These are strange times. Fear is in the air. Uncertainty reigns. A sequence of events that seems unprecedented can take on a meaning that goes beyond reality.
On Saturday, four EFL games were interrupted by medical emergencies in the stands. At Craven Cottage, Fulham’s 1-1 draw with Blackpool was delayed for more than half an hour as a fan was treated and taken to hospital. Paul Parish, who suffered cardiac arrest, later died.
There was better news from Boundary Park, where Oldham Athletic’s 0-0 draw with Rochdale was delayed for 23 minutes. The individual involved was reportedly in stable condition after being taken care of.
Scares at Wycombe Wanderers against MK Dons and Bradford City’s game against Crawley Town were less severe. Still, four stops in one afternoon seems to be part of an emerging trend. There have been a series of similar incidents over the past few months. The list of matches stopped due to illness involving spectators is growing. Teams have been pulled from the field at St James’ Park, Vicarage Road, White Hart Lane and St Mary’s in recent weeks.
This is a new and frightening development. There must be a reason for this. The relevant question is simple: what is different now that would explain this unnerving wave of emergencies. There is a seemingly obvious answer: the pandemic. Anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists took to social media on Saturday night to offer their thoughts on what’s going on. “This is not normal,” one tweeted. “Stop thinking this is normal.”
In a sense, this statement is correct. It is a new phenomenon. The apocalyptic overtones are laughable, however. Anyone who has attended football regularly for a long time knows that people die at matches. It’s just that in the past, the game continued, unaware of their fate.
After more than 50 years of games, I counted some of the obviously deadly situations I had witnessed over the years when health issues caused death. The most poignant that came to mind on Saturday happened at Craven Cottage in 2005, in a 0-0 draw between Fulham and Charlton Athletic. Returning to headquarters after half-time, it became clear that a man three seats away had become unresponsive during the break. Stewards alerted St. John Ambulance medics and they attempted to revive him for 20 minutes as the action continued on the field. The vast majority of those present were unaware that anything was happening.
Going back further, I remember two people who died on the old standing Kop in Liverpool in the 1970s. Spectators often fell ill or distressed on the standing terraces. If the crowd was sparse, the police and doctors rushed up the steps to attend to them. For major games, where it was impossible to penetrate the moving mass, the patient was hoisted by his entourage and passed over the heads of the crowd to the edge of the field. The majority of sufferers were unconscious victims who were easily revived. Nonetheless, there were times when ambulance staff found themselves embroiled in intense attempts to resuscitate those behind the goal. The game passed happily, with most of the crowd, the players, or the referee showing no interest in their fate.
When Liverpool played York City in the FA Cup in 1985, a man collapsed a yard or two in front of me. From the shaking heads of the police and St. John Ambulance volunteers who removed him, there was no hope. Then I remembered that I was present at a game where one of the most iconic figures in English football died. Bill Dean – he hated being called ‘Dixie’ because of the racist undertones of the nickname – scored 60 league goals in a single season for Everton, a record that is unlikely to be broken. He suffered a heart attack while watching the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park in 1980. Word spread through the Park End that one of the game’s greats had passed before the final whistle even blew.
Harry Catterick was another Everton hero who died in a game. The title-winning manager also went into cardiac arrest at Goodison, five years after Dean. These are two famous examples. The majority of people who have died while watching football have gone unnoticed by all but their families, nearby spectators and those who tried to save them.
And no wonder there are sometimes deaths or health problems. Many people go to football matches. On Saturday alone, around 300,000 people attended EFL games. This figure more than doubles when the Premier League is active. There are bound to be individuals in that number who fall ill or even die in the stadiums. The big difference now is that the priorities have changed. The health of those who fell ill took priority over further action.
There is nothing new here, but a change of attitude. Far from being a harbinger of misfortune, it is a positive development. First responders say a break from play reduces the risk to the patient. It calms the crowd, it makes it easier for doctors to move around because they don’t block views, and it allows them to concentrate and communicate without being distracted by shouting and chanting. Plus, it means club doctors can get involved if needed.
Of course, football’s status as one of the greatest expressions of British culture makes it particularly vulnerable to those seeking political capital. Christian Eriksen’s meltdown at the Euros was taken by some as proof that the vaccine was causing a spike in premature deaths of professional athletes. Fifa studies conducted and completed before the pandemic indicate that this is not the case. However, the evidence rarely stops the scare stories.
People will continue to die from natural causes at matches. Rugby and cricket too. Wherever crowds gather in large numbers, it means there is a possibility of someone getting sick. It’s inevitable. There were four stops on Saturday. Unfortunately, one person died. Another was hospitalized. The other two had happier endings. Four out of 32 EFL matches looks like a scary percentage. One death in about 300,000 spectators – regrettable as that is – paints a less terrifying picture.
For most of its history, football ignored medical emergencies among fans and carried on. Not anymore. Stopping games is the only thing that has changed and it is a change for the better. It maximizes the chances of survival for those who suffer from serious illnesses. The cranks are trying to hijack this positive movement for their own insidious agenda.
Stopping play has nothing to do with pandemics or vaccines. It is a matter of human decency. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise puts conspiracy above compassion.