So Arsenal has lockdowned after Mikel Arteta was diagnosed with coronavirus. London Colney and Hale End are shut. The Brighton game is off. Given the lockdown times that normally follow an outbreak it looks like the Sheffield United FA Cup match won’t be played on the due date.
But Arsenal’s complete squad and all the coaching staff have now gone into isolation for a couple of weeks. After that, the players will have to start training again as they would after any injury which means Arsenal will effectively be out of action for a month. That takes us up to somewhere around 20 April. If the season carries on, it’s going to be much delayed.
BUT… most of the players and staff won’t have the virus. So after they come back from the lockdown they will still be liable to get it. If anyone who has been isolated and then starts training again and gets the virus we are off again. And that doesn’t just mean Arsenal – if another club gets into the situation Arsenal are in, they will lock down.
On their own, the clubs can do nothing. What people are expecting seems to be a suspension of the season, waiting and seeing what happens, and then the most likely outcome is a complete write off of the season. It will be as if the season did not take place at all.
Of course, it is not just Arsenal suffering. One Man City player is self-isolating, and there are suggestions of problems at Leicester City.
But as I write this on Friday morning, the Premier League stands alone as the only top league to carry on (probably because we are British and that is what we do). Top leagues in the USA, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, are completely shut down, in France and Germany, it is matches without spectators. Scotland has banned gatherings of over 500 from Monday, so that presumably shuts down their league although given the size of crowds in the Scottish League Two, that should not affect them.
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The last time there was this level of uncertainty as to what would happen with football was at the start of the first world war on 4 August 1914.
But then there was a feeling that the war would be done and dusted by Christmas, so the Football League continued. This caused much upset among the upper classes who wanted football shut down as it was seen as a distraction for working men, who might otherwise sign up for the army or navy. Most national newspapers called for the League to be forced to stop playing its games.
However Britain had no conscription at the time, and indeed didn’t force men into the military until 1917, so football matches became a key location for recruiting. Meanwhile, while many aristocrats (including the newspaper owners) called for football to be outlawed, they also were vociferous about the need to keep horse racing going – and indeed it carried on throughout the war years.
The Football League played the 1914/15 season in full, and it was during this campaign that Henry Norris, the Arsenal chairman, and others, used matches as recruiting grounds, encouraging young men to sign up for the military. Additionally Norris and several other prominent men in the League came up with the idea of forming a footballers’ battalion, which would include both professional footballers who had volunteered, and club supporters who wanted to be in a unit alongside their heroes. With the government being slow to act Norris paid the wages of such men to train and ran the unit until it could be assimilated into the Middlesex Regiment.
At the same time the government decided that it needed a list of young men who could be called up as and when conscription was introduced. This was no easy matter since most young men were not registered to vote, so there were no electoral rolls to give reliable information as to who lived where, how old they were etc. What’s more certain professions were excluded from enlistment, such as teachers (the government not wanting hordes of out of control children meandering around the streets if the schools shut).
The local councils were given responsibility for drawing up the lists of possible conscripts, but virtually all failed to collect the data. With some areas putting in no return, the War Office sent Henry Norris (who was a house builder, Mayor of Fulham and chief exec of Arsenal, not a state employee) to Worthing to sort out the registration of young men in the area. When he got that done in a matter of a couple of months he was brought back to the War Office to work on the central co-ordination of conscription.
By 1917 when conscription started, Norris (who was of course still chief executive of Arsenal) had been given a knighthood for his work in forming the football battalions and had risen from having no rank in the army to being a Lieutenant Colonel. The full story of Arsenal and Henry Norris during the first world war is told as part of “Henry Norris at the Arsenal” which is available in full on the AISA Arsenal History Society site.
As for what will happen now, who knows. The biggest parallel I can see between 1914 and now is a government that says “We’re British, we do it our way” and then is not quite sure what to do.