One year since football collapsed and Covid changed the scene forever

One year on from when football collapsed: While the Government refused to act, sport ploughed on with a dangerous cocktail of big crowds and denial, before Covid chaos changed the scene forever

  • This week in March 2020 was when sport as it we know it changed forever 
  • Liverpool’s match against Atletico Madrid on March 11 went ahead with fans
  • Mikel Arteta tested positive for COVID-19 a day later, which stunned football 
  • However, thousands of people attended the Cheltenham God Cup on March 13 
  • Professional football was postponed the same day – and did not return until June 

Nothing bends perspective, or wipes tint from rosy glasses, quite like the passing of time. There is, after all, no harsher judge than hindsight. And yet sirens had long started wailing by the first of seven days when dominoes began to tumble apace.

This week in 2020 was when the plates under sport shifted and football moved from existing alongside a pandemic to living with the deadly virus.

One year on, many of the more severe symptoms loiter: shattered players still play in empty stadia to satisfy a crippling calendar and minimise financial ruin. Now, at least, the road back to normality beckons. Just as it did at this point last year.

Pre-match handshakes were banned in the Premier League in March as the pandemic loomed

Fans packed out stadiums in the first weekend of March 2020, with very few wearing masks 

After all, on the first weekend of March 2020, nearly 600,000 fans flocked to 43 stadiums throughout the English football pyramid. Pre-game handshakes were banned but as gestures go, it felt rather token.

Particularly when a quarter-million punters were preparing to descend on Cheltenham and thousands of Atletico Madrid fans would soon be in Liverpool to topple the kings of Europe.

Problems had begun to spread and the news, on Thursday March 12, that Mikel Arteta had tested positive for coronavirus would eventually turn the tide.

Sportsmail’s back page on Friday March 13 after Mikel Arteta tested positive for coronavirus the night before

Even then, though, crisis talks concluded that a break of just three weeks might be enough to steady the ship.

Little did anyone know how the ripples of those few days would linger. Studies have suggested that night at Anfield helped spread the virus on Merseyside and for English football the wait for calmer waters goes on.

After Jamie Vardy and Harvey Barnes led Leicester to a 4-0 win over Aston Villa on March 9 top-flight football would fall silent for 100 days.

Italy, an early European epicentre for coronavirus, had that day postponed all sport, while other countries took matches behind closed doors.

Top-flight football fell silent for 100 days after Leicester’s win against Aston Villa on March 9

Here, though, nothing. And then on Wednesday March 11 – six days after Britain’s first death – the World Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic.

The first sign that English football would not escape unharmed came that very day, too, when Arsenal’s Premier League trip to Manchester City was called off.

The owner of Olympiacos, Evangelos Marinakis, had tested positive following their recent visit to north London and so precautionary measures were taken.

Until then, fears had centred over what ifs. ‘The FA face multimillion pound losses if they are forced to cancel matches or stage them behind closed doors due to coronavirus,’ read Sportsmail’s back page on the morning of March 11.

Perhaps none has proven as the one which did go ahead that night.

Thousands of fans descended on Anfield on Wednesday March 11, including from Madrid 

Atletico Madrid had sold 2,600 tickets for the second leg at Anfield even as Spain – and in particular its capital – became an early hotspot for infections.

A national lockdown was introduced that week and only a day before the Champions League clash, authorities announced that all Spanish league matches would be closed to fans.

Still nothing stopped Atletico supporters landing on Merseyside. Except their own conscience, that is. In time, the Liverpool ECHO would discover that 300 stayed at home over concerns about the virus.

Atletico knocked out Champions League holders Liverpool, with fans from Spain allowed in despite it being an early hotspot for infections 

Dan Carden MP, whose constituency includes Anfield, had written to Matt Hancock to say lots of fans, residents and businesses were also concerned.

Nevertheless, three and a half hours after the WHO’s ominous verdict, 53,000 supporters crammed in for a gripping second leg that turned with Adrian’s extra-time error.

It was the goalkeeper’s miskick which dominated Sportsmail’s backpage the following morning.

Sportsmail’s backpage on Thursday March 12 led on Reds goalkeeper Adrian’s extra-time error 

Alongside the fall-out from Anfield, though, signposts of the impending shutdown were growing.

Football appeared to be heading behind closed doors; players would be banned from holding mascots’ hands; at Arsenal, where up to eight players and staff were isolating, a deep clean was underway; West Ham had closed their training base to outsiders.

