It’s back, it’s different, but it’s better than no football at all

  • london
  • June 17, 2020
  • Comments Off on It’s back, it’s different, but it’s better than no football at all

Football is back, in a different guise than before but, on balance, it’s far better than no football at all.

After waiting 100 days for a Premier League ball to be kicked, the first action was a rather turgid goalless draw between Aston Villa and Sheffield United.

But it still felt good to have something different to talk about, something to get excited about and, sometimes, irrationally angry about.

The stadiums may have been empty but there was still a competitive edge

For the thousands whose jobs rely on Premier League clubs staying in business, it was far more important than that.

As recently as six weeks ago, the Premier League’s “project restart” faced serious opposition from some clubs and players who felt their health and that of their families was being put at risk by the resumption.

Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang he takes a knee with Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and referee Anthony Taylor

At a time when thousands of people were dying of COVID-19 it seemed insensitive and deeply unrealistic to prepare for football coming back. But it is that meticulous planning which eventually won them round and, from a project delivery standpoint, the Premier League’s return went as well as could have been hoped.

Stadiums were patrolled by security wearing masks, the perimeter limited to only around 300 people.

Inside they were divided into three zones, with the bio secure red zone accessible to only 110 people including players, coaches and the refereeing team.

Fist bumps replace handshakes in the COVID-era Premier League

Players are tested twice a week for COVID-19 so the results after the first round of games will be telling, but social distancing was mostly observed, with goal celebrations toned down and elbow bumps in place of handshakes.

Usually the residential streets around Villa Park would throng with supporters on a match days but aside from the occasional groups of teenagers on bikes, it was eerily empty, the order assisted perhaps by a biblical downpour an hour before kick off.

Villa and Sheffield players take a knee

As the names on the team sheets were read out there was complete silence instead of the usual explosion of applause.

The atmosphere was plainly lacking, the intensity of the game and players’ concentration negatively impacted by the absence of fans, but almost all of them would rather be playing than not.

The decision to play games at teams’ own stadiums rather than neutral grounds has proved the correct one on the basis of the first two games.

Glenn and Mark set up camp outside Villa Park

There were no issues with large groups of fans gathering outside Villa Park or the Etihad.

At Villa Park, a father and son – Glenn and Mark – from Sutton Coldfield set up on a park bench in the shadows of the famous old ground. With a gazebo protecting them from the rain and a laptop streaming the match, they made the most of the situation.

“It’s not the same,” said Glenn. “Of course we want to be inside there but we’re just glad to have football back.”

Raheem Sterling celebrates scoring in front of the empty Etihad terraces

Without the crowds, Sky Sports improvised by offering artificial noise recorded for use in a video game. Some preferred to watch without the track, listening to exchanges between coaches and players which were clearer than ever before.

There is still work to be done on the new viewer experience but with 90 games still to come over the next six weeks there is time for that.

As football has adapted to a world in crisis, the voices of its stars have grown louder. They were heard in unison as the whistle blew to welcome back the national game.

For ten seconds they all took the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and calling for racial equality.

Sterling: ‘Time to start implementing change’

It was an incredibly powerful, uniting moment after a month which has seen two of England’s brightest footballing stars, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, lead the way in calling for political and societal change.

It may be a quieter era for football on the pitch but a new generation of players are louder, clearer and better advocates than ever before.