Lockdown one year on: The impact on Wigan's sport scene

Best guess? Three weeks, said some.

Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 12:22 pm
The Super League Grand Final was played in front of no fans

Others were less optimistic, predicting the national lockdown may drag on for a few weeks.

Today, one year on since Boris Johnson first instructed everyone to stay at home, the country is still gripped by a pandemic that has had a huge impact on all aspects of normal life – including, of course, sport.

The football season had already been halted in early March – Latics playing their last game, at home to Luton, on the 7th – when Warriors fans headed to Salford on the 13th, frequently checking their phones for updates.

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Latics playing in front of cardboard cutouts

Would the game go ahead?

Incredibly it would, with fans crammed into the stands, elbow bumping for the first time as they pondered whether next week’s match would still be on.

It wouldn’t. A year ago today, in the now all-too-familiar Downing Street briefing room, the Prime Minister pressed pause on all sports competitions. Club bosses realised where they stood in the big scheme of things but, still, they also had to ensure they survived.

They took advantage of the furlough scheme, operating with minimal staff, as players trained at home, alone, with whatever gym equipment they could get their hands on.

There were calls of alarm that a number of clubs may not survive, that the pandemic had exposed financial frailties that would change the future of sport. Some predicted the end of big-money transfer fees in football.

Fans, without any live sport to watch, read nostalgia features and watched old games to get their fix, as that summer’s Euros and Olympics were pushed back a year.

The weeks rolled into months but, as Covid-19 tests became more readily available, there were signs of hope that sport would soon return.

The UFC has a reputation for being innovative, and Wigan’s Mike Grundy – whose fight at London’s O2 in March fell victim to the lockdown – flew to ‘Fight Island’ in Abu Dhabi to compete.

He would later have to withdraw from another fight when a member of his team tested positive for Covid, and many other sports fixtures were cancelled or rejigged because of positive tests within their camps.

Horse racing returned, without fans, allowing Wigan’s Cieran Fallon to continue his burgeoning career, while Latics players were back for socially-distanced training at Euxton on May 25.

And then, the following month, came the return of football.

Paul Cook's side were back in action at Huddersfield in the Championship on June 20. Then, playing in front of 25,000 empty seats seemed the worst thing that was happening... not knowing what would transpire over the following days and weeks and months.

Rugby league held off returning to increase the chance of fans returning.

When Wigan did play again, it was at neutral grounds, which allowed Sky Sports to set up base at one ground to show multiple games over two nights.

Adrian Lam’s side did play once more at the DW – in their semi-final – having already lifted the League Leaders’ Shield for finishing top of a table which had been decided on win points percentage.

And they did get to play in front of fans on one occasion – a limited-crowd of 5,000 was allowed for their victory at Catalans in September.

Scrums were scrapped and fines for celebrating introduced, as Sean O’Loughlin bowed out on a Grand stage with no fans.

When it seemed the crisis was easing, when the Chancellor was part-funding midweek lunches, many amateur clubs got back up and running. Football returned, as did rugby union and league briefly, while golf courses were filled with budding players given a greater appreciation of the great outdoors.

But any optimism of a return to normal had faded before Christmas as Covid rates increased.

Professional sport did, however, continue, giving viewers, at least, a little glimmer of something new in the Groundhog Day of lockdown.

JVT – the sort of nickname usually befitting a footballer – and Chris Witty have become household names.

And the government’s ‘road map’ offers hope for sport, starting with the opening of golf courses next week followed by the return of gyms and training for amateur sports clubs... and then, thankfully, hopefully, the return of fans.