Coronavirus to Derail Liverpool’s Title? Football As A Matter of Life and Death

Coronavirus to Derail Liverpool’s Title? Football As A Matter of Life and Death
March 10, 2020 Paul Tomkins


Like a lot of jokes, there was some truth in what Bill Shankly said. “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

The joke, of course, was on us; those of us who think football is everything when, deep down, we know it’s not. It means everything, until shit gets real. 

The more meaning we inject into football – often to escape our own realities – the more it means when things go well. And, naturally, the more it hurts when they go badly. Indifference is a handy defence mechanism, because nothing hurts. Equally, football turns so many of us into raving lunatics. 

We get things in perspective, and football becomes irrelevant; and then, slowly, it becomes one of the most important things in our lives again.  

“Health before wealth”, the saying goes; and, Shankly’s wit aside, health certainly comes before football. But football is of course our distraction of choice, the opiate for this particular mass.  

For some of us, football even provides our living. While what I do may be in some way parasitic, in that I’m not a player in the arena but an observer (albeit I try to be constructive and helpful in my analysis), it has given me an income that I never thought possible after decades of chronic illness, and it has given me the chance to pay a small group of people (many of whom are also chronically ill or carers from the chronically ill) – as other “non-employable” people – to help run the site and write for it, too. It has also created a community of generally like-minded, intelligent folk, albeit from very different backgrounds, with divergent viewpoints away from the beautiful game itself.

Football brought us together, and while we are all Liverpool fans (bar one or two weirdos who support other clubs, but subscribe to read our work), we have also all been levelled, at times, by adversity, illness, depression and loss. We have displayed our passion and commitment and, after 11 years of the site, and 30 years of waiting for a league title, it all seemed to be coming together. This was the year!

Now we face the conundrum of still caring deeply about the football – and winning the league feeling like everything – whilst experiencing the nagging sensation that it could all crumble into nothingness. COVID-19 has, as you might expect, gone viral. 

(This Johns Hopkins tracker is a really good way to follow accurate, non-media influenced data, for an illness that is many times more deadly than seasonal flu, but which hasn’t yet spread as far and wide as seasonal flu; but which, if it does, could kill far more people. Hence the concern; even if panic isn’t helpful. These victims may mostly be old and/or have underlying health conditions, but they should not be written off as disposable. Equally, I see no harm, as someone with underlying health conditions, in people sharing the fact that it affects mostly the old and/or those with underlying health conditions.)

After Hillsborough in 1989, football resumed for the team 18 days later at Goodison Park; and, after numerous postponed games were rescheduled and crammed into a packed May, people cared when Arsenal scored that last-gasp goal to take the title out of the Reds’ hands and pass it over to the Gunners, by turning a 1-0 defeat – which was good enough for Liverpool – into a 2-0 defeat, which was good enough for Arsenal. It stung when Michael Thomas writhed in ecstasy on the Anfield turf, but just as life goes on, football will always go on, too. Perspective was pretty easy in the spring of 1989.  

A year later I attended my first game at Anfield, as Liverpool beat Derby 2-0 in early October 1990, which was the last of an eight-game winning start to the league season. (For a glory-hunting Londoner who became a fan at a young age – from the moment Kenny Dalglish jumped over the Wembley hoardings in 1978, according to my sketchy memory – my timing in terms of being a match-goer was terrible; just as my subsequent season ticket never coincided with the Reds winning the title.)

A few months later I almost died: rushed in the middle of the night with an acute asthma attack that was so bad it would have killed but for the fact that my attempts to breathe – so noisy as I gasped for the air I could not intake – woke my flatmates, and they bundled me into a car and drove me to the hospital 600 yards away. I was met by staff with a gurney outside the hospital and put on a drip, and given an oxygen mask and adrenaline through a cannula; but the thing that saved me the most, looking back, was that despite being hospitalised as a kid on numerous occasions (merely to be nebulised), I never knew that you could die of asthma. Had someone told me that prior to December 16th 1990 then I probably wouldn’t be here now; I’d have panicked – more than from barely being able to breathe – and I’d be dead.

As someone prone to being a dickhead at times, some of my saving graces – mostly, my occasional sense of perspective – comes from adversity. 

