Nick Callow: Football’s finally coming home

Liverpool will win the league and three teams will be relegated, but will it really feel more like a frenzied summer tournament than a real restart of the 19/20 season?
Nick Callow: Football’s finally coming home

The substitute players of FC Augsburg wear masks on the stands during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Augsburg and 1. FC Cologne in Augsburg. 	Picture: AP
The substitute players of FC Augsburg wear masks on the stands during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Augsburg and 1. FC Cologne in Augsburg. Picture: AP

Football is going home next Wednesday. With pubs shut and stadiums closed to supporters, the only place to watch live football will be in televised social distance safety.

The armchair fan is finally going to have their day with 92 matches to be played over two weeks. If lockdown has tested domestic patience to date, pity the football agnostic living in a family bubble.

Man City manager Pep Guardiola said he would rather scrap matches than play in an empty stadium pre-lockdown and it is said he is not overly keen on what has been agreed for the matches that will decide the outcome of this season.

Liverpool will win the league and three teams will be relegated, but will it really feel more like a frenzied summer tournament than a real restart of the 19/20 season?

Germany’s Bundesliga has led the way with their behind closed doors innovations ranging from totally empty grounds, photocopied cardboard cut outs of fans and piped crowd noise.

How the Premier League clubs chose to go is their choice, but broadcasters will allow viewers to select from watching with or without ‘canned crowd noises.’

Former Wimbledon midfielder Robbie Earle, who is now based in America as a key man in NBC’s Premier League coverage, says it works on the matches he has seen.

“It wasn’t over the top. It wasn’t the brash US sitcom canned laughter or pantomime jeering that you might be dreading. It was just background noise; a hum that covered over the echoes or clattered seat that kept reminding you there were no supporters.

“We’re in a different world. This football is just for people sitting at home and if you have broadcasters and sound experts who understand the flow of matches, can fit the action, then it’ll make this strange experience better.”

For the players in action, club officials discussed many options at Thursday’s meeting. They included: pre-recorded chants to celebrate goals and sections of seats dressed in team colours, banners and images.

West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady revealed how stadia will be divided into three zones: RED (pitch, tunnel and technical areas — for a maximum 105-strong combination of players and officials and only then if they have tested negative for Covid-19), AMBER (minimum number of club and media staff at club’s discretion) and GREEN (exterior areas such as entrances and car parks).

Isolation rooms will be used for anyone falling ill on site, players will not be allowed to spit, share drinks, shake hands, or hug and everything must be disinfected, including the corner flags and match balls.

Players with behind-closed-doors experience tell us matches lack intensity and how crowd noise helps. Specific chants often wash over, but noises can dictate the speed and ferocity of a match.

Results and the flow of matches to date in Germany show a lack of crowd hugely reduces home advantage, slows the flow of play and makes the matches more technical.

Innovative coaches, such as Millwall’s Championship play-off hopeful Gary Rowett has organised training with and without piped crowd noise and says the tempo is definitely higher with an atmosphere of sorts.

Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta will be deprived a proper return to his former club City, but will not be bothered if that helps his players who are yet to lose a league match in 2020.

“We have got a good measure with what is happening in the Bundesliga at the moment,” Arteta told Sky Sports News. “I hope it is going to help.

“Football is about passion and energy and when you lose that, it is balanced much more. It better be right that playing away is an advantage because we are away four times in a row!”

Arsenal have form here, of course, with their infamous 1992 mural covering building work when their North Bank stand was being made all-seater.

Turns out they were ahead of the game. That said, the club and their supporters were ridiculed, the players hated it and results were poor on the pitch. It was a forerunner for the sanitised, soulless grounds which proliferate the game today, but how they are now missed.

The ‘new normal’ could last well into next season and beyond, but at least there is not long now before we find out what football is like without a rendition of ‘Can you hear us on the box?’

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