Football and coronavirus: At Radcliffe, the game goes on... for now

Radcliffe FC and Whitby Town players fight for ideal positioning before a set piece. Paul Currie

RADCLIFFE, England -- "Can I have everyone's attention, please?" says a man holding a pint of lager in the Radcliffe FC club bar. "Ivan is 76 today and he was down here at half past seven this morning, forking the pitch to make sure the game went ahead. Thanks very much, Ivan."

While questionable playing surfaces are common at this time of year in the seventh tier -- Radcliffe are 153 places behind Premier League leaders Liverpool in the English football pyramid -- the effect of the coronavirus means that volunteer groundsman Ivan played a part in a near-unique event on Saturday: Radcliffe's 2-2 Northern Premier League draw against Whitby Town was a sporting event that went ahead.

These are exceptional times in the sporting world. Among other impacts, the global pandemic caused the unprecedented suspension of Europe's major football leagues, while golf's Masters Tournament has been postponed and the NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS have suspended play.

Far beyond the big crowds and mega money, though, Radcliffe offered an option to those keen to watch live football and, in doing so, did not miss out on much-needed matchday income.

"We usually only get 350 for home games," kitman Paul Welsby told ESPN. "But there's no football on for miles, so we might get more than 400 today."

There is no sense of apprehension that a larger-than-usual crowd will put more people at risk of contracting COVID-19, and the U.K. government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said last week that there is no firm evidence that large attendances at sporting events place the public in greater danger.

Whereas guidance in the U.S. has advised that crowds in excess of 250 "pose greater risk" of transmission, the reason for considering a ban on such events in the U.K. was instead due to the additional strain they place on the emergency services, who must be present at gatherings of more than 500 people.

All of which is why the Northern Premier League (NPL), acting on official government advice and in conjunction with the Football Association, sanctioned games to be played.

An NPL statement said: "Our primary concern, as always, is to protect the financial stability of our 62 clubs. This means playing as many games as we can, so long as clubs wish to do so. This is not contrary to the League's and clubs' duty of care considerations to players, officials or supporters but, in a season where clubs have been severely impacted by weather-related postponements, the NPL board believes that pausing the season right now would prove disastrous for many clubs."

"No club at this level could sustain paying wages without playing and people coming through the gates," Whitby chairman Eddie McNamee told ESPN. "Most of the clubs are hand-to-mouth, week-to-week, so it will be a major problem. Our players earn around £200-300 a week, but there are 20 in the squad, so it's substantial for us."

And so Saturday saw business as usual at Stainton Park and other grounds. Lee Fowler, the Radcliffe manager, says he is bemused by the widespread sporting shutdown, while also admitting "none of us really knows what we are dealing with."

Ivan forks the pitch, Paul washes the kit and "does pretty much everything else," while another old-timer walks around with a plastic bucket, collecting coins for the "ground development fund."

"It's really for my wife's new kitchen,' he jokes, whenever a piece of loose change is thrown in by a generous supporter.

Radcliffe began the day 16th in the Northern Premier League. It would take three promotions to reach the Football League, then another four to make the top flight. Nobody has such lofty aspirations at this level, however.

This is a league made up of teams rooted in communities, such as South Shields, Atherton Collieries, Gainsborough Trinity and FC United, the club formed in 2005 by Manchester United supporters opposed to the club's takeover at Old Trafford by the Glazer family. It is a level at which the semi-professional players train twice a week and have real jobs, such as builders, fitness instructors and firefighters. Old Trafford is 10 miles away and Manchester City's Etihad Stadium is a similar distance, but this is another world.

At Radcliffe, the pitch is pockmarked with sand and mud and has a slope, from left to right, of more than 12 feet. There are two food outlets, offering hot dogs, pies, coffee, chocolate, and chips and gravy; when it rains, half of the ground gets wet.

When was the last time you saw a Premier League player fixing the goals just before kickoff? Radcliffe defender Callum Grogan is forced into such action, sitting on the shoulders of teammate Rick Smith to reach the crossbar and reattach the netting to the stanchion.

