It probably wasn’t the first time football would be accused of being “out of touch with popular sentiment”. It certainly wasn’t the last.
It was February 1952 and Britain was mourning the death of King George VI. Shops and factories closed, along with cinemas and theatres, as the country came to a standstill. The BBC cancelled all programmes other than solemn news bulletins and essential shipping forecasts.
The majority of sports events were postponed too, including a rugby union match between England and Ireland.
But football played on.
Stanley Rous, the FA secretary, sent a letter to all clubs, proposing that playing the matches scheduled that weekend offered an opportunity to pay tribute with the playing of Abide With Me, followed by a minute’s silence and the national anthem. Rous said it would be “a simple but sincere tribute (…) to the memory of our late beloved patron”.
Inevitably, some took umbrage.
A trawl through the archives reveals a letter written to The Times that week by a Mr HM Gordon Clark of London, who complained that “while rugby union football, racing, hunting, coursing and many other sports are all respectfully silent before the nation’s sorrow, football clubs are advised to content themselves with the exhibition of merely outward signs of grief”.
Mr Clark went further, expressing his hope that “loyal citizens will themselves censure such conduct by staying away (…) and thus show to the purveyors of their entertainment how much they are out of touch with popular sentiment”.
Football carried on, paying respect in its own way.
The most eye-catching league fixture that weekend was the north London derby in which Arsenal beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1, but it says something of the era that The Times led its sports coverage with a report from Wimbledon’s victory over Corinthian Casuals in the third round of the FA Amateur Cup — “an uninspiring match in which skill played a poor second fiddle to enthusiasm”, preceded by “an impressive minute’s silence (…) in simple homage to a king who had loved the sport so well”.
How times change.
Seven decades on, following the death on Thursday of Queen Elizabeth II, UK shops will be open today, stage productions are continuing (with preparations made for theatres to dim their lights for two minutes at 7pm each evening as a show of respect) and even this weekend’s rugby matches are going ahead, as is the Great North Run half-marathon that raises admirable amounts of money for charities and other good causes.
The opening of the cricket Test match between England and South Africa at The Oval in south London was postponed on Friday, but play will start on Saturday, with a minute’s silence held and players and officials wearing black armbands.
The British Horseracing Authority announced all meetings on Friday and Saturday would also be postponed out of respect for the late Queen and her “enduring and unique affinity and bond” with the sport, but meetings (and tributes) will take place on Sunday.
But football has brought itself to a standstill. All matches scheduled for this weekend in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been called off, as a mark of respect.
Following the publication of National Mourning Guidance, and consultation with Government, other sports and Rugby League stakeholders including clubs, the RFL can confirm that fixtures at all levels will go ahead this weekend.
— Rugby Football League (@TheRFL) September 9, 2022
This isn’t just a Premier League decision. This is the whole game, right down to grassroots level, where, to use one example, volunteers in south London have expressed dismay at the need to cancel a junior tournament involving 30 teams and more than 600 youngsters.
It is a curious situation and, while there will be a range of opinions on the matter, a personal view is that the football authorities have got it wrong.
Not because it adds to the growing problem of fixture congestion at the highest level but simply because if a national mood can be discerned right now, the “stop all the clocks” approach seems at odds with it.
As the Football Supporters Association (FSA) put it in a statement on Friday afternoon, “We believe football is at its finest when bringing people together at times of huge national significance — be those moments of joy or moments of mourning. Our view, which we shared with the football authorities, is that most supporters would have liked to go to games this weekend and pay their respect to the Queen alongside their fellow fans.”
The FSF acknowledged there was “no perfect decision” for the football authorities to make; they know better than anyone that their members are a diverse group with different views not just on this subject but on the wider question of the monarchy. But, as it added, “many supporters will feel this was an opportunity missed for football to pay its own special tributes”.
That is precisely what the game did 70 years ago, playing on and paying tribute to George VI in its own way.
And that makes it all the stranger to follow the opposite course now, at a time when society and sport seem more comfortable with the approach football took back then.
Officials at the FA and the Premier League clearly felt otherwise.
For one thing, they feel they would have been criticised no matter what decision they made — and they are probably right. For another, they point out that the Queen was patron of the FA and her grandson William is its president. The EFL’s statement referred to football as “the national sport”, implying that this conferred a greater sense of duty.
It’s a strange one, though. The “national sport” part is hard to reconcile when we are weighing up the difference between a cricket Test match in which England face South Africa, a Commonwealth nation, and a series of football fixtures at club level which are local affairs played out to a global television audience.
Is football overthinking this?
The Athletic’s Jack Pitt-Brooke wondered on Twitter whether the game’s authorities might be demonstrating “a bit of a self-flagellation instinct, a ‘We can’t be seen to be playing on’ type thing. ‘How dare we try to carry on as normal?’.
“It’s almost ascetic.”
Trying to think about how football has got this so wrong, and so out of step with the national mood. Is there a bit of a self-flagellation instinct within football here? "We can't be seen to be playing on" type thing. "How dare we try to carry on as normal?" It's almost ascetic.
— Jack Pitt-Brooke (@JackPittBrooke) September 9, 2022
That sounds right, as if football is so desperate to be seen to be doing the right thing that it struggles to see what the right thing is. Or maybe it’s just terrified of its product and its brand being trashed by the type of newspaper columnist or talk-radio presenter who would rush to call the Premier League a national DISGRACE for carrying on as normal (never once stopping to question his or her own decision to do likewise).
There are so many practical questions for those affected by this weekend’s postponements: the supporters who have booked their travel (not least those from overseas) and those who might not be able to make it on a rearranged date; the casual workers who are ever more reliant on their matchday income as the cost-of-living crisis worsens.
There are obvious questions about fixture congestion too.
In this of all seasons, with the Premier League to be suspended between mid-November and December 26 to accommodate the World Cup finals in Qatar, the loss of a full weekend’s fixture programme (and quite feasibly a second one a week from now, coinciding with the Queen’s funeral) will create havoc. For the 10 British clubs involved in the three European competition, the calendar was already looking severely crammed.
That doesn’t seem to have been a consideration here.
Nor should it have been.
When it comes to a question of paying respect, it should be a matter of principle rather than convenience. To have carried on reluctantly, on the basis that a congested fixture schedule left them with no alternative, would have been wrong.
But playing on the way UK sports such as cricket, rugby (both union and league) and ice hockey will do today — and even the Queen’s beloved horseracing will do tomorrow — seems right.
If society is carrying on as normal, from shops to factories to theatres, you might have imagined football would feel comfortable doing likewise.
It felt like an opportunity. We got a glimpse of that at West Ham United’s Europa Conference League match against Romanian visitors FCSB on Thursday evening, barely an hour after the announcement of her passing, as the pre-match minute’s silence was preceded by a spontaneous rendition of God Save The Queen and an outbreak of applause.
Paying tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at London Stadium tonight. pic.twitter.com/Ef2jE50h0S
— West Ham United (@WestHam) September 8, 2022
Not every fanbase in England — or indeed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — would claim to rival West Ham’s when it comes to royalist sentiment, but that was a powerful, meaningful show of respect.
It could have been replicated widely this weekend, hundreds of thousands of people, from one end of the UK to the other, coming together to pay the tribute to Elizabeth II just as football fans were invited to pay their respects to her father 70 years earlier.
It feels like an opportunity missed.
(Top photo: Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images)