Football is back – let’s hope we have a learned a few lessons while it’s been away

You know life is getting back to normal when you switch on the TV to see Sky Sports building up to a Wednesday night clash between Aston Villa and Sheffield United and describing it with all the hyperbole you would associate with a European Cup final.

But the broadcaster could certainly be excused their over-excitement on Wednesday night as top flight English football returned to the screen for the first time in 100 days. 

Of course, football’s ‘new kind of normal’ took a bit of getting used to: the lack of spectators, officials in face masks and a general lack of touch and fitness all round from players that we have become accustomed to delivering the very highest quality.

It may have been a bit weird, but for this household at least, it was wonderful.

Earlier in the day my 13-year-old returned to training with his football team and returned home the happiest I have seen him since lockdown began. Just the freedom to be able to wander down to the training ground, see his friends and have some meaningful training has made all the difference. This week may have done more for the mental health of young football-crazed children than anything else over the past 13 weeks.

And football, so often ridiculed and criticised in the media for its excesses and poor role-model behaviour, has done itself proud during its 100 days away.

At the start of the shutdown top-flight players found themselves under fire from the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, suggesting they should do more to help with the looming financial crisis.

The players themselves responded in their own time and with dignity – and since then we have seen incredibly powerful public acts from two players in particular that have been deserving of praise and resulted in minds being changed.

Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free meals for the poorest children this summer struck a chord with the public and forced the government into a U-turn. If he hadn’t already earned the respect of a nation in recent years with his performances on the pitch for club and country, it has been cemented now.

Meanwhile Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, who has already become something of a leadership figure on race in the UK, has continued to speak out with passion and intelligence on the subject in the wake of the death of George Floyd in America and the ensuing Black Lives Matter marches.

Brilliantly we saw all players from all four teams take the knee on the first night back of Premier League action in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement. These actions – and the words and deeds of Rashford and Sterling in recent weeks – will surely have made an impact on the nation’s younger footballers – and their parents – as they return to their own teams this summer.

The underlying theme to all the footballers’ messages this summer, it feels, has been respect. And if that message has worked its way into the consciousness of grassroots and youth teams across the UK then that can only be a good thing when we finally see our children take the field for competitive matches again.

There already exists a ‘line of respect’ for all spectators to stand behind at youth team games, a tactic brought in by the FA several years ago now to encourage parents to not get too close to the action and allow their children to simply enjoy participation, not to worry too much about the winning and losing. 

Pre-lockdown Britain that message was often in danger of getting lost. I would see it with my own eyes and would read about it on forums from all over the country.

Our hope at Sportside is that, post-lockdown, we see grassroots being played with a new level of respect, a new level of inclusivity and new level of joy.

Football can be so good for the soul. The FA and Emirates have recognised the role the game can play in mental health by renaming this year’s FA Cup Final the Heads Up FA Cup Final in honour of the Heads Together mental health campaign that its patron Prince William has done so much to support. 

There have been so many positive messages to come out from football during lockdown, now let’s see those messages taken onto the field at grassroots level up and down the country. Football is back – and it can be a force for a great deal of good.

More news