Surely the time is near

Published on 12th July 2020
Author George Dodds

I may not be able to have them threaded yet but even current Covid-19 rules cannot stop me from raising my eyebrows.

Probably for the first time ever those frustrated at being unable to watch live British speedway find themselves in the company of Glyndebourne opera buffs, Henley rowing aficionados and those desperate to have eyebrows plucked or nails buffed.

It’s bad enough that you can no longer watch speedway at Wimbledon but this year it is also not allowed to mortgage the house to buy a portion of strawberries and cream at a price more likely to make the eyes water than the mouth.

As from last weekend you can pop into the pub, have your mop cropped should you be fortunate enough to still have one, book a caravan or holiday home and fly in and out of most of Europe.

From this weekend you can play amateur cricket or attend plays and musical performances – as long as they are outdoors.

Eat, drink and, if you are an open-air drag act, be Mary.

On Saturday thousands, possibly tens of thousands,  gathered to shop in Government-approved safety at the Trafford Centre on the outskirts of Manchester.

But, absurdly, just over ten miles away it would have been illegal for either Rochdale AFC or Rochdale Hornets to have staged a League Two football match or a Championship rugby league fixture in front of what would have been a couple of thousand fans at the most, hundreds in all likelihood for the rugby club.

All in a stadium with over 8,000 seats, a capacity of 10,200 and plenty of opportunity to – with the minimum of fuss and inconvenience – follow social distancing protocol to the letter and safely stage live sport in front of a live audience.

While having 70,000 travelling to and attending Old Trafford would obviously pose a threat of re-infection why can’t the lower leagues open their gates?

And, of course, other sports such as speedway.

700 speedway fans can easily be scattered around Shielfield or Sheffield while staying a suitable distance from their nearest fellow follower if they are not family or designated bubble. Indeed it’s possible to park 15,000 in somewhere like the Stadium of Light without anyone having to rub shoulders.

Horse racing, greyhounds and top flight English football are all allowed to perform in front of empty stadiums.

Coincidentally the betting industry is a strong financial backer of politicians of all colours.

Pubs and restaurants were let loose last weekend despite some less than solid support from the scientific community which has supposedly called the tune for much of this pandemic so far.

Coincidentally the brewing and leisure sector is a strong financial backer of politicians of all colours.

Any green light for sport to recommence in front of fans will undoubtedly come with strings attached. Sanitising stations, restricted capacities and the ubiquitous arrows and one-way traffic seem inevitable. Mask wearing, advance sales, track and tracing apps are not out of the question.

But surely it can only be a matter of time before the nod is given – the question being is there enough time left.

The general consensus of opinion seems to be that as long as it is running by mid-August there is still time for a meaningful season in this country.

There is a willingness among most sporting organisations to make it happen but we have to wait on the government to come out from behind the PPE of scientific data.

In the meantime we can only look on enviously as the top two divisions of English football continue to revel in the limelight.

For years those who dared to suggest that TV and sponsorship revenue at the highest level made the actual gate receipts at many clubs almost irrelevant were given short shrift by those “in the know”.

And yet here we have it. Empty stadiums, canned crowd noise. Interest sky-high.

True it remains to be seen if it would be sustainable in the long term but being able to televise every fixture and rearrange kick-offs without having to placate the totally justifiable anger of die-hard attenders is a football COO’s wet dream.

Games have been able to kick-off at 3pm on a midweek afternoon for the first time since the invention of floodlights, 5pm, 6.30pm, 8.15pm? Whatever you want TV Exec – just as long as you’re paying.

Along the way the unexpected opportunity to show Premier League games live on BBC has seen unimportant low end of the table fixtures command audiences which dwarf anything that Sky, BT, ESPN or ITV Digital has managed over the past 25 years.

It has also allowed player to make political statements such as their support for the Black Lives Matters campaign.

We’ll never know for sure but it would have been a much braver decision to take a knee inside a stadium full of the type of supporters who are prepared to hire an aeroplane to underline the fact that while football may offer a relatively equal playing field to colour, creed and religious differences it struggles to shake off its links to the right among many of its followers.

There was a time when football was a major recruiting ground for the National Front, Combat 18 and the English Defence League. Clyde Best and Ade Coker used to suffer appalling abuse from their own supporters during their time at West Ham, Paul Canoville suffered in the same way as he warmed up at Chelsea and one of my saddest moments as a Newcastle United supporter was to be among a crowd which found it funny and clever to make monkey chants every time Cyrille Regis touched the ball in his away debut for West Brom in 1977.

Some of the reaction to the BLM campaign on social media shows that many have not travelled far towards the common ground in the four intervening decades.

We need something to take our minds off the mono-neurons among us.

We need a dapper near octogenarian to twitter “Let’s have a parade”, we need Back in Black to thunder over the tannoy. We need to wash our hands and pray that Boris is of a like mind.

It’s a shame British speedway cannot afford to be a strong financial backer of politicians of all colours.

George Dodds
George Dodds

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