August 5th, 2028. Thirty football grounds open their gates for the first time since Covid-19 struck back in March 2020.
Some obvious trepidation was present – what could happen? Over the last three months, the grounds had been under deep cleansing, renewed hope in the sporting community was creating a buzz. Tickets kept from the 19/20 season had been declared valid, although some of those would not be applicable for the exact fixture. If you had a ticket, but no team, you could ‘defect’ to a different fanbase. If your team existed still, then you could go to their matches, they just might be against different opponents.
More for precaution than any other reason, today was ‘Derby day’, the new FA deeming it sensible to start local. With central England still a no-go zone, movement of teams and fans seemed a big risk.
Ipswich Town faced Essex United (formerly Southend and Colchester) in a Championship clash. Nationally the eyes were on this fixture, both teams had fared well in the open trails, signing a glut of young talent in the newly created draft system. For former players, it became apparent that people were wary of living in major cities, even now.
New Ipswich manager Luke Chambers was optimistic. With big-money signings and high wage earners a thing of the past, Chambers had been able to compete with the very best clubs to tempt players to the Suffolk safe zone, perfectly located for London, but no need to live in the congested metropolis.
Colchester manager John McGreal was kept on by Robbie Cowling throughout the sabbatical, although not all duties were football-related. McGreal, owning a clean driving license, was key in Cowling’s strategy, when the Essex teams merged. McGreal was on hand to continue his project, albeit with none of his squad from eight years previous. McGreal also used the location to glean talent from the draft, and also persuade senior players that Essex would be a great place to relocate to. Marquee signing Mason Mount, the only player from the now-defunct Chelsea interested in returning to the beautiful game, being lured to Essex by the wiley gaffer.
Another focus point on Jeff Stellings Super-6 was to be the new West Country derby, Cornwall County playing their first game away from home against Plymouth Argyle, at their shared ‘Home Park’. Cornwall being, led by the now aged Ian Holloway, had signed only players born in the county, and rumour has it that their trial day included some rather impractical tasks, although Holloway refuted the comments about ‘Welly Wanging’.
A lack of referees was to be the new FA’s first problem but, with Lineker calling the bluff of well known motor-mouthed pundit Ian Wright by placing him in charge of officials, a new policy of all referees have had to have been players beforehand. Wright contracted 120 officials with relative ease, although an obvious bias toward Arsenal and Crystal Palace would be under constant scrutiny.
Sunderland versus Middlesbrough was to be the first game, with an 11.30 am kick-off time, partly to allow the police to cope with two games in the North-East, partly because of Newcastle also playing at home, (Lineker and his team were not up to running the fixtures computer yet). Referee Theo Walcott led the teams out, the customary air-high-fives and ceremonial photos all went seemingly without issue, The Stadium of Light stood silent for the minute of respect to those lost, the atmosphere was eerie, many of the crowd still wearing facemasks, uneasy with being in such a large crowd.
Kick off, and Sunderland’s new striker, Connor Howey-Mann hoofs the ball back toward his ‘keeper, Robbie Rogers. The twenty-four-year-old former bricklayer looks stunned. Panicking, Rogers attempts to kick it back, the ball skimming off his studs, and spinning towards the net, a terrified Rogers diving at the ball to try and keep it out. Sadly, for both Rogers and Sunderland, the ball evaded his grasp, and the first goal of the new era is an own-goal, after six seconds.
The second kick-off of the new era just moments after the first sees Howey-Mann push the ball wide, not willing to risk another mistake from his colleague, already being tarred with the moniker ‘Roy Rogers’ by the away fans, his ability being considered cowboy at best.
A frightened Callum McCauley collects the ball, and runs forward, hugging the touchline. A rash challenge from the Middlesbrough number 8, Hughes, sees McCauley cartwheeling helplessly, landing with a thud. Referee Walcott, possibly experiencing flashbacks to his playing days, winces and without hesitation sends Hughes for an early sanitisation. This game is three minutes old, the league is three minutes old, and there has been an own goal and a red card. This is manic!
Chaos ensues, and Walcott is forced to make a decision, either take the teams off and abandon the game or grasp control of it. Thankfully for the sport, Walcott shows an amount of mettle that was unseen in his playing career, calling the captains together and explaining that he won’t tolerate it.
The game resumes, the crowd, buoyed by the excitement, have forgotten their worries, football is back!