(As an aside, I may be white, male and “privileged” to some, but I’m also ill, and bald, and from an entirely working class background. These things are all relative. One of the reasons I dislike identity politics, despite seeing it as coming from a place of good intentions and from what I think of my own side of the political aisle, is how it just further divides us. For instance, I had a far less privileged upbringing than the one currently on offer to Barack Obama’s daughters, but I had a much more privileged life than most people in third world countries; I won’t suffer the kind of racism a lot of people face, but I have suffered from types of discrimination. These labels are messy, just like life, and yet there is more and more labelling, from all sides. I also have the benefits of being male, but also, the curses of being male. The reason I’ve loved Brené Brown’s work for years is that she helped me understand the struggles of women through the prisms of her shame research, and, after she admitted her own doubts and dismissals, the way she came to understand the struggles of men. Plus, we’re all of us, whatever our labels, fucked up, by and large, and we all fuck up each other, mostly inadvertently.) 

I sit here now typing this with the desire of someone who has waited three decades to see Liverpool finally win the league, and who is trying not to panic about two underlying health conditions that, despite only being in my late 40s, put me at an increased risk should I contract the coronavirus. 

(As I tweeted the other day, I fear my final words will be “the referee is from Manches–”)

As such, I now see that brush with death – which didn’t instil me with much perspective at the time – as the jumping off point for a decline in my health. That said, having been born with asthma and eczema, I didn’t have the best immune system to start with. I played football from a young age, although most games I needed to go to the sidelines to puff on my inhaler (for which a referee once booked me; this may explain my distrust of the men in black). Playing football almost literally morning, noon and night – because it was, literally, lunchtime, afternoon and evening until it was too dark to see the ball (followed by going home to a bath that had turned cold hours earlier) – kept me fit and healthy from primary school through to the university league (and which prompted Howard Wilkinson’s son Damien, also in the Derby College team, to suggest I go and see his father at Leeds United), but then I had that near-fatal asthma attack midway through that academic year and things gradually started to go wrong. 

(I deferred the offer of a trial – not that it was ever officially made – because I was so short-sighted and couldn’t always get along with my contact lenses, which sometimes got stuck to the underside of my sore eyelids. Plus, I was asthmatic, and lacked the self-belief to follow it up.)

In the next year, weird things started happening, like my eyesight being worse the day after a game. I had corrective surgery in 1991 – the knives, in the days before lasers were affordable. (I’d urge anyone to try and stare at a lightbulb, as instructed, for four minutes while someone with a scalpel makes eight incisions in your eyeball, while in your head you sing “I am un chien Andalusia!”. In fairness, it was a qualified specialist, and they provided two Valium beforehand. In truth, Salvador Dalí could have been cutting off my toes to stitch to my forehead for all I cared.)

Some days, after the successful surgery, my vision was 20-20, other days it was all a blur. 

Anyway, in the mid-‘90s I managed to play semi-professional football, but the toll it was taking on my health was clear. Weirdly, the harder I trained, the worse my health got. And so I jumped at the chance of my own season ticket at Anfield (having been sharing one for a few years, whilst on the waiting list), and gave up the semi-pro, to focus on Liverpool FC, a design career at The Guardian, and top-level Sunday League football, which I’d still been playing most weeks while semi-pro. (So I had been playing semi-pro games twice a week, Sunday League, a five-a-side league at work, and training a few nights a week. I was 25.)

But immediately after those Sunday League games I started to get too ill to climb the stairs, and slept for four hours straight within two hours of full-time. My muscles ached, my vision went blurry, and my digestive system shut down; it took two-three days to shake the post-exertion malaise (PEM). I was finally diagnosed with M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) in 1999, with the key defining characteristic being that exercise and exertion, rather than make you fitter, make you more ill; the body sees it as some kind of assault, that it must repel.

(Decades later, and with some creeping return of shortsightedness, I would take part in three University of Leicester studies into people with M.E. and visual problems, which my optician – unaware of my participation – would later quote to me, when trying to explain why I was a rare case of someone whose eyesight was sometimes better than in the previous test six or twelve months earlier.) 

Bar a couple of aborted kickabouts in the early 2000s that came with a large dose of denial (including me playing six-a-side as a goalie until the last 10 minutes when I got so bored and ball-hungry I had to play outfield), I last properly kicked a ball in 1999, at the age of 28. Compared to now, I look back at that version of me as comparatively healthy. I had much better overall fitness levels, but it also meant I suffered more serious short-term symptoms from the kind of exertions that should have been simple. My dream, when diagnosed, was to play football again before my mid-30s; I turn 49 next month.

So football has been such a huge part of my life. Part of my perspective comes from the fact that I took up writing about Liverpool as a hobby in late 1999, and, after years of writing overly long articles for various fan sites in the days before people used the tl;dr response, by 2005 was publishing my first book, which led to being asked to write a weekly column on the official Liverpool website, which led to more books, and then, in 2009, this website (which, unlike the books, provides a steady stream of income. At least it does if the football is not entirely cancelled). 

