CORONAVIRUS, coronavirus, coronavirus.
I was flicking through the radio channels on my drive to the home of Rotherham United and only one topic was being debated.
This was last Saturday. It was supposed to be matchday, the second-placed Millers were scheduled to play struggling Southend United, sport should have been dominating the airwaves.
But on this horrible, unique afternoon, there had been ten more fatalities, 5live informed me. The death toll was up to 21.
On this horrible, unique afternoon, football didn’t matter. The need to protect the vulnerable from a killer disease was the only concern.
All professional football was suspended.
I’d decided to drive to AESSEAL New York Stadium anyway. I knew there’d be no mass gathering but I planned to speak to staff in the Club Shop, interview a couple fans I thought I’d find wandering around, maybe grab a word with the security guard who occupies a desk in the corner of the reception area.
Only nobody was there. Nobody. At 2.50pm, all doors were locked and as I parked up the company Astra there was just one other car and a minibus in a car-park which would have been packed on any other Millers weekend.
A Corsa carrying L plates tootled in to take advantage of the wide-open spaces.
Bang on 3pm, a train rumbled by. I willed it to whistle and give me an evocative line about how it replicated the sound of the referee at kick-off.
But it didn’t. It just trundled lazily onwards towards Meadhowhall, the eyes of every passenger turning, as they always do, to admire how New York’s sleek, hulking structure stands in epic superiority over the grime of industry all around it.
At 3.08pm, I imagined what might have been happening. Dan Barlaser’s corner was perfect, Michael Smith’s first header smacked the bar, his second hit the goalkeeper, his third hit a defender and Freddie Ladapo pounced from an inch out. 1-0 Rotherham. I could almost hear the roar.
Football needs a crowd. Two days earlier, hours before the suspension of activities until at least April 4 had been announced, manager Paul Warne had been unequivocal in his conviction that games shouldn’t be played without fans.
“I’d prefer a postponement of the league to matches going on behind closed doors,” he said. “Then, when it’s safe, we could get in all the games Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday over a period of four or so weeks.
“That’s how I would like to go for it. Football is an entertainment sport. All sport is to a certain extent. It would be weird to be playing with no supporters there.”
The boss was certain calling off fixtures was the right thing to do: “You have to put the nation’s health before a football match, quite obviously.”
The Club Shop was in darkness. It had been open earlier in the day and had received a visit from fan Glynn Bernard and daughter Deklan, Rotherham exiles travelling from France only to find that the good humour and helpfulness of the staff would be their only Millers experience during their brief return to England.
Deklan, whose only previous taste of New York had been the first ever competitive match there against Burton Albion in 2012, had paid for the trip for her dad’s 50th birthday.
Another supporter was said to have flown in from Australia before the three-week hiatus had been announced on the eve of the Shrimpers clash.
The images of Ben Wiles and Billy Jones stood in their life-sized glory in the window, Wiles in home red and white, Jones in away white and red. ‘Forever Together’ said the club motto on a day when a pandemic was keeping everyone apart.
There was still not a soul to be seen. Like the Club Shop, football had shut down. Like football, the Millers were closed for business.
The number of deaths would climb much higher than 21 in the following week.
It hadn’t been just the radio that told me things weren’t right. The colours were wrong; in fact, the colours weren’t even there.
Normally, the early part of my journey is marked by glimpses of red and white as fans make their pilgrimage, splashes of Rotherham United DNA that grow ever stronger and more frequent as the Millers’ magnificent meeting ground heaves into view.
On this occasion, there was nothing. I drove past New York Tavern on Westgate where usually supporters are spilling on to the streets. The door was open but the pub remained as empty as the stadium from which it takes its name.
By now, it was approaching 3.30pm and I could sense the speed of Chiedozie Ogbene and feel his danger. He dashed and crossed, Smith’s first header hit the bar, his second hit the keeper, his third hit a defender and there was Matt Crooks to steer the ball home. 2-0 Rotherham. I could almost hear the roar.
Club legend John Breckin, the man with the microphone and easy charm in the corporate suites, was tucked up on the settee at his home in Wickersley watching western films.
The players had been given the weekend off on the proviso they went for daily runs and weren’t due back until Tuesday.
“We have no visitors to the training ground now and we have put other safety protocols in place,” Warne said.
The learner driver, meanwhile, finished his reversing manoeuvres and crept away from the stadium.
His were the only three-point turns on an afternoon when the eight-team race for League One automatic promotion had been expected to produce all manner of ebb and flow.
For more than an hour I had the site entirely to myself. Sixty-plus minutes spent in self-isolation as the virus took its first vicious hold on English sport.
It was windy, so windy; gusting with such strength that it pushed me unwillingly out of my stride. The concourse outside the Club Shop has always had its own weather system: a gentle breeze in the rest of Rotherham but here, in the teeth of the gale, chin out, legs braced, one step forward, three steps back.
A sign in the empty foyer leading to the reception offered directions to a speed-awareness course. No-one had been aware how quickly the corona crisis would escalate.
An alert flashed up on my phone: Fleetwood Town v Rotherham United, Saturday March 21 2020, a reminder of a ghost fixture as even Google were caught napping.
The silence was getting to me. Like the colourless journey, it just wasn’t right.
The distant hum of non-football traffic was the only sound until the siren of an ambulance suddenly pierced the unnatural stillness of a winter Saturday when the Millers were supposed to be in action.
Two pigeons pecked nonchalantly in and around New York’s nooks and crannies and I found myself idly wondering if either of them was the one that had covered every blade of New York grass during the 1-0 win over Accrington Stanley in November and earned an eight out of ten in the Advertiser’s ratings.
It was time to go home.
I returned to the car and the radio’s coronavirus, coronavirus, coronavirus. 5live’s news special was in mid flow and Radio Sheffield had followed suit. I gave them a praise for their coverage and a selfish grumble for the missing footy fix.
Who knows when it will return — and in what form — and how clubs with limited budgets will survive in the meantime without matchday income.
“I do understand the pressures of lower-league football but it doesn’t take precedence over health,” said Warne. “It’s a difficult one.
“People who get paid a lot more than us will come up with decisions and we’ll go by what they tell us.”
I drove through the deserted car-park at a time when the second half would have been under way.
I imagined Richard Wood’s crunching tackle, Barlaser finding Ogbene with the loose ball and this time Smith’s unerring header flying into the net first time. Game over. 3-0 Rotherham.
I could almost hear the roar.