That damn bird is keeping me out of the game. High above me, on Carrow Road, a seagull is landing and making an old racket. It seems to be distracting the Norwich defense as Nathan Redmond passes and scores points to increase Southampton 3-0. There is a brief applause and a round of applause from some Santos team members before Redmond salutes Black Power. It’s all very surreal. Black Lives Matter is behind football behind closed doors. Welcome to the world of Project Restart, the Covid-19 version of the Premier League.
In the past two weeks, I have been fortunate to be one of the few chosen to see the resumption of first-class football in England. When normally I could be one of the 20 to 50 photographers who attended these matches, it is now only a maximum of 10. Current rules state that there should be no more than 300 people on the ground at any one time.
My first game back was the one that launched the resumption, at Aston Villa, when they faced Sheffield United. All participants in the matches must do a temperature check before certification. In a building in the main car park, I am in a designated location and look at a screen, like a high-tech machine to speak to your weight. This equipment considers me safe and my pass is delivered. It is rumored that Manchester City fell on an even more striking thermometer and a scanner operated by a real nurse. In other places where I have been subsequently, the temperature check is carried out with a white plastic gun on the forehead. At Spurs, before the game against West Ham, it is boiling. To make matters worse, the man with the gun is waiting at the top of a ladder and I am carrying a ton of equipment up there. My fingers are crossed when the gun points to my red, sweaty temple.
The terrain is divided into three zones: green, amber and red. Roughly speaking, green is the immediate neighborhood outside the stadium, amber inside the ground, red in the field and in the tunnel area. Only club players and officers, those who are tested regularly, enter the red zone. I am amber. Before each game, I receive a health declaration form to sign along with security protocols to read. This varies enormously from club to club, but the most substantial and well-organized is definitely Liverpool, courtesy of its security officer, Mr. Stan Tickle.
When I go to the first match at the Villa, I look at a big screen. “Face coatings must be used all the time,” he says. I am taken to my designated place by some gentle middle-aged butlers who wear their blue and claret masks as a chin warmer. “You can’t move from there,” they tell me, “and you must wear your mask all the time.” “No problem,” I say as Jamie Redknapp walks by looking very elegant in a navy outfit, but without a mask. A member of the ground crew comes to disinfect the flag on the corner near me. When I get my camera, he is informed by a colleague: “put your mask on correctly, you are taking a picture”.
The atmosphere inside all the gardens is very strange and mysterious. These are stadiums that I know so well, but everything seems unknown. It is a real sensory dispute, not only visually, but also aurally. I was at Goodison Park for the game between Everton and Liverpool, sitting in the front row of Gwladys Street End. Usually, a feverish atmosphere emanates from the home fans, with contempt for something red. This time around me, there are acres of canvas sheets adorned with the faces of Everton faithful. A few feet away is John Powell, Liverpool’s official photographer. “Lovely, isn’t it?” he plays.
With 10 minutes remaining and the game tied 0-0, Tom Davies hits the inside of the post and Everton receives a famous winner. It’s such a dramatic moment, but all I can hear, in addition to a few bad words from the players, are the soft melodies of a jazz saxophonist playing Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, off the ground.
After a few games, I start to get used to the noise of these games. You can hear everything the players, coaches and referees say – it is quite enlightening. There are so many screams from the players that I start to wonder how they have the energy to run. It takes me back to football, and it’s refreshing to hear that several millionaires can still say famous phrases like “Man on”, “Push on”, “Push Up”, “Keeper’s ball” or “Pull your finger” although the latter included a bad word too.
It is fascinating to see how clubs have adapted to the rules set by the Premier League and government health aides. The notoriously tight tunnel at Goodison Park means moving the visiting team into a portable building in the parking lot, while at Tottenham the home team moved their locker room to the other side of the grounds, where the huge and wide NFL rooms are located. It also meant a lot more work for the ground staff, as they have disinfection functions with balls, corner flags and goal posts.
In Norwich, they have an old-fashioned bucket of Dettol to throw balls at, while at Spurs they arm their team with Ghostbusters-style backpacks to spread across the posts. Even with all these security requirements, things can go a little wrong. I was at Watford, positioned near the sideline where the substitutes were heating up. In the backseat of the shelters, the submarines had carefully spaced seats to sit on, but when they started to stretch their limbs, they joined in a tight group, completely blocking my view of the game. A Watford player put his leg on the board next to my camera, looked at me in my mask a few feet away, realized he was very close to a non-amber tester and walked away clearly. After talking to their submarine colleagues, everyone was startled, giving me a nice clear view again.
At Anfield last week, just after Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold threw that beautiful free kick over the top of the Crystal Palace net, I could clearly hear a commentator anxiously describing the goal, even though he was at the Centenary Post, probably a hundred yards away. It made me wonder what this stadium would be like if the crowd was there and I felt sad for them, deprived of seeing a moment like that in the flesh.
I hope that soon they will return and that the abnormality of football behind closed doors will soon be consigned to history.