People would tell me I was lucky that I was able to write, but of course, I’d also spent a lot of time in my late teens dreaming of becoming a writer, and working at my craft (badly, as do all beginners). I wrote unpaid articles for nearly six years before I made a penny from it.

I always resented this notion of being ‘lucky’ to have a talent for something that I could make a living from, but it is also partly true. And while I worked hard to hone my craft, and had little fortune with my health, I was still alive, and not totally blind – both of which would have probably hindered me. I went from being a terrible writer with hair to a terrible writer with no hair, then on to being a writer whose work some people appreciated, but I didn’t do it all on my own. Talent is largely a myth; it’s hard work, but also, opportunity. 

You need the breaks, and sometimes the bad luck is what enables the good luck to appear further down the line. (Equally, sometimes the bad luck will kill you, and then there is nothing further down the line.)

I used to write about my personal life, in the context of how it affected my perspective on football, and also because I was constantly having to explain to people on forums (in the days before social media) why I no longer went to games regularly, and how I was not some casual fan who was half-arsed, as people sought do discredit this poseur who couldn’t even be bothered to go to the match!

But in recent years I find myself less able to open up about my life. After I started writing for the official Liverpool site I’d get sent links to forums where they were discussing how I had AIDS, how I’d never even been to Anfield, how I’d been done for benefits fraud, and how I deserved to die. I quickly learned that people talk some serious shit on the internet. And I also learned to develop a thicker skin, albeit everyone has their days when the barbs get through. I took a ‘wade through the mess’ attitude onto Twitter, but eventually that wore me down, to the point where I stopped reading replies – although I also said some regrettable things (but in the internet era, whatever you say stays said, and you must pay for it for the rest of your life. The art of forgiveness, and moving on, seems lost. Cancel culture resembles a witch-hunt, and words are not violence. When I made some purposefully badly-worded tweets after Liverpool’s youngsters humiliated Shrewsbury’s grown men, so many people were gleefully telling my I was going to lose my job. I am my own employer! And people need to stop being so obsessively sensitive and get a sense of humour, even if they don’t find the jokes funny; and to stop reading malicious meaning into things where no harm was intended. But I digress). 

If you share your pain, some people will really relate to it, and it will serve a purpose; but other people will call you a narcissist, or use your own vulnerability against you.

Some days I still have the fight for a good ruckus, but most of the time I don’t need the aggro. I also don’t tend to share anything about my personal life anymore as I just don’t want it sullied. Perhaps I put on my anti-vulnerability suit, as Brené Brown may describe it, and then the denial just slowly kills me in my sleep.

Brené Brown’s work also introduced me to a wonderful Theodore Roosevelt quote from 1910.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Yet I am both the critic, and the criticised. My work is meaningful, and meaningless.  

Anyway, I’ve spent the last four months doing little else but write a book about Liverpool’s season, as I’ve done on almost a dozen other occasions, some of which ended superbly, and others which were damp squibs. Still, a season is often full of interesting stories, and glory isn’t everything. That said, success definitely sells better; whilst if you write a book that ends with your team finishing second, you will get hundreds of trolling reviews from Everton and Manchester United fans.

Of course, those fans will find it hysterical – top bantz – if Liverpool are denied the league title by a virus; at least, until their loved one, on the mend after cancer treatment, dies. (And forgive me for my sins, too, for I have also laughed at the misfortunes of their teams. Some schadenfreude is understandable, but the modern game is all about discrediting anyone else’s success and cancelling their pleasure, whilst rejoicing in their pain. The football writer Oliver Holt noted that it seems to be aimed more poisonously at Liverpool fans, and that appears to back up many of our experiences – perhaps as we’ve had this millstone for 30 years, and it’s funny to see other people consistently fail, and painful to see them succeed.) 

I recently receiving an email praising an article I’d written on depression – indeed, I’d written it so long ago I wondered what the guy was talking about. He was a Manchester United fan, and the email was playfully mocking, but respectful. It helped him to read the article, as a sufferer. And then I found myself reminded by how we’re all just people, and the labels we give ourselves or stick to others just get in the way of our common humanity, our shared general decency. We see others as concepts, not people. But whether you support Man City, Man United, Chelsea, Everton or Liverpool, your odds of being affected by the coronavirus – beyond the short-term difficulty in acquiring toilet paper because some numpty has bought 6,000 rolls – is pretty equal, lest one city be adversely affected beyond rational probability. Whatever your labels, whatever you self-identify as, this will probably affect us all the same.

