Columnist

Pat Nevin: Players will cope but will miss the fans

In these highly unusual times, our former player and current columnist Pat Nevin writes about global events and how football can cope without supporters in the stadiums, including dealing with the language!


You can’t blink in this world today in case you open your eyes a second later and everything has completely changed. Covid-19 and its horrendous effects we have known about for a while, but the recent demonstrations for equality around the planet, including the backing from many high-profile footballers, seems as much of a ‘game changer’ as the #Me2 movement was.

Our club has been in the vanguard of fighting for equality for all over the last few decades, but suddenly after all that groundwork, there appears to be a movement and a serious one at that.

This ‘overnight’ change of attitude is something that some of us have been working towards for many years. The year 1981 was my first anti-racism rally as a student and 1984 my first rant in the press about abhorrent, unacceptable racism at football games and in society. I couldn’t let this week pass without mentioning how happy I am to see so many others stand up to be counted.

Another change is of course the Premier League almost being back and I just wonder how different it will look, sound and feel when it finally happens. All things being equal I expect to be at a game on the 17th for co-commentary purposes. It will be different and unusual and maybe even testing to keep the excitement in my voice in that empty stadium, but if it is safe it is still something I am hugely looking forward to.

There will be many hoops to jump through for everyone lucky enough to be there. Different zones for different groups of people, social-distancing-on-steroids for anyone not actually kicking a ball and of course the weirdness of the noises, or lack of noises around the cavernous stadium.

First of all the players will cope, every pro knows what it is like to play in an empty stadium. As a youngster, in the youths, in the second team, bounce games and even when coming back from injury, we have all experienced the empty stadium syndrome and it definitely takes something away from the occasion and indeed the performance. That adrenalin you come to rely on is harder to access if there are not 40,000 people helping you out. There may be many millions watching on TV, but that is virtual and though you know they are watching, it is impossible to get your head round it and use it for that lift that the real fans give you in the stadium.

There have been trials of ‘Zoom walls’ of screens over in Denmark. Here fans can watch on Zoom and can even make themselves heard at the ground as a wall of them is projected onto where fans should be in the stands. I am all for that and if we can’t get our fans back in the stadiums soon then I hope we can sort that out for all the games in the Premier League. Playing at home with that would at least be some help for our lads down at Stamford Bridge.

What about the crowd noises in the meantime. Is adding them something that we should do or even think about doing? It is fakery but then we all know that it goes on to some degree in other areas. I don’t like the idea in principle, but we do kind of get used to it in comedies on the TV and radio with the canned laughter. If it is done badly is spoils the show, but done well it can enhance what would otherwise be a dead and empty atmosphere. I think it is worth a try just to see/hear how it works. It seems to be going down well in the Korean Leagues, so who knows?

Be careful what crowd noise you pipe in though! I was once doing the highlights of a Glasgow Celtic game in Scotland for TV and someone added crowd noise to the analysis, but it was crowd noise taken from a Glasgow Rangers game, their great rivals with their fans singing! I managed to spot it and get the sound muted with less than five seconds to spare before going on air! So be careful what sound you use.

Certainly, the idea of using crowd noises for the TV makes some sense, even just for watershed purposes. I will let you into a little secret, the players tend to swear just a little bit during football games. Now we wouldn’t want young, impressionable ears to be hearing that, so a bit of crowd noise to drown out the potty-mouth moments would not be a bad thing.

I am not averse to turning the sound down for some of the co-commentators anyway, particularly the ones I don’t agree with or I think are talking nonsense. So, a choice just to play crowd noises instead would be very welcome by me. I do realise there may well be many people happy to turn my voice down or off when I am commentating. Actually, I am one of them, like many people I can’t stand the sound of my own voice on the TV and the radio.

Of course none of this is truly the real experience that we all crave, but it is nothing more than trying to get it as close to the real thing as possible in these strange and testing times.

Even when I go to this first game in now nine days’ time, I am not sure how I will feel when I am there, but I will report back to you all as soon as I can. I can live with some of the changes. I have to bring all my own food, water, even microphone and headsets. I will be distanced from the commentator and of course there will be a myriad of checks on the way in.

There will be no face-to-face interviews with players afterwards and we will spend the least amount of time possible in the stadium, before getting back in our individual cars and heading straight home.

At the moment it is not clear if masks will have to be worn during commentary, a slight worry as my Scottish accent is already on the edge of comprehensible for some people! We are outside in the commentary/media gantry all more than two metres apart, so in many ways it is much safer than a lot of other environments, such as just going to the shops! I may not need the mask then after all, we will see.

All of this I can cope with, but the lack of interaction of the fans and what they/you add to the entire event, that is going to be the most difficult thing to cope with.

I love meeting people and reacting to the excitement around and that is going to be hard to overcome. Maybe that is why I surprise even myself when I say I wouldn’t mind trying out the fake fan noise. We will miss you and I suspect it is not going to be the same without you.


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