As Boris Johnson and his band of incompetents continue to bungle their way through the coronavirus pandemic, don’t be surprised if they turn to football in a bid to distract attention from their own failings.
There are already rumblings that Whitehall officials are “concerned” at some of the scenes witnessed over the weekend when FA Cup third-round matches were played.
‘The Magic of the Cup’ may have become a faded cliché in a competition which lost its lustre long ago, but on Sunday afternoon we were still treated to such sights as fourth-tier Crawley Town battering Premier League Leeds United and eighth-tier minnows Marine entertaining the glamour boys of Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham.
One day before, non-league outfit Chorley beat Derby County (admittedly depleted by Covid) to book their spot in the fourth round – leading to another raucous dressing room rendition by Chorley players of Adele’s hit ‘Someone like you’.
That clip went viral, raising spirits and showing there was still space for a little joy in these doom-laden times.
Here we go, then – @Adele ? pic.twitter.com/jPhuIvu6dZ
It also, however, appears to have landed football in trouble with some of the killjoy officials down in London.
Obsessed with tinkering with increasingly baffling micro-measures while the bigger picture looks ever bleaker, Whitehall officials are supposedly concerned that scenes such as Chorley’s heartwarming singalong are “making it harder to justify elite sport continuing.”
Government ministers are “concerned” that such scenes of dressing-room celebrations over the weekend risk making it harder to justify elite sporting continuing, & want football to redouble its efforts over social distancing protocols and guidelines. pic.twitter.com/elWjMoZLGg
We’ve seen similar anger over fans gathering in large numbers to greet the Spurs stars as they rolled up to play at the humble Rossett Park home of minnows Marine, where explanations from local police that the majority of supporters “were adhering to social distancing measures” understandably caused some scepticism.
The newspapers, meanwhile, have fed us a steady stream of sensationalist stories about footy ‘Covidiots’ flouting lockdown laws to host parties and generally get up to no good.
The ‘optics’ of the weekend’s scenes of exuberance outside the stadium at Marine and inside the changing room at Chorley give the wrong impression, the critics say. Football and its fans (who, let’s not forget, remain banned from watching matches inside stadiums) are having a whale of a time of it while everyone else suffers.
As the government grapples with 50,000+ infections a day and hospitals are at breaking point, that supposedly makes it harder to sanction matches continuing, or even allowing players to do things such as hug when they score or celebrate in the changing room after a win.
In the current climate, it is no doubt tempting for floundering Health Secretary Matt Hancock to take another jab at football, just as he did in April when he lumped Premier League players into the national conversation by claiming they should take a pay cut to somehow help prop up a tottering NHS.
Back in December, elite sport was given the green light to continue just as vast swathes of the population entered another round of lockdown, cooped up at home with the looming prospect of even more stringent measures to come.
‘Look at those entitled footballers flouting the law, or those ones over there daring to sing in their dressing rooms… that kind of behaviour is where you’re all going wrong,’ would be the spiel.
Some would surely swallow it, and Hancock and the government would be handed some cheap political points and perhaps even brief respite from the scrutiny they find themselves under.
This time, though, the only shots Hancock should be worried about are the ones with the coronavirus vaccine in, particularly as the government battles another wave of discontent over its mismanagement of this whole debacle.
Top-tier sport and events like the FA Cup were handed an exemption to continue amid the latest Covid crackdown because, well, they play a fairly exceptional role in the life of the country. That is particularly true of football.
If someone’s first instincts when watching the Chorley players singing along in the dressing room were ones of resentment at the exuberance or concerns over Covid, then that is an incredibly sad state of affairs.
There have been suggestions from the likes of Newcastle manager Steve Bruce that it is “morally wrong” to keep playing as cases rise.
But the counter argument is that football actually has a moral obligation to continue, and to be allowed to do so by the politicians.
True, positive cases have risen in recent rounds of Premier League testing, mirroring the overall situation in the country, and more games will inevitably fall victim to postponement and rescheduling.
Yet it’s hard to believe that by continuing to play (or celebrate in dressing rooms), footballers are driving significant proportions of increases in cases.
Most players are in far more carefully regulated ‘bubbles’ than the rest of the population, and in the case of the Premier League are tested twice a week.
At the moment, the majority of people in the UK can’t kick a ball about with friends and amateur teams or do most other forms of other exercise.
Taking the football off the TV screens now or clamping down on the scenes of joy we saw in the Chorley dressing room would merely deprive millions of one of the dwindling sources of entertainment and excitement they currently have in their lives.
So, while Boris Johnson and his feckless band of ministers have clearly learned few lessons during the 10 months or so of this pandemic, one of them should at least be that they have far bigger things to be ‘concerned’ about than this weekend’s football scenes.
By Liam Tyler