(By the way, does anyone know where to store 6,000 toilet rolls? Asking for a friend.) 

I’ve also spent five years, on and off, writing my second novel, and it remains unfinished business from which I could not happily walk away; not least as I’ve imparted little bits of my soul along the way. It’s often been my refuge – the imagination a happier place to take yourself at times. (It’s just that Liverpool got so successful I had less time to take myself away to a different world of words, and there was a lot more to write about thanks to the glorious Jürgen Klopp and the amazing staff and players.) 

A few years ago I got into mindfulness (which I still find helpful, just not as easy to practice), and for a while had the equanimity to be run through with a sword, in keeping with the ancient story of a man – probably the Buddha, but possibly Derek Acorah – who faces his assassin with the calmness of someone whose life could lost in the blink of an eye without any regrets. Now I’m holding on to a ton of stuff, and don’t want to let go.

(Or, as I gained my doses of wisdom on VHS in 1991, “If you’re afraid of dying, and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the world. It all depends on how you look at it.” Or maybe I just dreamt it.)

With my death unlikely, but a higher probability than a few weeks ago – and higher still if anyone infected comes and sneezes on me – and with my main painkiller (football) ready to be put into deepfreeze, I can unzip the anti-vulnerability suit and hang it up for a while. My skin is bare, and thin. Turns out, all skin is fine, and tender. (The anti-vulnerability suit, it turns out, is just a giant extra-sized epidermis.)

It makes me anxious that so many of my friends are vulnerable. I am part of a community of fellow sick folk, and people on this site are ill, too. My mum is in her 80s, although she’s still as feisty as hell – but equally, quite ready to pop her clogs, she says, if the grim reaper knocks on her door (or asks to play chess, as he just has once again – this time for real – with the dearly departed Max von Sydow). My son is 18, and as such, unlikely to be troubled directly, but our summer holiday – the last before he starts university – has almost certainly bitten the dust, lest we want to sun it up in Spain in biohazard suits. 

And so here I am, after nearly 18 years of my son (who doesn’t like football, in part, I assume, because of how much it made me shout at the telly) staying with me on Saturdays and Wednesdays, our time together has dwindled, to the point where he got a Saturday job, and suddenly the house is empty (bar my crazy dog) for most of the week. Still, I have the football to focus on, right? 


One major regret of mine is last season’s Champions League final. I didn’t enjoy one minute of the game before Divock Origi sealed the win; I felt sick, and just a bag of nerves. In some ways it got even worse when Mo Salah scored that 2nd-minute penalty, as it was ours to lose; and loss aversion is such a mind-fuck. It feels, after all, as if the rest of the football world is waiting for you to “fuck it up”, as the chant goes.

I watched alone, at home, as is my routine. Unless I can watch football with good friends I’d rather be alone, lest I want to add the irritating comments of those around me to the irritating comments of the commentators. (And self-isolation is just a way of life.) It was a stark contrast to Istanbul, in so many ways. This was a far better team, but it also felt like a far more petty era, and I was holding onto the need to dent the hopes of those who wanted to see Liverpool fail, rather than living for the pure love of my team. 

One of the best moments of my life was catching up with my friends Matt and Adie outside the Atatürk, having been in a separate part of the ground to them (although as Matt gave me the ticket, I couldn’t be too fussy). All my memories of the game against AC Milan having been switched by the opposing camera angles, so now all I can see are the television pictures. But I can picture seeing the guys down the side of the stadium, and the explosion of joy. In a weird way that was more the point. 

Of course, with time, even that is fading. You keep your memories, I find, but they grow increasingly fuzzy at the edges, then that fuzziness works its way inwards. The memory is still there, just increasingly opaque.

At that stage, in 2005, it was just 11 years of going to games regularly with Adie (albeit we went less frequently after 2002), and eight with Matt, but it seemed like we trekked to so many bad football matches, particularly in the 1990s. I may even have seen Sean Dundee play, although the mind plays tricks.

[Edit: I also wanted to add that the last European final I went to was in 2007, in Athens, which was my last trip abroad for 11 years. I went with the same friends, and a group of five or six other Reds that I mostly didn’t know. It was brilliant. I enjoyed that experience much more than winning the Champions League last season, even though I have no real memories of the game 13 years ago, and the pain of losing has grown dim. Being with people, and being at the game, is often so much more important than winning or losing. When you watch at home, it can become more about the result than the experience; although a lot of us might have no choice in where we watch from. That said, I remain incredibly grateful that Liverpool beat Spurs last June!]

