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The Sound of the Crowd


Words from Richard Foster

The late, great Jock Stein was the first British manager to win the European Cup.  In 1967 he led his Lisbon Lions – made up of players who all lived within a few miles’ radius of Parkhead – to victory over the indomitable and cosmopolitan Inter Milan. That feat should be Stein’s most enduring legacy. It should be but arguably it is not as most people remember him for a quote that has stood the test of time and one that resonates even more today than it did when Stein first said it back in the late 1960s. 

“Football without fans is nothing” has been trotted out as a mantra on innumerable occasions over the last five decades to sum up the essence of the game as a spectator sport. Fans are not just a backdrop, a supporting cast to the principal actors on the pitch, they are the most important element, they are the very lifeblood. When William McGregor founded the Football League in 1888 his vision was that those twelve original clubs should be at the heart of the community and therefore would attract the support of those communities. 

However, McGregor’s idealism has been slowly and surely eroded, resulting in football clubs often becoming a chattel of the rich or the not-so-rich, who have little or no interest in these communities (the whole issue of ownership will be the subject of future blogs but now is not the time to delve into that dark chasm). During this process the fans have been increasingly treated as second class citizens as television has become not just king, but more as some sort of despotic dictator that gives scant attention to its subjects. 

John Nicholson sums it up well in his excellent book Can We have Our Football Back? – “The whole of what we know modern top-flight football to be, which is essentially a massive amoral money pit into which billions have been thrown in wages and transfer fees, is all predicted on one thing: paywall TV. It is the foundation stone at the core of the footballing skyscraper.”

Matches being played out in front of countless, empty rows of cavernous arenas started in Germany back in May. With a twist of irony, one of the first games after the restart on 16 May was the Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and fierce rivals Schalke. In normal circumstances this would have been watched by some of the most vociferous fans in world football. The famed Dortmund Wall was one of silence rather than the raucous atmosphere generated by one of the largest standing areas in Europe. It formed an eerie, surreal backdrop and being able to hear the players’ voices so clearly took some getting used to but gradually we became accustomed to watching events unfold in this vacuum, and those commentating were forced to do so from afar.

Peter Drury was one of the first to commentate on the Bundesliga for BT Sport and he told me it was going to be difficult without being amongst the fans in the stadium.  “We surf the noise of the crowd,” he says. “And to be shouting and screaming when someone scores a goal and to realise that nobody else is shouting and screaming, it will sound ridiculous. That is going to be a challenge. Being at the game and doing it ‘properly’ is commentating. Sitting in a studio and doing it in those sterile circumstances, that’s pretending to commentate.”

Rory Smith of the New York Times feels that fan-less football proved that they were less important.  “The noise of a crowd functions, essentially, as a Greek chorus, an emotional barometer, a form of voiceless narration of events as they unfold. It tells us — fans, distant, and players, present — how, what and when to feel.”  The fact that players still celebrated with some gusto, Smith concluded, “means they are doing it for themselves. That is what has been most striking about soccer’s (sic) summer behind closed doors, what the new normal has allowed us to see: that the game does mean something, whether we are there to interpret it or not.”

Smith makes a valid point yet having witnessed a game behind closed doors I believe that the absence of supporters does have a significant impact. Having written a piece for the Guardian about a theatre company who were pumping crowd noise into stadiums mainly for the benefit of the players, I was invited to attend a game at Loftus Road between QPR and Sheffield Wednesday.  There were around forty people in the main stand including assorted members of the media and club officials such as Les Ferdinand and Chris Ramsey. 

The most striking aspect of being part of this sparse gathering was the piercing loudness of the referee’s whistle, something that you would never normally hear as it would be lost in the general hubbub of the packed stands. You also get to hear very clearly the coaxing and cajoling of the coaching staff who were often exasperated by their charges’ inability to carry out the simplest of instructions. Finally, the players themselves are also audible and as would be expected, there is a fair smattering of industrial language, much of it directed towards the man with the very loud whistle or his colleagues with the flags. 

It feels very much like a training session and to be fair to both teams, there was little at stake for either so motivation must have been in short supply. The best moment of the game came when during the allotted drinks break midway through the first half, the QPR keeper Joe Lumley apparently reported that the crowd noise was too loud and had been putting him off. That might have gone some way to explaining how he let in the very soft first goal that Wednesday scored from a corner. As for the other two that the away side rattled in, Lumley was unavailable for comment as after the match he was locked in a meeting room with his team-mates while being given another very audible dressing-down by manager, Mark Warburton.

The likelihood is that this will be the way matches are going to be played out for the foreseeable future. Josh Scott, QPR’s Operations Manager, told me that there was an expectation that limited numbers may be allowed back in soon. “In consultation with the government, who are keen to get fans back into the stadiums, we are looking at around 25% capacity initially, which is around 4,500. The most difficult part for us is ensuring social distancing not only in the seats but more importantly in the access points.”

All eyes will be focused on this weekend’s trial when 2,500 spectators will be allowed into the AmEx Stadium to watch the Brighton Chelsea pre-season friendly. If it goes well the expectation is that restricted crowds for competitive matches could be introduced as early as October. When the forthcoming season’s fixtures were announced recently, I went through the usual process of picking out the key games before realisation hit hard that I won’t be going to those games. One wonders what Stein would have thought about the concept of football with only a few fans. Better than nothing?