The hiatus will hopefully be over soon. Our lives have been turned upside down and our routines re-arranged and re-organised into our ‘new norms’. Football has been played but not as we know it, and when it returns, September seeming to be the perceived wisdom, we will undoubtedly have to re-adjust again as it comes to terms with social distancing and the constant fear overhanging us all of a second wave of Covid-19.
My matchbook has lain idle in the darkness of my briefcase. Its last entry the testament to the sudden abrupt halt to the season. My Blackpool notes unsullied but for two P’s on the match page denoting ‘postponed’. For a few weeks I briefly lived in the hope I could tippex them out as talk was of the season being resumed, but as the weeks went by the hope faded until it was finally crushed and I felt a pang of jealousy for those fans of Portsmouth, Oxford, Wycombe and Fleetwood who, albeit from the comfort of home, had something to look forward to.
I also felt envy of my radio colleagues who were still working. It’s one thing listening to a football match on the radio when one knows you will be commentating yourself but it’s altogether something else when you have no match to work towards. No match to go to. No match on which to commentate. Likewise, fans addressing the void and vacuum of the weekends when they would normally be heading to the match. It’s remarkable how attached we become to routine and ritual and how jarring it is when it’s denied us.
That void has been replaced in some fashion by the return of football behind closed doors, but somehow it has seemed all so very unsatisfactory. Sweeping aside the controversy surrounding the points per game system used to calculate the final League One placings, at least there is some finality to the season - though it feels slightly hollow. The absence of crowds has driven home just why they are the lifeblood of the game.
I’ve watched very little of the football over the summer. I can’t get excited watching players clearly playing below par in front of empty stands peppered with a few staff and cardboard cut outs, advertising, and flags. The emptiness emphasised by the echo of the shouts of the players and the coaches audibly bouncing around the arenas.
I’ve listened to a lot, though. Both from a professional and personal point of view. Professionally to assess the merits of adding crowd noise and judging the commentators who are working totally out of their comfort zones. Personally because I have missed it.
The network broadcasters, BBC Five-Live and Talksport both added crowd noise, although it was available online without, but I prefer the purity of switching on and listening to my radio. Call me old fashioned. I know you do.
Local Radio however hasn’t the luxury of such sound effects and so the listening experience has been quite at odds with the network stations.
Without doubt the background hum of a crowd lifts the commentary and, consequently, the listening experience, but then I always come away feeling in some way cheated.
There is a falsehood being transmitted, which, if I was there in the stadium, I wouldn’t experience and therein lies the rub. Is falsely adding crowd noise turning the match into some sort of game? It’s not real but as a listener we are implicitly and subconsciously believing it is. There’s a roar when there’s a goal. Applause at a substitution. We hear it on the radio but in reality no-one bar the commentators hears it in the stadium. Their reality is somewhat different. Markedly so, as is their whole playing experience in front of empty stands.
We are being fed an impression that actually it’s fine to play without the fans in the stadium because it can be recreated for us at home as if there are fans at the game.
Listen to a match without the added crowd noise. It’s an entirely different experience. The commentary is unquestionably more laboured. Adding crowd noise undoubtedly aids the commentators. However for me it is real. In the same way we as commentators are taught to add ‘colour’ and create a picture the lack of a crowd is part of the picture we have to form in the listener’s mind. Luring us into the belief we are watching a game with a crowd is for me a no-no.
There is talk that fans will be allowed in to the grounds at 25% to 35% of capacity when football returns. There is also a fair chance the first few matches of the new campaign will be played behind closed doors. As a commentator that will be a new challenge but looking back over the years it’s not an insurmountable one nor necessarily exceptional.
Many years ago I commentated at Upton Park. The attendance was 250. I couldn’t see them because I was seated, with a summariser, above them in the press box in the upper tier of the main stand. Neither could we really hear them.
The occasion was the FA Youth Cup 4th round tie between West Ham and Chester-Le-Street in January 2004. There have been matches when I covered Carlisle United in the Football League Trophy where the attendances were pitiable. A tie I covered at Valley Parade which has a capacity of some 30,000 at which only around 800 turned up. Nevertheless on all of those occasions fans were allowed. It was their choice whether to go or not. Playing behind closed doors will change the dynamic and the perspective but ultimately it will be my job to portray as honestly and objectively what is happening in front of me. More than ever I will have to paint a picture.
It will be a long awaited step back on the road to normality. To those days of ritual and routine we sometimes regarded as an irksome chore but which the coronavirus epidemic has proved were not in anyway so but are absolutely our lifeblood and a reaffirmation of why football is such an important part of our lives.