//Gill Sherry//

I realise my obsession with Premiership football is a little unusual although, I’m not entirely alone in my enthusiasm. Women the world over regularly attend football matches, watch live games on TV and can explain the offside rule just as well as any man.

As a life-long supporter of Tottenham Hotspur, my love of the game has (at times) been severely tested – their last major honour was the FA Cup in 1991 – but my passion has never waned. In fact, if anything, it has escalated with each and every season. Never more so than last year when, along with my husband (a long-suffering Coventry City fan), I travelled all the way from Scotland to Madrid in a campervan for the Champions League Final.

The trip was memorable for many reasons, not least of which was the joy of seeing my husband in a Spurs shirt – a one-time only event! Sadly, the joy was short-lived and, together with the thousands of other Spurs fans who had travelled to Spain, my heart was broken by the team in red.

Needless to say, it was a long journey home. Of course, the loss to Liverpool had been a major blow but the match itself had also been disappointing: nothing like the exciting, end-to-end game we had all predicted. Still, I had 1,500 miles to reflect; to get over the defeat and look forward to the new season.

How could any of us have predicted what would happen next? That, along with the rest of the world, football would be severely impacted by a new and deadly virus? That the season would be disrupted, players would test positive, and games (when eventually allowed to resume) would be played behind closed doors? It was unimaginable but it happened nonetheless.

Weekends were just not the same without football. Granted, we all had much more important things to worry about than what is, after all (despite the obscene amount of money involved), just a game. But still, I felt its absence keenly.

Football, for many, is escapism. Not only for the fans who religiously attend every home game, who endure many a British winter to cheer on their team in toe-numbing temperatures, but also for the millions who watch it from the comfort of their sofa, shouting at the TV and running around the lounge (or burying their head in their hands) at the final whistle. Football is a routine. It’s as habitual as setting the alarm clock on a Sunday night; as customary as turkey on Christmas Day. Saturdays without football lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.

There’s something about a Saturday afternoon, when the referees blow their whistles up and down the country, signalling the start of ninety minutes of anticipation. It’s not just the Tottenham score I’m interested in. I’m keen to learn if our rivals have dropped points, if the league leaders have faltered, if the teams in the bottom three have shifted. I’m also eager to find out who scored the goals, who received a yellow card, how many saves the Leicester City goalkeeper made. Why? Fantasy Premier League, that’s why.

For those unfamiliar with this sporting pastime, FPL is the biggest Fantasy Football game in the world. Over six-million players participated last season, picking their team (based on real players) and scoring points according to their actual performance each game week. It’s highly competitive and provides hours of endless fun. It adds an extra dimension to an otherwise ‘normal’ game of football; a hint of excitement for the neutral spectator.

When football, along with all other sports, was brought to an abrupt halt back in March, the Fantasy Football League was also suspended. So, not only could I not see my beloved Spurs play on a weekly basis, I could no longer tease my husband for his poor performance in the Fantasy League. I couldn’t laugh at my brother-in-law for forgetting to pick his team or ridicule my work colleagues for their meagre points tally. It was another form of entertainment (along with sport, cinema, theatre etc.) that, thanks to COVID-19, had been denied.

Thankfully, to the relief of many, the Premier League resumed on 17th June and with it, the FPL. Supporters were unable to attend matches but with every game shown live on TV, fans were guaranteed a pitch-side seat in their own living room – with fake crowd noise to optimise the viewing experience. It wasn’t perfect but it was better than nothing.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool stole the silverware again, emerging victorious to claim the Premier League title. Tottenham finished a disappointing sixth. I did have something to cheer about though. Not only did my ‘real’ team qualify for the Europa League, my ‘fantasy’ team were crowned champions of the FPL – a fact I was particularly proud of, bearing in mind I was the only woman in a league with 26 men. I’m still enjoying every minute of my undefeated glory!

Of course, coronavirus is also undefeated and remains very much a problem for the new footballing season. The fixtures for 2020/21 may have been announced but the situation is far from normal. Who knows how long it will be before stadiums are full once again, bursting with atmosphere and expectation? Who knows if travel restrictions will be lifted so I can set off in my campervan and follow my team on their Europa journey? And who knows if I can retain my Fantasy League crown?

There is still much to be done before the sporting world can return to its pre-pandemic normal. It will take a massive team effort to defeat the virus but if we all play by the rules we can relegate it from our lives: show it the red card and remove its evil, disruptive presence. Let’s blow the full-time whistle on COVID and applaud the kick-off our sporting routines.

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