A year without fans lays bare football’s true soul

A year ago at The Shay, home to fifth-tier English football club Halifax FC, fans followed time-honoured traditions – they walked to the match from local pubs and queued for pie at half time.

But the 2,000 or so supporters also sensed things were about to change. While they could watch their team play that day, games in leagues above them had been cancelled across England as the coronavirus pandemic spread.

“I have a feeling this might be the last football match that takes place in the country for a good while,” said fan Nathan Sinclair.

For over three months, there was no football of any kind in England, where it is by far the most popular sport.

The Premier League – the world’s richest – and the Football League returned in mid-June, while teams such as Halifax in the tier below had longer to wait.

An academy player runs past Oakwell Stadium while the Barnsley and Bournemouth teams warm up inside before their Championship match in December. Normally, at this point, there would be thousands of people milling about but during lockdown the streets around stadiums are deserted


Two fans watch Toffees player Jill Scott before the Women’s Super League match between Everton and Manchester United at Walton Hall Park in January.


Across the spectrum games have restarted on the field, yet stadiums remained empty barring a handful of exceptions in December, depriving the sport of its lifeblood.

Fans have been able to watch from home only, and what they have seen is a recognisable game in an unrecognisable context, despite efforts to compensate for the absence of crowds.

Clubs have covered empty seats with banners, flags, advertising and slogans, and in some cases cut-out faces of fans, while broadcasters use simulated crowd noise. But attempts to mitigate the lack of crowds can only do so much.

Players have struggled as well as supporters.

West Brom’s Callum Robinson celebrates scoring in front of an empty stand, in the game that sealed their promotion back to the Premier League in July


Cardboard cutouts of fans placed in the stands of Birmingham City’s stadium St Andrew’s, as clubs try to increase revenue and add some atmosphere


Swansea City manager Steve Cooper holds a press conference in a concourse underneath the main stand at Liberty Stadium in January. Interviews and press conferences have been moved from often very small press rooms to help with social distancing


“It’s horrible to play without fans, it’s a very ugly sensation,” said Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, whose great rival Cristiano Ronaldo agreed.

“Playing without fans is like going to the circus and not seeing clowns, it’s like going to the garden and not seeing flowers,” said the Juventus forward.

For the small number of media allowed to attend games, the reality had been laid bare – a football match without fans is a soulless occasion.

A photographer fills in a heath questionnaire in order to be allowed access to the stadium for the Championship match between Blackburn Rovers and Watford at Ewood Park in February. This is done for every single game as per the Covid-19 protocols


BT Sport pundit Paul Scholes reacts after the side he used to play for, Manchester United, missed a chance to score against Leicester City at King Power Stadium in December


Technique and tactics, endeavour and athleticism are there to be admired, but much of what makes a professional match special is strikingly absent.

It is not only the roar of a crowd when a goal is scored that is missing, but groans of frustration and applause of appreciation. The emotion has gone.

That makes life harder for the 22 players on the field and the support staff on the sidelines.

“Not seeing anyone in the stadium makes it like training, and it takes a lot to get into the game at the beginning,” said Messi.

Graeme Shinnie scores a penalty against Barrow which helped Derby to progress to the next round of the Carabao Cup at the Pride Park stadium in September


A photographer sits in an empty stand during a Championship match in July


An assistant referee wears rainbow laces as he makes his way to the pitch via the emergency gate, instead of the tunnel before the Championship match between Stoke and Middlesbrough in December. The tunnel is for the home team only, everyone else gets changed in different areas of the stadium. He’s waiting for the away team who get changed in a temporary building in the car park


For reporters, watching live football has been both a privilege and a stark reminder of what has been missing from our lives for the past 12 months – being together with friends, switching off from work and enjoying a drink, a joke, a celebration, an argument.

As the game in England prepares for the return of fans, their long absence might prompt the sport’s administrators to reflect on what really counts.

The language of football is often that of a business – not surprising given it is a multibillion-dollar global industry.

But the last year has shown that the sport has missed its passionate supporters as much as they have missed the sport.

A portable cabin toilet door is left open outside the Bet365 stadium in February


Darnell Furlong runs out of the stadium to the car park to celebrate West Brom’s promotion to the Premier League with the fans who had gathered there after they beat Queens Park Rangers in The Hawthorns last July


Darnell Furlong celebrates promotion with West Brom fans outside of the stadium


English novelist JB Priestley summed up almost a century ago the escapism and drama that standing in the crowd can bring:

“… there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its art.”


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