The month that the football stopped

Wednesday 15 April 2020 07:00

Normally at this stage of the season we’d be eagerly awaiting the thrill of the run-in, chasing honours, looking forward to the next match. But, in these unprecedented times, it's over a month since Manchester United have played a football game.

The dramatic derby win over Manchester City seems so very long ago. The last match that saw us all together, revelling in the euphoric celebrations that reverberated across Old Trafford and mirrored around the world, following United’s first league double over the Blues since the Sir Alex era. 
Thousands of Reds lingering in the Stretford End, long after the full-time whistle, to salute and serenade their heroes. A non-stop chorus of the latest chant to capture the imagination filled the air. “We’ve seen it all, we’ve won the lot, We’re Man United and we’re never gonna stop.” Little did we know that, with brutal irony, football all over the world was forced to grind to a halt within a week. Footballing rivalries began to quickly fade into irrelevance. 
In Italy, where a raft of postponements had thwarted Serie A throughout late February, 97 people were pronounced dead in a single day due to the infectious disease COVID-19. Already, 463 Italians had passed away, and the rate was rapidly rising.
Prime minister Giuseppe Conte quickly announced that all sport in the bel paese would be suspended until at least 3 April.
The tremors unleashed by this blunt ruling were instantaneous. What would now happen to the many European matches involving Italian clubs? How could the virus be contained and managed if players and fans were traversing the continent as normal?
Over a month on, McTominay's classic against City remains the last goal scored at Old Trafford.
Within 24 hours, the shadow arrived at United’s door, with news that the first leg of our last 16 UEFA Europa League tie with Austrian club LASK would be played behind closed doors.
The gravity of the situation didn’t need emphasising: never before in our 142-year history had the first team played a competitive fixture away from the glare of our beloved fanbase and the general public.
A day before the Reds sliced and diced the Linz-based LASK to the tune of a 5-0 scoreline, the Premier League was forced into its first important decision. 
Following the news that Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis had tested positive for coronavirus, Arsenal’s match with Manchester City was postponed as “a precautionary measure” – some of the Gunners players had met Marinakis at the Emirates Stadium when the two sides met in the Europa League weeks earlier.
In Austria, United’s continuation of their excellent run of results brought some momentary cheer, but there was no escaping the sense of unease and trepidation. 
The sight of fans locked outside the Linzer Stadion, craning to see the action through gaps in the ground’s architectural structure, was poignant. Many of the travelling Red Army lost their long unbroken streaks of seeing every United match for decades.
Without the thrum and passion provided by supporters, the contest felt sterile and eerie. Part of the professional test, after all, is performing under pressure, and a vital part of that is applied by thousands of spectators. 
Here, there was nothing but the players’ shouts echoing around the cavernous arena – bar the moving moment when one solitary Red, who had somehow inveigled his way in, broke out with a chorus of “We love United, we do”. LASK’s coach, Valerien Ismael, called the whole fan-free process “cruel”, and it was hard to disagree.
"The game could have been one of the greatest ever, but it would have barely mattered,” explains United fan and journalist Andy Mitten – one of the few allowed into the ground, by virtue of his press pass.
“A large football stadium without fans is a river without water, an opera without music, like an under-23s game in England where the players’ voices are audible throughout. It was a hollow exercise which – while taken seriously by players who performed to their best and played some brilliant football – had the air of a practice match. 
“I felt for the United fans who travelled and didn't get in, felt for LASK too. It was their biggest ever game and it was a no-show.”
However, there was still the prospect of a full programme of Premier League fixtures and, excitingly, a first visit to Tottenham Hotspur’s imaginatively designed (and unimaginatively named) Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
But only a few hours after the LASK match, shocking news emerged confirming that Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta had contracted the virus. A day later, the FA, Premier League, EFL and Barclays FA Women's Super League and FA Women's Championship motioned that the professional game in England would be postponed until 3 April.
