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Ivan Little

The search for a sporting fix will only get harder but more important battles await

Ivan Little


 

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No change: FC Halifax and Ebbsfleet play in front of the television cameras on Saturday

No change: FC Halifax and Ebbsfleet play in front of the television cameras on Saturday

AFP via Getty Images

No change: FC Halifax and Ebbsfleet play in front of the television cameras on Saturday

In the grand scheme of things it was, of course, the right result as football around the world quite properly admitted defeat to the game-changing coronavirus and called off countless matches at the weekend.

Millions of people in every part of the globe had more important struggles on their minds than sport, which suddenly paled into insignificance compared to the life and death battles being waged and lost in scores of countries.

Compared to the suffering around the planet, it was patently unimportant that thousands of people were left kicking their heels after abandoning plans to watch football matches from the grandstands and the terraces on Saturday.

But filling a day that is traditionally crammed full of sport for upwards of 12 hours wasn't easy, even though the weeks and months ahead are destined to present similar and even greater challenges if we're lucky enough to avoid the disease.

I'd pencilled in a trip to Windsor Park in Belfast on Saturday to see Irish League table-toppers Linfield play against Larne.

But the encounter was the first sporting casualty of coronavirus here after one of the Blues players tested positive for the virus.

Any thoughts of going to another match were red-carded after the Northern Ireland Football League bowed to the inevitable and wiped out their entire programme.

And my normal Saturday ritual of watching Soccer AM on Sky Sports in the morning before catching the start of the early kick-off Premier League match had to be given a bye-ball too after all those games were axed as well.

Right across Europe, the picture was the same - blank.

There were no fixtures apart from inaccessible games on Russian TV that survived the continent-wide switch-off.

But there was one exception in England as a little-known league decided to ignore the pressure to postpone their matches and one of the clashes between FC Halifax Town and Ebbsfleet United was still shown live on TV.

The two teams play in the National League which is sponsored by Vanarama who, for the uninitiated, are a vehicle-leasing firm rather than a former chart-topping girl group.

With nothing else on the telly, there literally wasn't a choice for a sorry sporting obsessive. Halifax v Ebbsfleet was the only show in town. In Europe actually. THE Match of the Day, in fact.

A quick Google reminded me that Halifax Town, when they used to have the FC after and not before their name, once graced the rarefied atmosphere of the old English Third Division in the 1950s before they slipped into non-league football.

No internet assistance was needed, however, to confirm a more famous footballing fact about Halifax because as any older follower of the beautiful game will tell you, that's where World Cup referee Arthur Ellis was born.

The game didn't kick off until after 5pm, which left plenty of time to check up on what other thumb-twiddling sports fans and their clubs were doing on their sport-free Saturday.

Quite bizarrely, a number of teams played out matches online via the medium of Football Manager.

Watford drew their game against Leicester City despite having a player sent off. Over 2,000 internet users were so bereft of things to do that they discussed the finer points of the game.

Leyton Orient asked their fans to vote on the line-up of their team for a Football Manager contest with Bradford and their real boss, Ross Embleton, tweeted about the match which his side lost 1-0.

And Manchester City even put up a drawing of their ace goalscorer Sergio Aguero for fans to colour in.

I avoided the temptation and instead settled down in front of the tube for the un-eagerly awaited National League showdown which attracted a crowd of 2,154 supporters - 52 of whom had travelled the 182 miles from Ebbsfleet in Kent - to the Shay Stadium in Halifax which shouldn't (and indeed couldn't) be confused with the Shea Stadium in New York, where the Beatles famously played for 55,000 fans in 1966.

Truth to tell, the match wasn't a classic but the die-hard supporters did their best to raise a racket.

In the 16th minute, Ebbsfleet scored the only goal of the game and it was perhaps the last one that will be seen on live TV for months.

In pub quizzes in years to come, they'll probably ask for the name of the marksman and the answer is Gozie Ugwu, formerly of Dunfermline Athletic and Plymouth Argyle.

What future sport-less weeks will bring in their wake is another question altogether.

My missus returned from a shopping trip to a DIY store yesterday - when I'd tried and failed to raise any interest in watching a televised rugby league game - to report on having seen hordes of husbands stocking up, not on toilet roll or hand sanitisers, but on tiles, gardening accessories and paint.

A sport-daft friend admitted that he'd splashed the cash on home improvement purchases too, just in case he's ordered into a lockdown for God-knows how long without his football fixes.

The holes in the TV schedules meantime will present a whole different ball game for broadcasters who are scratching their heads for ways to replace the sport they've paid millions to show to viewers, like me, who will presumably be offered refunds for games that got away.

Online cynics, however, have said that no amount of money could possibly compensate anyone who was expecting to watch Match of the Day on Saturday night and who instead had to see Mrs Brown's Boys popping up on their screens.

However, the last word of the weekend on the coronavirus crisis went to Man City's Ilkay Gundogan, who brought fans back to the real world with a tweet that said simply: "(This is) a situation we've never been in before and it shows again that there are far more important things than football. Stay calm and take care of yourself."

He added an emoji of two hands clasped together in prayer.

Belfast Telegraph