During the middle ages, flagellants would remove their white robes adorned with a red cross, kneel on the ground, and then vigorously whip themselves in public displays of fervour. Some sports appear to have been taking notes. Since the Queen’s death, we have seen the FA stop grassroots football, the Premier League ask for applause at 70 minutes to celebrate the length of Elizabeth II’s reign, and British Cycling bizarrely tell people not to ride during the state funeral, before performing a rapid U-turn. These are some of the biggest beasts in British sport. And they have looked frit.
Frit because such decisions were not based on logic, public sentiment, or government advice – which stressed that there was no obligation to cancel or postpone events during the period of national mourning – but a nebulous and ill-defined sense of wanting to do “the right thing”.
Yet no one was telling the sport to stop. In fact, when I spoke to senior officials on the night of the Queen’s death, their expectation was that most of them, including the Premier League, would carry on. Twelve hours later, the fear of getting it wrong had persuaded football, boxing and cycling to pull the plug.
Why? Partly it is due to a timidity and deference towards the royal family, not only in sport but across society, that appear timeless. Perhaps the best explanation for what we have seen over the past 11 days was given by a senior BBC News executive, more than 25 years ago, when asked by the Guardian about plans for the Queen Mother’s death. “The view is that the people you upset by not going over the top about her death would be upset for longer – and with more consequence – than the people you would upset by going over the top about it,” he replied.
That, though, has been the blueprint for every major royal funeral since.
In one breath, cover your arse. With the next, bow your head. The silent majority be damned.
But there was surely a silent majority for a modest and unshowy response – a minute’s silence, along with a few well-chosen words in tribute – before cracking on. The day after the Queen’s death, when I asked on Twitter whether sport should continue, over 90% of respondents said yes. While such polls are not always indicative of the public’s mood – a sportswriter will tend to have a lot of followers who like sport, after all – the general attitude across social media was that sport should continue.
Instead, football was the first to slam its doors shut, even though its decision meant those kids starved of activity during the pandemic could not play, and those reliant on match‑day incomes also found themselves without work at short notice.
One father told me he went for a kickabout with his son and daughter, only to find all the goalposts had been locked together so they couldn’t be used. When two teams in the Sheffield & District Fair Play League posted pictures of a friendly they played on the same day, they were accused of “disrespectful and despicable behaviour” by their league chairman for ignoring the grassroots ban. Yet at the very same time matches in local cricket, hockey and rugby clubs carried on.
Football’s defence, officially at least, was that other sports had paused events on the Friday to allow mourning, while it had had no such opportunity. But three sources at a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport meeting insist that Prince William’s role as the FA president was brought up as a factor too. Another consideration, less publicly voiced, was the potential reaction from the rightwing media if football messed up.
But football should have possessed more of a backbone. There will always be idiots that follow the game, because there will always be idiots in society. In a hundred years’ time, some Celtic fans may still raise banners critical of the royals. A pocket of Liverpool fans may still boo the national anthem. And the next day some publications will froth and splutter. So it goes.
What made football’s decision appear stranger, as the writer Patrick Kidd pointed out, was that in 1952 it was just about the only sport not called off on the death of George VI, with matches continuing, prefaced by the anthem and Abide With Me. It was, said the FA, “a simple and sincere tribute”.
Of course there will always be differing interpretations of how a nation should mourn. Yet to these eyes, the England and Wales Cricket Board, European Tour golf and both rugby codes got it right by bringing crowds together over that first weekend by not postponing its fixtures.
As the Rugby Football Union explained in a statement, which also stressed that the overwhelming majority of supporters wanted to play on: “Rugby, at its heart, is about community and bringing people together, in good times and in sad … With families and friends congregating, it will help us to unite at this time of national mourning.” They, and others, were proved right.
We can only hope those less brave were taking notes. The smarter ones should already be drafting a version of that RFU statement for when King Charles III dies, as well as a sensible plan for how they will react. Abiding by that tired old cliche, keep calm and carry on, is probably not a bad place to start.