As the bad news kept on cascading – from Europe, and especially hard-hit countries like Italy and Spain – a club statement was released. ‘Clearly this is a rapidly evolving situation as part of collective efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19),’ it read. ‘We trust that our fans will understand that protection of public health must be the priority.’
Odion Ighalo opens the scoring in Linz, but the stadium is empty.
Not since World War Two had football fans in this country known such disruption. Even the Munich Air Disaster’s tragic imprint only kept United from arranged fixtures for a paltry 13 days.
But very quickly, the concept that football was indeed the centre of our lives was being sawn away. 
Even the AON Training Complex at Carrington was quickly off-limits, with members of the first team, women’s team and Academy all told to train individually and away from club facilities.
UEFA met to confirm the postponement of Euro 2020 and, as a devastating picture emerged of the crisis’s likely impact on the most vulnerable members of our society, United and City made donations to local food banks.
Former Red Marouane Fellaini, now playing in the Chinese Super League for Shandong Luneng Taishan, announced he was suffering from the disease, igniting a wave of well-wishes from United supporters.
Former Red Marouane Fellaini was recently discharged from hospital after struggling with COVID-19.
As the government announced new measures to ensure the populace stayed at home, a joint letter from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Casey Stoney wrote: “We are all having to adjust – fans, players, coaches – to a new way of living, without our fix of football, although we all agree that everyone’s health and wellbeing at this time is much more important… We need to be united in looking after ourselves, our families and supporting our local communities.”
Harry Maguire, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba even released an instructional video, stressing the importance of thorough hand-washing as a basic but effective counter-attack to the threat of COVID-19’s spread.
A day later, the club confirmed the contingency arrangements for season-ticket holders, should the season’s remainder be played behind closed doors or even cancelled.
That was a painful moment of realisation for many, for whom attending Old Trafford every other week is their own secular version of going to a religious service. But even though football is a much-treasured source of life and vitality to many of us, concern about when we’d next see a matchday at Old Trafford again had been easily and quickly outweighed by concern for our families and friends – many of whom are, of course, United supporters just like us.
At first, the ‘lockdown’ itself was novel. Time opened up for different things, and brought us closer together to those that we live with. New technologies enabled us to see and talk to others we could no longer share physical space with. Blessedly, United have a glorious history we can delve into and relive any time that we need a quick fix to rejuvenate the senses. Players have stayed connected to the fans through our media platforms and social accounts. Training routines have been quickly adapted to their home lives during lockdown, keeping them fit and ready for whenever we’re all able to return to some semblance of normality.   
But always nagging away at the back of the mind are those thoughts of the future; the future that seemed so alive after that famous McTominay goal in the sleeting rain around 6.20pm on Sunday 8 March.
Friends from the match get in touch, but our relationships revolve around places and matches; around sharing moments together. Football only truly works when we’re all taking part, after all.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Casey Stoney have encouraged fans to stay home, and praised the NHS.
As hard as it is to imagine at the time of writing, when we can barely cross town to see our loved ones – let alone enjoy the simple pleasures of a chip barm from Lou’s chippy, or a pint in the Blaize – football will return. United will go on, as it always has, and as it always must.
There are many who have tried to quantify football’s importance, via an endless ream of poems, songs, articles and books. United itself has inspired as many, if not more, thoughts and words as any other individual player or club.
Right now I like former Argentinian international Jorge Valdano’s line that “football is an excuse to feel good about something”.
After this unsettling, unprecedented, challenging period in our lives and Manchester United’s life is over, we’ll need that excuse and those good feelings more than ever. To heal us, console us and reunite us.
Until then, in the words of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: ‘Stay safe, stay home, and we hope to see you all soon.’
This article features in the latest issue of Inside United magazine, which also includes big features on Odion Ighalo, Juan Mata, Eric Bailly, Sergio Romero, Nemanja Matic, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Tim Fosu-Mensah, on sale now.