And now, here Liverpool FC are, on the precipice of that elusive league title, just as a plague sweeps across the world. I still care, at least until things get so bad in the real world that caring seems creepy. (As much as I love writing and reading fiction, and indeed football, I think music is the thing I could least cope without. Poetry, melodies, emotions, rhythms – they are my life support. They are my Rubber Ring, although Morrissey has taken my desire to cut people some slack about their public utterances and made me conclude that, these days, on the weight of evidence, he’s just an enormous arsehole. I won’t forget the songs that made me smile, and the songs that made me cry, but I’ll probably skip them when they pop up on shuffle. I wouldn’t want Morrissey to be “cancelled”, but I no longer buy his music.)

Due to my health issues, I tend to only go to games in the autumn and spring, and I have been due to join Matt and Adie at the Palace game, which we set aside months ago. Now I have no way of knowing if the game will go ahead; or if it will go ahead behind closed doors; or if it goes ahead as normal, how my body would react to the stresses, which often leave me wiped out. Dare I chance it, with M.E. and asthma?

It seems unlikely that the season will just be cancelled and annulled, but if it was, with a 25-point lead, surely Liverpool would have to be awarded the title (even if it would just encourage deniers to say “well, you didn’t play all the games”, or “City would have still caught you”). Some City fans were already calling it a “tainted title” on the basis of VAR decisions, even though Liverpool have not statistically benefited from VAR in any way.  

My hunch is that the league will have to be wrapped up in one way or another, in order to make any subsequent seasons meaningful and fair. You can’t just pretend three-quarters of a season didn’t happen.

One solution – assuming that the virus gains momentum in the coming month or so, and then loses traction in the summer – could be to conclude the campaign in August and September, then start next season in October, with domestic cups scrapped for a season. (Obviously one problem would be that quite a few Premier League players’ contracts expire on July 1st.)

[Edit: it seems that coronaviruses can survive quite well in hot climates, so this may not be the answer. See the footnotes of the piece for excellent scientific discussions on just how serious this situation is, and how children are at low risk, adults are at medium risk and the elderly are at high risk.]

Or maybe we just won’t give a shit by then, when loved ones have died; at least, until we once again give a shit, in part as we need something to fill the gnawing void, what with our loved ones having died, and our lives already feeling empty. 

Still, we must count our blessings. I’ve had a terrible time, at times, with lots of unbearable low moments that I somehow bore, and yet also a wonderful life (Colin Vearncombe, another who is no longer with us). I’ve done things I never thought possible; been to amazes places, met great people, loved and been loved.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion (okay, I may be spooling stuff from my mental VHS hard-drive here.)

Hopefully COVID-19 will serve to unite us in some ways, during this incredibly divisive era; although of course, it has led to some people who look like they’re from China being attacked, for contracting an illness they had no option in contracting, when, in truth, when they didn’t even have the virus. (Those attacking them did not stop to apply medical tests, as is the wont of imbecilic mobs. They don’t tend to carry lab testing kits, I find, and they read tabloid newspapers.)

Hopefully political tyrants and bullies will be sent packing, and a more humane era of politics will emerge, where people stop obsessing quite so much about their differences and find some common ground. Tragedy often brings us closer together; Londoners often spoke fondly of the blitz, after all (my mum’s school was bombed, but on a Saturday). However, if people use it as just another excuse to distance themselves from – and vilify – other types of people, then we might need Bruce Willis piggybacking on an asteroid to save humanity. Maybe we’d unite behind a cause where no other human could be blamed.  

And an awareness of our own mortality can lead to acceptance, and the realisation that we need to seize the day. (VHS lesson, 1989. Robin Williams, dead.)

But if I get cut down in my slightly-post-prime, I hope I made an impact, and maybe someone will help finish my 2nd novel, and, most importantly, dispose, must hurriedly and discreetly, of all my goat-based pornography, which has some disturbing goat-on-goat action, albeit only – you must understand – with constantly adult goats. (And to think that some people believe sheep porn to be better. There are so many weirdos out there.) 

And so, until it’s over, we carry on. We go again. As such, I reserve the right to care about football until the point where I realise it’s just a game; at least until the subsequent point where, once again, I care about football.

For some updated source material to listen to regarding Covid-19:

Unedited, frank and open conversations with leading experts about just how serious this is, with many myths busted. While they all suggest not to panic, this is far more serious and deadly than a lot of people seem to either realise, or simply accept.

Sam Harris and Nick Christakis of Yale:

Or the latest Joe Rogan podcast with Michael Osterholm (American public health scientist and a biosecurity and infectious disease expert):

Some excellent data analysis on how quickly this is spreading globally: