Local people: Henry Winter
13th August 2020
Chief Football Writer for The Times newspaper for the past five years, Henry Winter speaks to Antonia Scott about working from home during lockdown, and what has changed in the world of football.
What has it been like at a national level reporting from empty grounds?
For the first three months of lockdown, I interviewed between 50–60 players and managers from my home in Geeston. It is a fantastic place to work, with the river at the bottom of my garden and the incredible kites flying overhead. As restrictions have lifted, and football grounds opened, I have now commented on many national football games behind closed doors, and the atmosphere without fans is certainly weird. Firstly, there is a 140-page protocol document to read before entering the stadium, all journalists have to wear face coverings, and you have your temperature taken on arrival. Many of the stadium staff have face visors and masks, which all seems very surreal.
It has made me realise just how important both the home and away fans are – not just the supporters encouraging their own team, but also to help players feed off the opposition’s chants. The players I have watched continue to play top-level football, but they definitely miss the atmosphere of a full stadium. I hope by January 2021 fans can be fully reintroduced to stadiums, not just for player morale but also for the lost revenues that Lockdown enforced on football venues around the world, particularly at grassroots level. The Premier League will always survive, but League One, League Two and non-League have suffered catastrophically through loss of ticket revenue this season, and the quicker we can open up sporting facilities, the stronger their financial health can be. The top division needs to help out, releasing more of its TV money down.
What can be done locally to keep the grassroots teams going?
Government has to step in and provide more funding for grassroots facilities and coaching. The long-term benefits for the country’s health, therefore easing strain on the NHS, are obvious. Obesity levels in children are rising, particularly from deprived areas of the country that lack sporting facilities, and this will continue to be a widespread problem if local clubs close. It is incredibly important that we get children playing sport and keeping fit from a young age.
Many local businesses financially help local teams, and their support has never been more important, although many of these firms have also suffered throughout this pandemic. Numerous grassroots teams up and down the country rely heavily on the support of volunteers, who do so much for their teams to keep them going. If we lose football clubs at the bottom of the pyramid, then there will be huge long-term ramifications for the health of a whole generation of children.
Marcus Rashford’s June campaign to ask the government to do a U-turn on their decision to provide food vouchers for vulnerable children throughout the long summer holidays demonstrated the influence a high-profile footballer can have on policy.
It is Rashford’s persistence, intelligence and determination that have made our government understand what matters. I’ve spent a bit of time with Marcus in Manchester and I know how principled he is. I do believe that footballers and other high-profile sportsmen and women can be useful complements to our politicians, to give direction to the country and make an impact where it matters. Rashford’s campaign to help parents of vulnerable children provided not just food throughout the long school holidays, but also hope and leadership.
The Black Lives Matters campaign has had the support of many Premier League footballers – will this help to eradicate racism in football?
Education is at the heart of removing racism from sport and society, but it’s going to take a long time. Football is helping to tackle racism, especially with intelligent, determined players such as Raheem Sterling, Tyrone Mings and Ben Mee speaking out powerfully and eloquently. I also know players will walk off the pitch, stopping the game when they hear racism in the future.
Finally, lockdown humour has been a vital ingredient in keeping the great British morale up. What made you laugh whilst being at home?
I loved the simply brilliant commentary from the Scottish broadcaster, Andrew Cotter, who filmed his labradors, Olive and Mabel, with amusing voice-overs. He is a joy to listen to and has a wonderful voice. He managed to capture perfectly the mood of the great British public, combining our love of animals and unique sense of humour. I hope his dogs become stars, opening Crufts next year!
I also had fun with my two grown-up children, who filmed me making a fool of myself trying to attempt one of Jamie Vardy’s football techniques, before jumping in the river at the bottom of my garden. It was part of the appeal at the start of Lockdown to get everybody to wash their hands, so I thought I’d do it from the Welland. Apparently, it got over 150k views on Twitter! It was important to get the message out there and thank the incredible NHS for the work they do.