Monday, 21 December 2020

The Coronavirus Diaries

This time last year who would've thought we'd be where we are now?

As I understand it, the first Covid-19 case to be announced by China came on 31 December 2019.

Most people, myself very much included, thought it would be another one of those nasty viruses that flares up in East Asia, gets dealt with locally and never really affects countries like mine at all.

Even when it did start to spread, the mood was still very much a dismissive one - the death rate is tiny and it only kills the old and vulnerable.

How things changed.

I first remember getting a bit spooked when I travelled to Paris on Eurostar at the end of January and being surrounded by Chinese tourists, some of whom had terrible coughs.

France declared its first case that weekend while I was there but I didn't think too much of it.

Life went on as normal in the UK for another six weeks and then things started to gradually change.

There was a Sunday in early March when panic buying had become a thing and we thought we'd better head to the local Sainsbury's to see what we could salvage.

It was horrible day, with grey clouds and a fierce wind whipping along Goldhawk Road. As we waited outside the shop, two homeless people began fighting with each other outside the Tube station in a shocking display which combined with everything else really made us feel like the end of the world was coming.

Once inside the shop, all the basics like pasta, flour, eggs, tinned food and toilet roll had pretty much gone but we got what we could.

As we queued to pay, I suddenly and pretty much out of nowhere went into an uncontrollable coughing fit - with stares aplenty I had no option but to run out and leave my wife to pack and pay.

Whether it was the cough or a cough I don't know - it was annoying but I'd had far worse. Whatever the case, I went into self-isolation as the government instructed and took my wife and kids with me.

The first day was utterly depressing - the thought of being confined for two weeks was something I found quite hard to accept.

It was even worse for my seven-year-old who was begging to be allowed to go back to school after only three hours - something I thought I'd never hear!

However, with day one in the bag, things improved a lot.

Aside from the screaming matches over home schooling and the untold devastation done to the house by an imprisoned toddler, the days went quite quickly.

Numerous friends did the shopping for us and chatted from the street.

We live next to some artists' studios and one of them, who we'd never met, brought a load of chalk for my daughters so they could draw on and decorate the wall which runs around our tiny front garden - a place we learned to appreciate like never before.

When my time in isolation ended, lockdown had just begun and I remember trying to imagine what the world would be like when I got out there.

I imagined tumbleweed on the streets and army checkpoints to make sure only the right people were out.

The time came to do a bit of shopping so I stuck my toddler in the buggy and headed out. The backstreets were quiet, hardly anyone was around and those that were gave you a ridiculously wide berth as they took this new concept of social distancing very seriously indeed. 

But then as I hit the main road we nearly got run over by a pair of joggers!

As a keen runner I found this very reassuring but still quite shocking. As I looked further down the street, there seemed to be people everywhere - life was going on pretty much as normal.

Shepherd's Bush is a densely populated part of inner London with most sources of food and supplies coming from corner shops and smaller neighbourhood branches of supermarket chains so the high streets would inevitably have been quite lively and so it proved to be.

Essentials were still hard to get and I could often spend a couple of hours going round the various shops in the area trying to find everything.

Eventually, the giant Westfield shopping mall turned out to be a bit of a godsend for locals like us.

During this period it kept open its large branches of M&S and Waitrose who had great supplies of everything and virtually no customers so trips there were very welcome indeed.

With our routine and supply lines in place, we began to adapt fairly well to the 'new normal'.

One of the most positive things for me in those months was the amount of people who took up running, cycling or walking as it gave them an excuse to get out of the house. 

Aside from a morning at the London Marathon, I'd never seen so many runners. 

Admittedly some of them were very ill prepared and looked a bit ridiculous but they were having a go and fair play to them.

Many millions went on furlough but as a transport worker, I went straight back once my family's time in self-isolation ended.

Thankfully I've avoided all illness and haven't missed a day since mid-March - some bus drivers and station gateline workers weren't so lucky and some friends and I took part in the 'Run For A Bus' event to raise funds for the families of those who died.

Probably the biggest effect coronavirus has had on me and most of you has been on the amount of football we've watched.

All the action ended in March when the lockdown kicked in, leaving clubs at all levels in a strange state of limbo.

The big clubs all had the resources to ride it out but for those in the third tier and below, things got shaky quite quickly.

Before the end of March, all football leagues from the seventh tier and below were declared null and void and several teams who had had great seasons found their efforts expunged from the official record books. 

It was particularly heartbreaking for a club like Jersey Bulls, who play many London clubs in the Combined Counties League, to see their record of played 27, won 27 just disappear taking promotion with it.

Some clubs did benefit though and saw almost certain relegations or tense battles to stay up avoided.

FA competitions weren't cancelled and the top six tiers returned, some just for play-offs after a PPG system was applied, behind closed doors.

The prospect of watching top level football with no crowd or with dubbed sound effects was a strange one. Many Premier League games were put on free-to-watch TV whilst many others were streamed.

Despite this amazing access to live football, which I thought I'd be all over, I barely watched a game and still haven't.

Unless it's an absolutely massive game, I've suddenly realised that televised football doesn't really do much for me any more.

If 'Match of the Day' or a live game is on when I'm around and got nothing better to do then I'll definitely put it on but if I can go out and do something else then I will.

We have Amazon Prime in our house and have for years and I remember being thrilled at the news of them getting Premier League rights but when I had the chance to watch Liverpool v Tottenham the other night, I just went to bed!

For me it's now all about live football - being there is everything.

Whatever the level, give me that over a televised game any day and I'm sure most of you reading are exactly the same.

