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A matter of life and death: football, conflict and the coronavirus


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Echoes of the past

The suspension of the Premier League and English Football League seasons and debates on the sport’s responsibilities around Covid-19 have escalated in recent weeks. Initially, football authorities and government faced criticism for a lack of leadership and faced accusations of treating footballers as ‘guinea pigs’ as a result of their delay in calling the game to a halt.  Debates have now shifted to finding a satisfactory resolution to the season, with widespread criticism of the decision to void lower league seasons that has plunged many historic, smaller clubs into deep financial peril. Against this backdrop, Matt Hancock has singled out Premier League clubs and footballers through calls to make a financial contribution in the effort to defeat Covid-19.

Whilst it can be problematic for historians to draw similarities across time between different medical crises, a look at football’s responses to the challenges posed by a smallpox crisis can anticipate forthcoming scenarios, stalemates and might even help inform solutions.

Football the super spreader

In spring 1898, a smallpox epidemic ravaged the north east town of Middlesbrough, bringing hundreds of deaths and as with today’s coronavirus, led to the postponement of a number of Middlesbrough Football Club (aka Boro) fixtures and brought uncertainty and division in and beyond the game.  In short, football was recognised as a sporting, smallpox super-spreader. Of particular concern was the prospect of players and travelling supporters mingling in close contact and introducing smallpox to new towns.  

The issue gained national attention when a high-profile FA Amateur Cup semi-final tie between Middlesbrough and Thornaby scheduled to take place in neutral Darlington, was called off following local medical and political intervention. A meeting of the local Corporation’s Health Committee, alerted by a ‘prominent medical gentleman’ of the dangers posed by Teesside’s footballing faithful descending on the railway town, intervened and banned the tie from taking place in Darlington. The news spread across the country in the national press.

Darlington’s action reflected wider fear at a defiant Middlesbrough public spreading smallpox, including concerns from Middlesbrough’s new Medical Officer of Health Dr Charles Dingle. Appointed following the death of Dr John Malcolmson after ‘the increased smallpox in the town had produced overwork and worry, which quite undermined his health’, Dingle used a meeting of Middlesbrough’s Special Sanitary and Sanatorium Committee to air his grievances at disregard for rules at the town’s sanatorium:

Patients were observed climbing on the boundary walls talking to their friends, and even shaking hands. At one period during the afternoon the Grounds of the Hospital were invaded by the outside public. It has also occurred that convalescent Patients have left the Grounds of the Hospital before being officially discharged.

This behaviour reflected widespread public distrust and defiance of isolation policies repeated 122 years on - earlier this month it was reported those living in Middlesbrough are ‘most likely’ to ignore the ‘Stay At Home’ government guidance. Dingle’s indignation has striking echoes of today’s calls for action against rule breakers:

I would suggest…more men be appointed to patrol the walls and boundaries of the Hospital Grounds, and to restrain the convalescent Patients. Large numbers of the general public were assembled, drawn there by idle curiosity, in close proximity to the Hospital. I need hardly point out to them and this Committee the risk they run of contracting such an infectious disease as Small-Pox by such contact.

Conflict between clubs and governing bodies

Covid-19 has brought numerous meetings of football’s leading authorities seeking economic, social and sporting solutions for today’s crisis. A joint statement (3 April) following a recent meeting reported no resolutions but that participants ‘reiterated that the overriding priority is the health and wellbeing of the nation - including that of players, coaches, managers, club staff and supporters – and everyone agreed football must only return when it is safe and appropriate to do so.’ 

In 1898, numerous divisive meetings took place as the smallpox death toll increased. One such meeting saw the Football Association propose Middlesbrough pull out of the FA Amateur Cup ‘in the best interest of the sport’, with Boro’s directors unanimously rejecting the national association’s proposition to withdraw and forego a shot at cup glory.

Locally, Boro were at odds with the Cleveland Association over a Cleveland Senior Cup semi-final scheduled to take place against South Bank three miles away at the latter’s ground. The Cleveland Association Chairman considered it ‘the height of folly to bring a crowd together to stand 1½ to 2 hours for there would be a great danger of the infection spreading’, whilst the local Urban District Council demanded the tie’s postponement. Boro refused and attempted to vindicate their stance by pointing to the mixing of crowds from South Bank and Middlesbrough at Saturday markets. Although the Cleveland Association’s council voted 6 to 2 in favour of the match going ahead, South Bank’s committee swiftly rejected the ruling and declined to play the fixture.

Mixed solutions for reaching a conclusion

Ultimately, in 1898 the football community implemented a range of solutions. Locally, the Cleveland Association postponed their competition until the following season. Nationally, the FA Amateur Cup committee decided that the postponed semi-final Middlesbrough and Thornaby tie be played ‘with closed gates’ in the East Cleveland village of Brotton and ‘only players be allowed to take part who have medical certificates as to their freedom from the disease’. Boro progressed and went on to win the final against Uxbridge at Crystal Palace.

Lessons from Victorian Middlesbrough?

The Victorian solutions align with mooted proposals to conclude the 2019/20 season including rescheduling tournament and concluding competitions in ‘behind closed doors’ fixtures with no spectators and players undergoing medical tests beforehand. It is questionable if today’s clubs will postpone, void or withdraw from competitions with lucrative multi-million pound prize and sponsorship deals (and trophies) on the line. The lobbying of the FA and threats of legal action by clubs lower down the league pyramid in England who have seen their seasons voided coupled with widespread criticism of the Scottish Professional Football League’s resolution to end the lower league seasons in Scotland, suggests this is unlikely and would likely lead to major disputes and potential legal action.

There are clearly some lessons from the 1898 smallpox outbreak. Most importantly, football and the broader community must adhere to medical guidance and avoid a hasty return to a potential sporting super spreader. There is also a need to work across all levels of the game to ensure a clear and collaborative (if consistent) approach if any semblance of a satisfactory solutions is to be achieved. After all, the initial combative decrees from Victorian football authorities brought few solutions.

History also provides a final warning around wearied footballers and rescheduled fixtures. In 1898, Tow Law’s proposal to reschedule a smallpox-postponed tie was initially refused by Boro’s players. With today’s players at the end of (reduced-wage) contracts and the prospect of picking up injury playing in a dead rubber fixture is unlikely to appeal to a player with a contract lined up elsewhere.

The coming weeks will pose further dilemmas for football and the wider world. The game can do worse than turn briefly to the lessons of their footballing forefathers when determining the next course of action.

The author is grateful to Professor Barry Doyle for feedback on an earlier version of this article.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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