There are Man United and Man City shirts and tracksuits dotted around the ground, but fans from Tranmere Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Chester City, Doncaster Rovers and Bury have also diverted to Radcliffe.

"I'm a Wolves fan," says Gary, who brought his son to the game. "I was in the area and fancied some football. It was only £9 to get in and you can have a beer and watch the game, so it's fantastic. This whole coronavirus thing seems to have been blown out of proportion. Football needs to go on. I don't know what we will do if there is no football for the next few weeks."

Many wish for football to continue, but few expect it to do so. On Saturday morning, there were 21 reported COVID-19 deaths in the U.K., a figure that climbed to 35 just 24 hours later. Positive tests for the infection rose by 232 to 1,372 during the same period.

"I was talking to the [Northern Premier] League chairman at half-time, and he told me they are having a big meeting on Monday," McNamee says. "They are trying to extend [the season] as much as they can, but they will have to follow Football Association guidelines, so we will just play it by ear."

In its statement, the league acknowledged that "the situation is changing daily, so our approach to Covid-19 must be flexible," meaning that this entertaining game, which featured feisty tackles, bad defending and a questionable penalty for Whitby's equaliser -- VAR is a Premier League-only concept -- was played amid expectation that imminent government and FA action will make it the last for some time. (Editors' note: Monday's meeting did indeed bring a suspension of fixtures "until further notice.")

Any stoppage will be like turning off an economic tap for most clubs outside of the elite. Nobody is involved to get rich -- it is all about the love of the game and holding on to faded dreams of making a living out of kicking a ball around a pitch -- but money is nonetheless vital. Whitby's last game is scheduled for April 25, but it is possible the season could be declared over almost six weeks earlier.

"If we have to go into lockdown, there will be no way to raise funds," McNamee says. "Everything to do with the club will be off limits if people are forced to stay at home. But if the season ends, we will need guidance from the FA about contracts, because the players are contracted until the end of the season."

McNamee hopes the FA or Premier League might support the game at lower levels, but trickle-down economics have done little for clubs such as Radcliffe and Whitby, who are both so far down the football food chain that they have to find their own ways to sustain themselves.

Next Saturday is earmarked as a red-letter day for Radcliffe. It is the club's 70th anniversary, and a party is advertised in the match programme, with "hot food available" and "superb female vocalist Roxi Richards performing live on stage from 8.30 p.m."

If the season is suspended and there is no prospect of fans paying to watch games, the party will be crucial for club funds. However, if the U.K. follows Italy and Spain by imposing self-isolation on the population, it too will fall by the wayside.

Radcliffe assistant manager David Thompson, who made 56 first-team appearances for Liverpool after graduating from the club's youth team alongside Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, is taking his first steps in coaching and says the prospect of no football is crushing, even if he understands the bigger picture.

"It's bizarre," Thompson tells ESPN. "Will it be a temporary delay? The games have to be played out.

"There were over 400 people here today, but they weren't on top of each other. I don't see any reason why our games can't go ahead. It's not like at Premier League level, where they will have to be played behind closed doors. The crowds are much smaller at this level."

"But I saw Jurgen Klopp's statement about it all, and he is right. Your health is your wealth, and we have to start looking out for each other."

For Radcliffe captain Stephen Dawson, there is a sense of déjà vu. Last September, he was part of the Bury squad who lost their jobs when the League One team was expelled from the EFL after the club's failure to prove its ability to pay bills. Six months later, he faces more uncertainty but is trying to keep things "normal."

"Who knows what will happen?" the 34-year-old Dubliner says. "But it's Paddy's Day [St. Patrick's Day] on Tuesday, so I'm not going to let anything spoil that. Let's see what happens."

Saturday's official attendance of 480 was Radcliffe's highest of the year -- the recent average for home games is 360 -- and helped boost gate receipts by more than £1,000; that kind of money goes a long way.

"It's been really busy with pies and hot dogs," the woman in charge of the food kiosk told ESPN. "It's been bloody brilliant."

But when will Radcliffe, or similar clubs, have another day like this? The problem is that nobody knows.

"People need a release, though, and football gives them that," Thompson says. "They are going to have to find something else to watch for a while now, though, aren't they?"