Commentators believe that English football is edging towards a crisis. With each day passing, the Covid infection rate keeps increasing in England to levels far beyond what was experienced during the peak of April 2020. That time, the Premier League was blindsided by the quick spread of the pandemic and postponed until June.

There have been growing calls for the Premier League to act accordingly once more and postpone their winter fixtures until the wider situation improves. Without getting into the underlying reasons for these appeals —  which are not always motivated by a concern for the public’s health — I believe that the show must go on regardless. Football has always been a uniting beacon in troubled times, an outlet for those battling mental health issues, and a symbol of resilience. A bit of team spirit is just what we need right now to get us through these trying months.

Football and Mental Health

With pre-pandemic research finding that ‘1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England’, it is reasonable to presume that this number has increased as lockdowns and social distancing take their toll on those predisposed to mental health issues.

The Premier League functions as an outlet for many. Regular fixtures in a routine provide ample escapism and inspiration. Great goals, charismatic characters, inspirational comebacks lighten the mood. There is also that undeniable feeling of belonging and unity with fellow fans when watching your team play.

The void left by professional sport was very noticeable during the April lockdown. Project Restart, which began on June 17, acted as a morale boost to football fans all over the country. The packed schedule has given us plenty to watch in a volatile time that has thrown subsequent lockdowns and tiers. Arguably, without it the country’s spirits would have been dampened even more. The Premier League should recognise the positive influence football has had on viewers.

A Symbol of Identity

Football has arguably been England’s most popular sport ever since the FA codified the modern game in 1863, although variations have been traced as far back as the 12th century. And its popularity has only grown since.  Today, there are over 40,000 football clubs in England alone.

Many clubs are crucial to the local community, with supporters traditionally convening every weekend to share the successes and failures of their team in action. This sense of collectivism produces long-lasting friendships and memories, which the virus has temporarily disrupted. As of January 2021, most non-league football (where many of these community clubs reside) has been suspended, with plans to end the season early. This elevates the role of the Premier League in stepping in to provide the cultural fix the nation craves.

The Premier League itself plays a historic part in England’s identity. England’s top tier has always been a source of national pride due to the competitiveness and quality on show. It holds the legacies of fabled characters such as Brian Clough in the Midlands’ cities of Derby and Nottingham, or Don Revie who turned Leeds United into a title-winning machine. Stories passed down generations help to keep the magic alive in the national psyche.

English football also transcends national passion and resonates with a global audience. High demand for viewing rights has resulted in most countries around the world having access to the Premier League. The revenue made by England when compared to the other largest European leagues reflects this fact.

Halting the Premier League in the winter would be a dangerous blow to the many people that use it as a source of inspiration and pride, both in the United Kingdom and globally.

The Integrity of the Game at Stake

The structure of the Premier League as an organisation grants each member club a vote on all procedures. While this usually allows all clubs to be represented in reaching common agreement, the pandemic was used in April as an excuse to push vested interests. Karren Brady of West Ham quickly argued for the 2019/20 season to be cancelled in a ‘null and void’ decision. Christian Purslow of Aston Villa made the illogical argument for scrapping relegation. Incidentally, both teams were near the relegation zone and stood to lose a lot had the season continued. In the end, both escaped.

The lesson from April should be learnt by the Premier League. Vested interests have already pushed for the  postponement of several games this winter. Sam Allardyce, manager of West Brom, conveniently argued for the season to be temporarily halted after his team were put to the sword by Leeds.

Frankly, the numbers do not add up for the season to stop. The Premier League’s most recent round of Covid-19 testing produced 36 new positive tests out of 2,593 players and club staff. This infection rate is well below the national average — highlighting the success of the League’s Covid regulations. Of course, outbreaks and breaches have occurred. Manchester City experienced an outbreak a few days after New Year’s Eve, and defender Kyle Walker has breached lockdown rules twice already. However, the majority of the League have acted in a responsible manner — so why not let the League run its course and give people something to look forward to in the coming weeks?

We must resist calls to cancel the Premier League this Winter. The benefits gained for mental health and community spirit far outweigh the vested interests that exaggerate Covid’s prevalence amongst Premier League staff. The show must go on.

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