For a time, there was nothing I cared less about than football.
As someone who has been a Blackburn Rovers fanatic since the age of 5 (to the bemusement of everyone considering I’m a Londoner with no connection to Lancashire), this statement would be unthinkable prior to the COVID-19 crisis that has swept the world since last year. It often felt like my life revolved around Saturday afternoons between three and five, anxiously listening to the BBC Radio Lancashire commentators and then transcribing these events for the Rovers Chat match report.
It probably didn’t help that Rovers’ last result pre-suspension was a 3-0 drubbing to Derby County, John Buckley’s sending off topping a miserable afternoon at Pride Park. Shortly after that result, I was worried about far more than Blackburn’s push for the top six; I was heading to the eastern front of the Covid battle, ICU.
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As a nurse, I’ve always had to deal with the unexpected, but little could prepare me for the transfer from my usual Day Services job to a seemingly war-torn intensive care unit (although the comprehensive four-hour training session we received somehow didn’t settle my nerve as much as the hospital had hoped). Despite the heroic work the nurses, doctors and support staff put in, our small unit was soon overwhelmed with intubated patients, hovering between life and death. I would come home absolutely exhausted mentally and physically, unable to even be comforted by my family as I retreated to isolation in my bedroom for their safety. I think it’s fair to say that the suspension of professional football was not my overwhelming priority.
It did lurk in the background. I remember the incredulity of a recently extubated patient scanning the Sky Sports app on his phone, wondering why no scores were coming up; he could accept that he had been asleep for 10 days, but no football? Now that was unbelievable.
Thankfully, while the football season was disrupted, not all footballers lay idle. I was proud to see Rovers player Bradley Johnson help distribute urgent PPE to nursing homes in his local area, the perfect riposte to Matt Hancock’s self-serving comment that footballers should ‘play their part’.
Talk eventually turned to the resumption of football in England. I was not convinced. Having seen up close the damage Covid-19 could accomplish I worried that clubs were risking players and coaching staff’s health for entertainment and money. My fears were not helped by hearing on our local radio stations that Rovers captain Elliott Bennett had contracted the disease, albeit asymptomatically (This was coincidentally the first time I had heard Blackburn mentioned on said radio stations since many years earlier they had butchered calling out one of our results by labelling us ‘Blackburn Wanderers).
However, I was still a fan. On a rare Saturday off I made my first ever-purchase of an IFollow pass to watch Blackburn’s first game since March 8 against Bristol City, a mere 14 weeks late. Predictably, there were many issues with the technology, and perhaps as predictably Blackburn fell behind. But then a fluke Corry Evans cross flew into the net. We ended up 3-1 winners, and I had a strange warm fuzzy feeling in my heart. As a Blackburn fan I knew it would not last long, but nonetheless; it was hope.
When mask wearing began to come into effect, my mum bought me the first of what would become many Blackburn-related facemasks. I would wander into my local shop, often the only one wearing a face covering. I thought I would experience embarrassment, but I realised a lifetime proudly wearing all sorts of Rovers paraphernalia had left me immune from such sentiments.
I began to re-experience the joy of following the team on matchdays; one Saturday I found myself nursing a ventilated patient in an isolation room, not able to access my phone. I considered placing a note on the open window to get someone to check the score for me, but wavered, thinking it might be considered unprofessional (I have now worked in ICU for so long that worry has long since passed).
I realised that football remained a powerful tool to help connect to people; having spoken to a patient about the sport for most of a weekend, I answered a phone call from a relative to be told ‘ah, you must be the Blackburn supporter’. A vital part of my identity seemed to be back. I was indeed, the Blackburn Rovers supporter.Embed from Getty Images
Last week I received my second Covid vaccine, the start of hopefully a passport to a normal life. Yet travel to England remains a far-flung prospect. While my initial plans once Covid recedes are for meeting friends and family, the prospect of once again visiting Ewood Park and seeing my team play is tantalising (I’m not confident enough to say that I would see them win as my current points-per-game ratio is shocking, and could get me banned from visiting even post-covid). One of the few upsides of this pandemic is the ability to watch my beloved team weekly, but even this is at the cost of local supporters unable to take their physical seats.
Covid may have left us further apart than ever, but in some ways it has brought us together. I have appreciated the warm glow of Rovers Twitter in my isolation, the ability to debate and bicker about non-essential matters a fine distraction from more-serious affairs. At the same time, I have experienced the triumphs and despair of people I would never have even been aware of but for our mutual support for a small-town club in Lancashire. Football is not a matter of life and death. That doesn’t mean it’s not important.
And remember, if you ever need someone to chat to, Rovers Chat’s messages are open for all on Twitter and Instagram so please use us if you need us.
Thanks for reading.