March: Champions League crunch time.
April: Quarter finals. Some semi-finals. Squeaky bum time in some leagues.
May: Finals, champions, relegations.
June: Euros! CONIFA World Football Cup! Euros!
July: Euros! Transfers!
August: League football returns! More transfers!
That’s how it was supposed to go. That’s how our content calendar looked, that’s how our actual calendars looked, until the last couple of weeks directed a meteor into our collective normality. Can we go outside? What is a ‘non-essential journey’? When will we be able to watch football again? Can we keep reading about football anyway? How do you work from home without going mad?
The answers to those questions, in no particular order, are: Have a shower and get dressed, if you have to, no idea, not a clue and yes…for now.
“Without doubt the toughest few days I’ve had working in football”
Football is a distraction – at the least – for millions of people across the country; watching it, reading about it, talking about it, thinking about it, playing it. Suddenly, at the time when people are semi-confined to their homes and most need 90 minutes of men in shorts, it’s gone. Rain fell on empty stands this weekend, paying mute witness to games that may never be played.
For fans, it’s weird. For people who work in football, the last week and a half has been like walking a succession of tightropes. What’s the right tone? How much coronavirus news – ‘real’ news, not just football news – is too much? What are we going to do with the next months of our lives? What sort of shape is the industry going to be in after it gets kicked in the balls by the biggest enforced stoppage in football since the Second World War?
We’re not really sure, so we spoke to some smart people in the industry to find out how’re they’re dealing with it.
In case you missed it earlier, here’s a bit of distraction from EVENTS (warning: contains some references to EVENTS): https://t.co/hbMcejp5Eb
— David Squires (@squires_david) March 17, 2020
David Squires, best known for his football cartoons in The Guardian, told 90min: “I’ve always felt that my best cartoons are the ones that don’t focus on the games themselves, but this is a bit extreme. I’ve got a few ideas for cartoons for the coming weeks, and the news feed doesn’t stop.
“As for the cartoons themselves, I did find it hard to sit down and write eight zingers about a deadly plague this week. I’ve rarely felt less like writing a cartoon. However, once I started I was able to lose myself in the fantasy of microscopic James Milners, Shoegaze Roy Hodgson, and a giant, Gerrard-faced worm. Hopefully, the cartoon enabled readers to forget about that bastard virus for five minutes too.”
The idea of providing a distraction from an ever-more serious news landscape appears to be a common one, with Totally Football Show editor Nick Miller adding: “So far we’ve gone into full retro/bullshit mode, all the stuff that we haven’t had room to talk about anywhere else. We started on Monday with a 10 minute roundup of what’s happened, what might happen, and then a lot of listener questions.
“I’ve been doing similar things for the site, YouTube compilations in that ‘you haven’t got any football to watch, so here’s some old football to watch’ way. It’s almost like we’re freed from the oppressive yoke of having to talk about current football, which is really time consuming for a topical football podcast. The whole situation isn’t fun, obviously, but having this freedom is quite interesting at the moment…although, talk to us in two months and we’ll see.”
Players are contending with the complete change of landscape too; like London City Lionesses defender Hannah Short, who told us: “Day to day it’s really different. I’m used to routine and having to be organised, so to go from that to absolutely nothing – with no idea when we might be back in training – is difficult to manage.
“In the grand scheme of things, we’re a minor, minor distraction on a pretty catastrophic situation”
“The club have done what they need to do by cancelling training and letting us self-isolate, they’ve given us home workouts and stuff to crack on with, but it’s just not the same as being around the girls in that football environment.
“It’s really shown me how much I love the game, how much I miss it already. But I also want to see the food shelves fully stocked – this girl misses her eggs!”
The Lionesses are just one of a number of clubs whose players are facing an uncertain future; with warnings this week that men’s National League sides could need somewhere around £15-20m spread between them to avoid the risk of some getting into serious financial trouble.
