The last time I attended a football match before this month, things still felt relatively normal.
On March 7th, I was in the press box to cover MK Dons v Doncaster for this site, then straight after the game and the press conferences, I was across town in Milton Keynes for a close friend’s birthday party. In retrospect however, that was ultimately the last weekend of denial.
The week leading up to that Doncaster game had been filled with uncomfortable headlines about the escalating spread of covid-19 in the UK and in Europe, but that day, things still felt relatively normal. And then very swiftly, they weren’t.
After managers and players began testing positive for covid-19 or self-isolating with symptoms, March 13th was the day all English professional football was suspended, following weeks that had seen sports tournaments worldwide stopped and the effective collapse of all leisure activities where you might come into contact with anyone – some of which are still yet to return.
Sport was one of the ways that lead to the world taking note this was serious and not going away, whether it was a US basketball player testing positive after making a big show he wasn’t scared of it, or scientists describing a Champions League tie between Atalanta and Valencia in February as a “biological bomb” for the amount of cases seen in Italy and Spain linked to it.
It was late June when professional football returned to England, but until this month it only returned at the Premier League and Championship level. MK Dons is but one of many institutions that will have no doubt had to brush the cobwebs off the stadiums and get work done to bring it all back for a new season.
Sure enough, MK Dons’ Carabao Cup tie against Coventry City on September 5th was the first match in competitive football either club has played since March, and this first I attended.
Things obviously aren’t going to be fully normal yet, and protocol for the few of us in the stadium for both that game and the EFL Trophy tie against Northampton that followed a few days later was different. Even if the heavy traffic on the way to the Coventry game felt weirdly normal and did so until it became apparently how empty the car park was.
First of all, we had to fill out a health questionnaire with contact details before coming in, with a temperature test on arrival in order to collect our passes and enter the stadium’s permitted zones.
The usual process sees us meet in a room before the game to collect teamsheets and discuss, but here, it was straight to allocated seats and staying put, with some seats zoned off to allow for distance where required.
It also means masks on for those of us not doing radio comms, which does at least give chance to compare this very 2020 fashion and who wears what.
Another change also saw the press conference conducted as a Zoom call rather than the in-person congregation around the manager in an indoor space near the player’s tunnel that we normally would do. After all, that’s not exactly an easy way to maintain distancing.
Saying that, this new version was much less fun for me after the Northampton match.
My laptop has an unreliable graphics card that sometimes leads to the whole thing crashing, and just clicking the Zoom link triggered that here, meaning I had to restart my computer and was late to Russell Martin’s interview. Turns out that is a very easy way to get annoyed with your laptop, and is a valid distraction from realising its now 9pm, the floodlights are out and the only illumination I have is the blue light from the screen.
Perhaps the stranger touch as well is that when writing, I can be reliant on fans for what to do. Not that I’m saying I wouldn’t do this without my own CitiBlog fan club, if indeed one exists, but more that the flow of a game leads to audible crowd noise when a team is attacking or if there’s a controversial incident, and it can drag me away from being buried in Tweeting, attempting to check stats or other scores, or just writing my report.
Of course, we all know football without fans is a very different experience just from watching games on TV. It felt weird, for instance, to watch teams celebrating winning trophies as big as the Premier League and Champions League in empty stadiums, or seeing synthetic crowd noise punctuated by random live swearing from players or managers.
But it is an even more odd experience in person. The background noise of a football crowd is something we’ve all kinda taken for granted, and experiencing it is a strangely unsettling experience. I assumed I was used to it after being at sparsely attended EFL Trophy games in days of yore, but they at least still had the murmur of fans chatting among themselves.
It does open up intriguing new dimensions – for instance, in both games, it is quite something to see how audible MK Dons’ goalkeepers are when shouting at their defenders. The referees are the same as well, with no fans really opening audio space up their interactions with players.
Still, nothing feels odder about the experience than seeing the ball ripple the net for a goal, and in occasions when you expect the roar of thousands of fans cheering, you get the minimal cheers of players and invited dignitaries, followed by a lull, and its this which is perhaps the thing that is taking the longest to adjust to both in person and not.
If nothing else, when you’re up close with the operation, it is impressive to see the detail that’s gone into it to ensure any games can happen at all, even without fans. Much as all football lovers miss seeing the stadiums full of fans, when we’ll be able to enjoy it with a full roster is a mystery.
The government initially hoped for October 1st but the recent sustained period of rising case numbers feels like something that’ll put the brakes on this, despite the Premier League’s protests its already been too long, and the move to fast-track trials in the EFL this coming weekend.
Most of us are aware this is a unique situation, and that life will have continual problems that will last a while even if/when a vaccine or cure is rolled out.
Clearly, we all have to be braced for things to be different for a while, much as its easy to be underwhelmed after the crushing impact of months of news that seems to be getting worse as we continue.
Until then, it may not be the same recognisable occasion we had as recently as March, but there is a strange buzz on my part I’m able to keep doing this and you have to appreciate the meticulous craft done to be able to even do it in this guise.
As for the regular occasions we all miss, hopefully, we’ll meet again some sunny day.