Premier League football without crowds: what is it really like?

Premier League football without crowds: what is it really like?

Chris Jauncey, doping control officer

The changes have been huge. We have over 200 doping control staff for the Premier League programme and that was reduced right down to 12 or 14 for the restart, as we had to be Covid tested twice a week and it’s an expensive thing. Our team were travelling distances that we normally wouldn’t to cover matches and training sessions. I live up in Solihull and doing games in London you would sometimes be leaving the stadium at midnight, getting home at 2am, and we’re back up the next day to do a squad session somewhere else. It was … interesting.

When we initially started back we had so much to take on board. The equipment we were taking, with all the PPE and the paperwork we had to send in pre and post to confirm that we were fit and well, it’s been like starting a new job.

Doing the testing itself was challenging because despite the testing and the PPE – we wore gloves, masks and aprons – we still adhered to social distancing. Our process is very heavy on explanation and from 2 metres away that could be a bit of a challenge. We also had to slow the players down a bit sometimes too. Nobody wants to be in doping control longer than they have to, especially during Covid.

The first couple of games, seeing stadiums completely empty and full of banners it felt eerie. But I asked players how they found it and some enjoyed the fact that there was no crowd getting on their back. Some thrive off that. I think it works both ways for players. It was bizarre but I think players got used to it eventually and I think everybody else did as well.

Mike Rankine, Crystal Palace stadium announcer

At a normal game I would get to the ground about four hours before kick-off. I’d have meetings, test the kit and then about an hour and a half before the game I’d start playing music. About five to three, for a Saturday matchday, I’d go down to pitchside. We’d welcome the players out, go through the lineups and in the last couple of seconds before kick-off I’d give a rallying call to the fans: “Be Loud, Be Proud, Be Palace.”

Mike Rankine inside the sound studio at Selhurst Park

During the restart it was a lot simpler in some ways. I’d get there a lot closer to kick-off, but once I got into my studio I’d have to stay there. We’d play the same kind of music and do my usual preamble. It would be about trying to keep some kind of normality. I’d still do the bit before kick-off too, though it did feel a little strange doing it for a few assorted members of the press more or less.

I’ve said similar words countless times, I know what I’m doing. But there’s no substitute for genuine emotion. You feel the energy coming off the crowd at a normal game, you feed off that and it encourages you to put even more in. I guess that’s the bit that you miss. I like to think that a complete neutral wouldn’t be able to tell the difference but I guess I could feel it.

I’m privileged to be one of very few people who have been able to see games live. I’ve certainly got plenty of friends who are envious of my position. But ultimately it just isn’t the same. Football is the fans’ game and I think whatever element of it you’re talking about, there’s no element of football that is as good without fans as it is with them.

Pat Davison, Sky Sports touchline reporter

I wouldn’t say we used to have the run of the place, but before Covid we could go down to where the teams go, we were allowed down the tunnel. You felt comfortable there and if you knew people you could talk to them. If you were doing the second game of the day the away manager might come and watch the first one with you. Now a lot of that has gone away.

I checked the other day and I did 19 matches during the restart. My first game was Aston Villa v Sheffield United and you didn’t dip for the finish line until the last game of the season. Everyone in the game was working relentlessly, but we were too, and I think there was a bit of a sense that we were “all in this together”.

I think because of that a lot of the interviews I did were friendlier than before. I can’t remember many spiky ones really. But I think a good interview is where you find yourself asking questions you didn’t expect to ask. When someone says something and you ask “why?”, those can be some of the best questions you’ll ever ask. That’s really difficult to do, though, when you’re on the other side of a hoarding trying to understand what they’re saying. It was a lot harder to react, a lot harder to hear.

After a few weeks it does become like normal life. The overriding feeling is: you want crowds back. You knew it wouldn’t be as good but a crowd affects a football match so much more than I ever realised. On the other hand, you feel so lucky because of what everyone else is going through. You feel lucky to be both working and to have your job being watching Premier League football. You feel so fortunate, it’s a bit ridiculous.

Marcus Warren, operations manager for G4S at Burnley

On a match day with supporters, we would usually have a staff of 320, 330 doing jobs from tunnel security to response teams and stewarding. When it came to behind-closed-doors matches, I believe we had 64 staff on site in total. It’s not what we’re used to.

Without the crowds there was more time to look at things closely, but we had a lot of new processes to follow too. From supervising the car park so that the teams could get in safely, to carrying out verbal Covid-19 checks – “Have you been out of the country? Have you got a cough? Have you got a loss of taste?” – and enforcing the social distancing throughout the ground. The ground was divided up into different areas, and I was allowed in the red zone which meant I had to be tested each week. Five times I got tested and it is uncomfortable. Even when it’s assisted it’s pretty awful.

A steward walks through the empty stands at Turf Moor prior to the Premier League match between Burnley and Brighton & Hove Albion in July.

One other thing we were a bit worried about was whether you were going to get people from the local community coming along to the stadium when matches were on. In the end, very few did and they were obviously not let on site. But there is a cricket club at the back of Turf Moor and I think there were about 18 members who used to sit down with their food and watch the match.

When the teams finally came onto the pitch for the first time and I knew it was definitely going ahead after all the work we had done, that was my favourite moment. It felt like everybody was on the same page, it was a moment I will never forget. It was a strange strange experience but it was good to be a part of and I think the whole team felt like that too. Privileged is absolutely how I would describe it.