“London Bridge is down.” Those are thought to be the code words used by civil servants to spread the news of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, first to the prime minister and members of the UK government, and then to other countries where she was the head of state or a figurehead.
Confirmation on Thursday of the Queen’s death at age 96 was both a shock to a disbelieving nation and an event for which there had been years of planning. Sir Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s private secretary for a decade to 2017, was a former diplomat given a second knighthood in 2014, in part for organising her succession.
Elements of “Operation London Bridge,” the main plan detailing the mechanics of steering a country through a period of mourning and transition to a new monarch (now King Charles III) had previously been leaked, giving us all an indication of what was to come. Very little was left to chance, but among the unknowns — until the moment actually came — was how the formalities are are we would slot into pre-existing events and longstanding engagements.
“Entirely at the discretion of individual organizations”
Sport occupies a significant space within this grey area — especially football, given its status as the national sport. And so, as two footmen posted notice on the railings outside Buckingham Palace of the queen’s death at just after 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, the immediate reaction was to stop, just as the country had ground to a halt over the gravity of the moment. Evening horse racing fixtures at Chelmsford and Southwell were abandoned midway through the card, while all of the Friday racing was also cancelled, as were two of the day’s English Football League fixtures — Burnley vs. Norwich City in the championship and Tranmere Rovers against Stockport County in League Two.
Europa League matches at Manchester United (who lost to Real Sociedad) and West Ham United (who defeated FCSB) were allowed to go ahead as their 8 p.m. kickoffs made them unsafe to abandon at such a late stage, but that initial discussion typically led on to what would happen next. Sources have told that various governing bodies including the English Football Association (FA), the Premier League and the EFL began pondering what to do about the weekend’s fixtures before deciding against a sudden judgement.
It is a disorienting time for everyone in the United Kingdom. A monarch who has been a constant for more than 70 years, as a point of stability through decades of turbulence whatever your politics or wider view on royalty. And it was this feeling that led the game’s authorities to not rush into a decision Thursday night as the outpouring of emotion began. People began gathering outside Buckingham Palace, flowers were laid at Balmoral — the Queen’s residence in Scotland where she died with her family around her — while all five major terrestrial television channels either carried rolling news or prerecorded programming documenting her life.
There was also the promise of government advice. A document titled “The demise of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: National Mourning Guidance” was circulated a few hours following her death. Within it, the matter of sport was addressed: “There is no obligation to cancel or postpone events and sporting fixtures, or close entertainment venues during the National Mourning period. This is at the discretion of individual organisations.
“As a mark of respect, organisations might wish to consider cancelling or postponing events or closing venues on the day of the State Funeral. They are under no obligation to do so and this is entirely at the discretion of individual organisations.
“If sporting fixtures or events are planned for the day of the State Funeral, organisations may want to adjust the event timings so they do not clash with the timings of the funeral service and associated processions. As a mark of respect, and in keeping with the tone of National Mourning, organisers may wish to hold a period of silence and/or play the National Anthem at the start of events or sporting fixtures, and players may wish to wear black armbands.”
The final decision, therefore, was left to the associations. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) arranged an all-sport call for 9:30 a.m. on Friday to discuss options and answer questions when possible. The Premier League then gathered its board and representatives from all 20 clubs at 11 a.m. to discuss their next move.
Queen Elizabeth II’s remarkable longevity renders historical precedent so distant as to minimise its relevance, but when King George VI died Feb. 6, 1952, there was a full set of football league fixtures played three days later. Similarly, games were played in the aftermath of King George V’s passing in January 1936. However, matches were halted when Princess Diana died in August 1997 and, in a different context, football resumed at the first opportunity following the outbreak of COVID-19, partly on the basis of the morale boost competitive sport would provide to a nation enduring widespread pain. Football prides itself on unifying displays of respect in difficult societal moments and here an unfortunate opportunity had presented itself.
Furthermore, while the Premier League meeting took place, confirmation came that the rugby union would resume, while word quickly spread that cricket and golf was expected to continue. Later, the rugby league publicly stated it would carry on. However, sources have told ESPN that the Premier League opted not to proceed with its fixtures following a board decision that was then supported by the clubs.
In typical meetings, the clubs take a vote, with 14 of the 20 teams required to pass a motion, but this situation was different. Sources say talks took place between the Premier League, the EFL and Women’s Super League to coordinate their response following the DCMS meeting, leading to the postponement of all fixtures this weekend, including the Premier League game Monday night between Leeds United and Nottingham Forest.
When will the games take place?
Stripping away the emotion of the situation, football’s calendar is already heavily condensed due to the unprecedented occurrence of a winter World Cup this November and December. Tottenham Hotspur boss Antonio Conte has already described the schedule as “crazy,” while others including Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp have expressed fears about player burnout given the sheer volume of fixtures.
There is precious little slack. One source suggested that if the queen died on a Friday or a Saturday, the decision would have been a formality, but this weekend comes in the middle of the initial wave of shock at the announcement and the likely outpouring of grief at the funeral, the date of which is yet to be confirmed, but is speculated to be either Sunday, Sept. 18, or Monday, Sept. 19. Government guidance is clearer around the funeral. “As a mark of respect, organisations might wish to consider cancelling or postponing events or closing venues on the day of the State Funeral,” the document reads.
If the funeral takes place Sept. 18, the sheer scale of the policing operation puts the fixtures slated for next Sunday in jeopardy. This will be Britain’s first state funeral since the death of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, and people will travel from all corners of the globe to London. The policing operation will in effect begin over the weekend regardless of the actual funeral date, and so the prospect of a second gameweek potentially being disrupted is clear.
Talks will continue over how to manage this situation in the coming days. More immediately, sources have told ESPN that the UEFA is in talks with relevant stakeholders over whether next week’s Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League matches involving English clubs should take place. Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United are all due to be in action, as well as Scottish clubs Rangers, Celtic and Hearts.
But ultimately, all that can wait for a moment. The queen’s grandson, Prince William, is the president of the FA and she was herself a patron of the organisation. In the view of football’s governing bodies, the logistical difficulties are superseded by a desire to pause in recognition of a landmark moment in a nation’s history and the end of an era. There will always be another match. There will never be another Queen Elizabeth II.