Consequently, since the return of football with fans in late August, the only games I've seen are a few friendlies and FA Cup matches when my shift pattern has allowed.

Covid-19 also saw me call off this year's Non-League Day (NLD).

I took counsel from people at all levels in the game and came to the conclusion that on balance, an event to promote maximum attendance at non-league matches probably wasn't the most appropriate thing to be holding during a time of social distancing.

Some of the FA Cup matches I went to in September and October really struggled to keep people apart particularly when it started raining so cramming even more people into grounds didn't seem like a great idea.

Having a year off was also quite a good thing for me - organising NLD is a huge drain on my time and finances and I can't say I really missed it. With many Premier League and EFL fans shut out of their own grounds and going to non-league matches week after week in the autumn, I don't think many non-league clubs suffered too much either.

The one disappointment of NLD not happening was the delayed launch of the European Day of Amateur Football.

The trip to Paris I mentioned earlier had been to attend a planning meeting for this new event.

We had France, Germany and The Netherlands signed up to take part in a continent-wide celebration of non-league football and other countries were very interested too.

In France and Germany, the respective local events are run by major football magazines So Foot and 11Freunde so they added great journalistic, logistic and design resources to the mix.

The planning meeting at So Foot's offices went really well as others joined us on Skype from Berlin - in times before Zoom meetings were a thing!

Things have now progressed to a stage where significant EU funding is being discussed but alas we'll now see none of it here, despite being the inspiration for the whole thing. 

There has also been talk of arranging friendlies between sides all over the continent but working out the financing would appear to be the main challenge to that.

If your club have got the wherewithal to do this and would like to arrange something when things calm down then we've got the contacts - get in touch.

Lastly from me, the impact of coronavirus on this blog has been huge. 

Shut from March to August, it was again quite a positive thing for me. 

During a normal year I get about six weeks down time between seasons and even less when tournaments like the CONIFA World Football Cup come to town like they did in the summer of 2018.

Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog launching and it's got bigger and bigger over that time, affording some great experiences and giving me some good friends and new contacts.

But it does come at a cost. As I've written many times on here, it takes eight to 10 hours a week to produce and with an expanding family, finding the time is becoming increasingly difficult.

I now often write it in my breaks at work or on train journeys and very often late into the night or early morning - I'm only writing this now as I'm on call at work and have little else to do.

It's very often the case that I have to choose between writing this blog or going to see a match and the former usually wins.

But I do it because I love it and it gives me some purpose.

However, having a few months off earlier this year has been refreshing and I came back ready and raring for another season.

With fewer matches to cover, it was also proving to be less time consuming too - that was until the last few weeks when lockdown ended.

The introduction of Tier 3 restrictions to some of the leagues and rising Covid-19 rates across the London area have wreaked havoc on this blog!

Some leagues carried on, others stopped, friendlies were arranged, cancelled and altered - sometimes at two hours notice.

Last week I spent probably more time than ever revising and re-revising what I'd written day after day to try and make it as relevant as possible for the weekend and I still missed stuff.

Although I knew there would be significant changes, I planned ahead and got the match maps in place for the usual bumper Christmas and New Year edition but with Boris introducing Tier 4 across London on Saturday it all got called off and rightly so.

I've got a rare Boxing Day off this year so was really looking forward to seeing something but it's not to be. 

I believe there's another Tier review before the end of the month but the chances of anything changing in London look remote.

Personally, Christmas isn't a big thing for me so I'm not too devastated by all the restrictions that have come in. 

A few years ago, I went to watch Lewes play Ebbsfleet United in what had been their scheduled Boxing Day game. 

Bad weather had seen it rescheduled to the end of February and the always-innovative Sussex club decided to go with the Christmas theme with festive songs on the PA, Santa putting in an appearance and mince pies and other seasonal treats on sale in the tea bar and club house.

It was great - hopefully the nation will be able to do something similar. Boris - how about another Bank Holiday on a Friday later in 2021 when we get the family together for a big knees up to make up for this situation we currently find ourselves in???

Well I think that's it from me. I had no intention of writing this when I got up this morning but I've rather enjoyed putting my personal experience of the last year in writing and I could've put a lot more.

I'm well aware that many people have had it a lot worse than me so I don't for a minute want to trivialise anything they or you may have gone through - apologies if I have offended.

Wherever you are, whether you're celebrating or not, stay safe, make the most of the time you have and I hope to see you all back on here in 2021.


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5 comments:

  1. Thank you James. Thank you for all your work in helping everyone get to matches and to experience things that are wonderful. I'm a relative newcomer to the non league seen and it has truly enriched my life. Your words here are very reassuring in what is a scary time. All the best to you and yours, enjoy your time off, but not too much!!

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  2. Thank you James. I'd already started dabbling in recent seasons with non league on my days off from the main 1st-2nd tier club, with so many of their games not occupying the Saturday 3pm slot. Being locked out of that main ground has turned my attention to the various London non-league options. Yours has been just the most wonderful resource and it's been an absolute godsend to my mate and I, now both enthusiastic serial groundhoppers. Every week we await your updates to plan out our weekend meanderings, with the odd midweek thrown in as well. You've really helped our mental wellbeing, giving us a new routine to settle in to. We really thank you for it, and hope to meet you some time to offer our thanks in person.

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  4. James as a newcomer to your blog I really appreciate all the hard work you put into it week in, week out. As a supporter of Hampton and Richmond Borough F C it's disappointing not to have a run of matches at the moment but their are more important things happening in the world. Look forward to following your blog in 2021.

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