WE NEED £17 MILLION TO SURVIVE:
We need action for the rest of non-league too! Our clubs are all in peril, let’s stick together and try and make this happen.https://t.co/oiL85ja2Ju
— Dulwich Hamlet FC (@DulwichHamletFC) March 19, 2020
With so many troubling warnings floating around, an anonymous writer at a major national publisher said: “I think fundamentally we’ve got to think of it in our own heads of trying to give people some distraction. Including ourselves to be honest. And yet also appreciate that, in the grand scheme of things, we’re a minor, minor distraction on a pretty catastrophic situation.”
However, he warned: “At the moment, I’d say we’re still in the phase of talking about the virus. Not just its immediate impact but the wider implications within our sporting ecosystem, its effect on individuals, and so on. Part of me thinks we’ve maybe got a month of that before we’re really having to crack our heads together for ideas.”
The Evening Standard’s Spurs reporter Dan Kilpatrick called it ‘without doubt the toughest few days I’ve had working in football,’ with deadlines pushed forward to accommodate a print newspaper force working from home – with precious little in the way of press conferences, player quotes or actual football to work from.
While the uncertainty for a lot of people working in football is medium-term, or content plan-related, the crunch may come sooner for others. The media industry is awash with freelancers – including, almost certainly, some of your favourite writers – and things have come to a very unexpected head for them.
“We’re worried about work, but just as concerned about paying rent and bills when there’s nothing at all coming in”
Squires admitted: “I am concerned whether I’ll be able to continue financially. I’ve already lost one regular job and am worried about some of the others. Working as a freelancer can be a bit financially perilous at the best of times.”
Another freelance writer added: “I guess one thing to consider is this doesn’t just affect freelancers scrambling for stuff to write about, but also the sites themselves who might have commercial deals tied into the idea of football happening – it’s not exactly a massive shock that this is the case, but if publications have prepared for things like Euro 2020 happening and now have to change everything as a consequence, budget cutbacks will be inevitable and that can often hit freelancers first.”
Fortunately, there’s been a swell of creators supporting one another, putting together mechanisms to spread work around and connect writers who have had commissions whipped away from underneath them with potential work.
Jon Holmes, senior editor at Sky Sports digital, told us: “My network and advocacy group Sports Media LGBT+ is part of a new initiative called the Sports Freelancer Collective, which is trying to help freelancers and the self-employed in these difficult times. It’s been kicked off by Philippe Auclair and the FWA, and is supported by the Sports Journalists’ Association and lots of other sports media bodies.
“There was a massive traffic spike on Tanzania Prisons vs Mbao and the Bhutan Super League playoff game between Tensung and Paro United”
“Photographers in particular have been disastrously hit with no live sport to shoot. Sports FC will lobby government, post freelance opportunities, and generally work together in an attempt to alleviate some of the employment-related pain and misery caused by the pandemic.
“There’s more scope to get issues such as inclusion and representation on the agenda too so Sports Media LGBT+ is reaching out and offering our services. We’ll connect the dots if someone’s got a story to share or needs help in another way.”
Freelancer Tom Victor is one writer looking at least partially to work around the problem, starting a Patreon page to cut out the middle man of editors and publications. “A couple of people have been good in this situation,” he said. “Jon Birchall has put together a spreadsheet of freelancers to connect then with editors, and Chloe Beresford has done similar in a more ad hoc way over Twitter, while Alex Netherton has offered to act as a go between to help freelancers with steady work to share some of it around.
“I think a lot of freelancers; while worried about work, are just as concerned about paying rent and bills when there’s nothing at all coming in. Obviously a rent freeze would be significant in easing this, though I’m under no illusions that freelance football writers are anywhere near the most important people in this situation.”
Amid all the chaos though, some things remain constant. “Someone I know works for a site which has very comprehensive fixture lists,” Miller said. “And they saw a massive traffic spike on Tanzania Prisons vs Mbao [editor’s note: 0-0] and the Bhutan Super League playoff game between Tensung and Paro United [en: 1-1, 2-4 on pens, final nominally to be played on Saturday against High Quality United]. Depressingly, it’s probably people looking for something to bet on rather than the hardcore section of dweebs just looking for something to watch.”