many from speaking out.
The message is quite clear; it is okay to talk, and football is there to help.
It remains to be seen when a permanent and safe return to live sport in the UK will allow the public to relax in front of their televisions at home or flock to the nearest pub or club in waves several thousand deep, but when it does it will benefit more than it will probably ever realise.
When done right, football can work wonders for mental wellbeing and with campaigns being endorsed by Prince William, no less, the game is finally breaking its own silence on the topic with other high-profile players coming forward to speak of their own battles in the last two years.
It is, without question, a universal language that brings people from all walks of life together and with the number of those talking on the rise, the wonderful world of football can certainly make anyone feel welcomed and loved.
Samaritans works to make sure there is always someone there for anyone who needs someone. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing [email protected]. Please visit www.samaritans.org for more information.