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Playing Through A Pandemic – A Year On

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This month marks one year since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. For the first time since the 1939-40 season was abandoned at the start of World War II, professional football leagues around the world were suspended overnight.

For three months, football faithfuls everywhere lost one of the great joys: live matches. As the world came to terms with global lockdowns and the absence of live sport sunk in, fans took to watching old highlights of cup finals and famous derbies, but the novelty soon wore off.

And then, with summer came hope. On May 16th, German giants Borussia Dortmund welcomed rivals Schalke to an eerily empty Westfalenstadion, to mark the return of Bundesliga action. A Thorgen Hazard cross. A Erling Haaland header. Football was back.

Soon after, most other major leagues followed suite, with the Premier League resuming on June 17 at Villa Park. While fans drew a long sigh of relief and celebrated the return of top flight action, the sight of our favourite teams battling it out in empty stadiums was a peculiar one.

Suddenly, fans could hear players shouting instructions at one another. Substitutes sat solitarily in the stands, separated from their teammates. Team celebrations were banned. Sides used to the constant, deafening support of their loyal fanbase lost their home advantage.

We saw this most starkly in the Premier League, where there’s been a higher proportion of away wins than ever before in history. As sad as the sight of vacant stands are, the removal of fans has certainly had an impact. A certain amount of pressure seems to have been lifted and as a result, a goal rush has ensued. This season saw the highest goals per game ratio in English football since 1931, at almost 4 per game!

This comeback was only possible through the fantastic work of clubs to ensure the safety of players and staff remains the number one priority. Frequent testing, immediate isolation and the restriction of contact where possible has allowed the beautiful game to flourish again over the last seven months. It is fair to say that this experiment has been a success.

Having elite-level games to look forward to every weekend has been a shining light for millions of football fans living through a dark time. Soon all of our resilience will pay off, the future looks bright.

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, all 72 EFL clubs recorded zero positive tests this week. Contrasting this to a spike of cases in December, a time at which pressure was mounting for a mid-season circuit breaker, underlines just how encouraging this news is. As the number of players and coaches testing positive continues to fall across the board, fans can realistically begin to look forward to grounds opening back up.

It has been the strangest year in living memory, and the whole world has had to adapt to extremely testing circumstances. But with Euro 2021 set to go ahead this year and everyone braced for an incredibly exciting finish to the top European leagues, as well as the burning desire of supporters to walk back through the turnstiles, there is no escaping it – football is set to prosper once more.