Opinion – Football has missed an opportunity to be a punctuation point on our nation’s grieving

Richard Easterbrook analyses a difficult situation for football's authorities in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II's death

In February 1952, a day after learning of the death of her father, the princess who became a Queen in a treehouse in Kenya landed back in England whereupon she immediately took the duties vacated by King George VI.

A tradition lasting hundreds of years, hard-baked into the processes of the Royal Family, which demands no debate whatsoever.

A 40-year-old person in 1952 would have seen this kind of thing before – just 16 years earlier, George VI ascended the throne upon his brother’s abdication in 1936. Edward VIII’s reign only began nine months earlier following King George V’s death.

Your average Joe will have been well-versed in the machinations of a changeover in power back in the 1950s.

Why are we suddenly assuming the persona of Nicholas Witchell, you may ask? Well, this context matters when set against the decisions taken this weekend in the immediate wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death on Thursday.

Of course, she was a young Queen, but few expected her reign to span 70 years. Every other person in a position of responsibility in 1952, who will have been well-practised in the process of moving from monarch to monarch – is no longer with us.

Our decision-makers of today only have pieces of paper to guide them on the processes and the functions of what our country does in the event of a monarch passing.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that some have taken the wrong decision on how we continue in the days following her death. Namely football.

Three days after King George VI’s passing, on February 9, 1952, Football League matches took place as scheduled. Sunderland, then in the top flight, beat a Chelsea side at Roker Park 4-1 to stay 16th in Division One. A crowd of 37,398 attended that day, putting around 4,000 on the previous week’s gate.

A week later, and a day after the funeral of King George, Sunderland travelled to Bolton Wanderers, losing 2-0. Life continued as much as normal, with the respectful pauses for the accession ceremony of Elizabeth, gun salutes, minute’s silences, and the official day of mourning for the state funeral.

Other than those pauses it was very much business as usual.

Seventy years later, and the process should have been, in theory, a similar situation. And the guidance laid down by the Department of Media, Culture and Sport confirmed this.

“There is no obligation to cancel or postpone events and sporting fixtures.”

The Football Association alongside the EFL and the Premier League will have been in discussions on Thursday afternoon into Friday morning, and their decision was to go against this guidance and cancel all fixtures for the weekend as a ‘mark of respect’.

By Friday afternoon, football’s stance was the outlier. Cricket’s authorities announced their intentions to play on this weekend, Rugby League fixtures slated would still take place, while the Great North Run, bringing 50,000 people together on the half marathon from Newcastle to South Shields, was reframed as a commemorative event in tribute to our Queen.

Football took the decision to cancel this weekend’s games because if they didn’t, they’d be seen as disrespectful. In fact, the opposite decision would have been far more respectful. Bringing 37,000 together at the Stadium of Light to firstly pay our tributes to our monarch but, as per the monarch’s wishes, to all get on with our lives.

Respect, or disrespect, is a subjective term. Who is the arbiter of respect? And what would the consequences be if someone was disrespectful in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s passing?

People were still expected to go to work as usual, but clearly the expectation is by some that they should immediately return home after their duties and mourn.

Television schedules were completely wiped out on Thursday afternoon into Friday morning, but, by the afternoon, BBC2 were showing the likes of Homes Under The Hammer and Bargain Hunt. Is this disrespectful?

BBC2 aired Stewart Lee’s Snowflake stand-up show on Friday night. Is this disrespectful? Should we be laughing while our Queen lies in Scotland and her family grieves?

Football missed an opportunity this weekend to be a punctuation point. A chance for us all to pay our tributes, to remember, to respect, but ultimately to recognise – just as the Royal Family have themselves – that life goes on and it is very much business as usual. Getting on with things is very much something the Queen herself would do.

Instead, football’s authorities took the wrong decision, guided by a fear of offending people, a fear of incurring the wrath of the Daily Mail, or the Telegraph: despite having the approval of the Government – the King’s Government, no less – to play football as normal.

Of course, the decision will have ramifications on the season that little outside of the football bubble will care about. The upcoming World Cup has resulted in a slew of extra midweek fixtures and now there will be two more to fit in, as games are set to go the same way next weekend in preparation for the Queen’s funeral.

It’s not important now – the decision has been taken – but an opportunity has been missed this weekend, and once again, football is the poorer for it.