It has been just shy of nine months since England last played a football match. In that time, you could – if you were feeling particularly buoyant in the wake of the national team’s 4-0 victory over Kosovo on 17 November 2019 – have conceived, gestated, and delivered another human life into this bleak, unsanitised world. By the time all of this is over, they might just about still be eligible for the Under-21s.
If the sight of Mason Mount calmly stroking home his first England goal in the 91st minute in Pristina didn’t get you quite that excited, those 272 days could have been spent watching every single European Championship finals match back-to-back, 15 times over – with four days spare for crying. Although, if you wanted to see England do approximately fuck all for nine months, you needn’t have gone to such lengths. You could have just hunkered down and watched Tiger King with the rest of us.
The end of this lazy lockdown has coincided with the end of the stuttering domestic season. Months later than billed, the Premier League came to a juddering halt as Manchester United and Chelsea secured European qualification on the final day, and Aston Villa escaped the drop by the skin of Jack Grealish’s pearly whites. There is still the FA Cup final and the Champions and Europa League blitz to gorge ourselves upon, but soon we will be forced to readjust to life without football.
When that time comes, the absence of the international game will be sorely felt. Somehow, football on the biggest stage feels like it takes place less often than every even-numbered year. Not having a major tournament when we ought to will sting. With the world in tailspin, the PM skipping cobra meetings like a sixth-former skips first-period sociology, and the pound doing its best Tom Daley impression, it was easy to brush aside the cancellation of the European Championship all the way back in March.
We knew it was coming, and it’s possible to grieve for a loss before it actually happens. For England, perhaps more so than for the majority of European sides, the one-year postponement might actually work in their favour. With the likes of Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden at the age where another year’s development will see them become considerably better, more refined footballers, next year’s squad could look very different to the one that would have been selected this time around – and probably for the better.
This optimism is shared by the manager. Gareth Southgate is elastic: stretch him and he’ll snap back into place. Every setback he has faced as England manager has been dealt with the same poise, the same soothing bedside manner, the same refreshingly unembellished philosophy. While he has voiced his concerns over the long-term effects of coronavirus on the development of young English players, he has admitted that to have Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane fully fit next summer, when they otherwise might not have been for Euro 2020, is a huge positive. He also has another 11 months to twist Golden Boot winner Jamie Vardy’s scrawny arm, possibly tempting him out of international retirement.
So while there is no conceivable way in which the pandemic can be spun as a positive for the game – or the world – at large, the outlook is not as relentlessly bleak as initially thought. Mind you – spare a thought for the members of the England setup who have had the seasons of their lives in 19-20 and might not be able to capitalise on their prosperity at a major international tournament, and a semi-home one at that.
There’s no way of telling which way the dice might fall over the course of the next 11 months. The last England squad had just one player over the age of 30, Danny Rose, while Jordan Henderson reached that same age last month. Having just won the FWA Player of the Year award, it is enormously unlikely that Henderson will fall off to the extent (if at all) that he won’t be included in the squad, but it might well be that he is not entering the 2021 tournament in the same rich, momentum-fuelled vein of form that he would have found himself in had things gone to plan this year.
Nick Pope was one clean sheet away from winning the Golden Glove this season, a record which was ruined only by an Yves Bissouma screamer on the final day of the season. He, too, will almost certainly be in the squad come 2021, but there is every chance that a resurgent Jordan Pickford may snatch the top spot back from him in that time. Some players will miss out altogether, their places pinched by younger blood.
Gareth Southgate will have been in charge of England for half a decade come June 2021. By that time, the full extent of the pandemic’s effects on football’s landscape will have become more, if not completely, apparent. We don’t know what the game will look like, we don’t even know if we’ll be able to be there to see. The hard yards, for the administrators, the players, the fans, are still to come. We’ll never know what would have transpired had the tournament gone ahead this summer, perhaps we’d be sitting here, perma-smug expressions on our faces, as European champions. Perhaps we’d be miserable again.
But like it or not, we are stuck in this nasty alternate timeline. For some players, it will be the end of the world, for others it’ll be their Genesis. Ultimately, our zone of influence as fans and as commentators is limited. We carry on banging the drum. We carry on hammering the keyboard. We carry on singing the songs. Football, like life, is an endless cycle of triumph and disaster. We can’t foresee what is around the corner, and it wouldn’t be much fun if we could.