Wolves skipper Conor Coady, in Greece to face Olympiacos, admitted his fear at playing – Wolves had earlier asked UEFA to postpone the game following Marinakis’ positive test. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, meanwhile, suggested Manchester United would be open to cancelling the season should fans be locked out.

Their Europa League clash with LASK Linz had already been pushed behind closed doors and by the time the final whistle sounded on a 5-0 victory, the country they’d left behind had been drenched in darkness.

Manchester United beat LASK 5-0 amid the then-unusual sight of no fans on the terraces 

That fateful Thursday night, Boris Johnson warned ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones’ as panic-buying spread throughout supermarkets.

The government’s message to clubs and leagues, however, was: carry on. Around 15 minutes before a Premier League statement at 10pm confirmed their intention to play on, Arsenal chief Vinai Venkatesham rang Brighton’s Paul Barber.

He passed on the news that Arteta had tested positive. That night Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea would become the first Premier League player to test positive.

Football quickly unravelled.

Arsenal’s game with Brighton was called off and the Premier League was under pressure to postpone other matches as football’s house of cards collapsed around them.

Mikel Arteta’s positive test changed everything, with football quickly unravelling on March 13

Ministers watched as players at Arsenal, Manchester City, Leicester went into isolation, while several other clubs ordered their squad to stay away from training. 

They saw how leagues in Spain, Portugal, USA, and Holland were suspended. They were told City’s Champions League clash with Real Madrid had been postponed and that the summer’s European Championships were in chaos.

And still they refused to act.

The whole sporting landscape was crumbling – the Australian Grand Prix was belatedly canned, the Players Championship was among the golf tournaments put behind closed doors, the ATP Tour was suspended, so were the Guinness Pro14 and the Boston Marathon. And still the Premier League was scheduled to carry on as normal.

‘The scientific advice is (live sport) has little effect on the spread,’ Boris Johnson said.

Boris Johnson insisted that the ‘scientific advice is (live sport) has little effect on the spread’

Few people needed that to be true more than Eddie Hearn. The following day the Matchroom promoter hosted a press conference, bizarre even by boxing’s standards.

Derek Chisora and Oleksandr Usyk wore masks on the stage to promote their heavyweight showdown – one of several on the horizon. Hearn faced losing up to half a million pounds if they fell victim to the crisis.

Ticket sales had slowed because of Covid but Hearn insisted it was ‘business as usual’ – even while he elbow-bumped fighters and reporters alike. 

The idea of Anthony Joshua or Dillian Whyte fighting behind closed doors was out of the question, he said. Alas, that would soon change.

Sportsmail’s page on March 13, asking what everyone was thinking: ‘So what happens now?’

Oleksandr Usyk and Derek Chisora are pictured together on March 13 to promote their fight 

A hundred miles west, Cheltenham had become sport’s real-life petri dish.

Remarkably, despite concerns and the cancellation of events worldwide, the four-day Festival continued with full stands and that glorious roar. But on Friday March 13, Al Boum’s second Gold Cup victory would be among British sport’s curtain calls – for a while at least.

All professional football was postponed the same day. It was slated to return on April 3 but, with eight Premier League clubs already battling the virus, there were immediate concerns that the shutdown would have to be extended. 

Thousands attended the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday March 13 in British sport’s curtain call

And with that came myriad other concerns: could the season even be completed? What happens to players out of contract on June 30?

Those discussions would drag on as football and its clubs were forced into months of rethinking and readjustment.

Further down the pyramid, non-league carried on as normal before the government cancelled the grassroots game on Monday March 16.

And very soon, sport and politicians faced rather more pressing questions.

Sport and politicians faced pressing questions about whether they had acted too late 

Among them, had they acted too late? Should Cheltenham and Liverpool-Atletico have been allowed to take place?

When the teams met in Spain on February 18, it’s claimed there were only nine confirmed Covid cases in the UK. By the end of March, Liverpool was thought to be among the country’s worst affected areas.

Merseyside and Cheltenham were found to have Covid ‘hotspots’ soon after the events.

Sportsmail’s backpage on Saturday March 14, headlined: ‘Top clubs may refuse to play’

Scientist Professor Tim Spector said: ‘I think sporting events should have been shut down at least a week earlier because they’ll have caused increased suffering and death that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred.’

The exact damage they caused will never likely be known. 

But Liverpool’s players didn’t train at Melwood again for around two months; the Premier League did not return until June 17. And a year on, nothing has been quite the same again.

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