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RESTART?

‘Flat, interesting and unfair’: What players think of playing behind closed doors

Football currently exists in a state of ifs, buts and maybes.

While there seems to be a desire to restart the Premier League in England, it is a certainty that initially games will be played behind closed doors.

But how will the prospect of playing in front of no fans actually affect the players?

“It’ll certainly take something away from the match,” Leyton Orient captain Jobi McAnuff says.

“It’s one aspect that for us as footballers gives us that edge and perform at the levels we do.

“We thrive off the atmosphere inside the ground, whether that’s the home fans with you or the away fans trying to upset you and put you off your game… you react to it and it can help spur you on.”

Empty stadiums – something most fans are slowly coming to terms with

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Empty stadiums – something most fans are slowly coming to terms with

Aside from all the obvious challenges facing players in the coming weeks, having to re-engage their mental toughness will be another aspect of returning to the pitch that will be at the forefront of their minds.

“Although there’s no crowd there, it’s still the same importance as if there was because you’re playing for the points,” ex-Stoke defender Danny Higginbotham adds.

“There are clubs fighting to stay away from relegation or trying to get into Europe, and while these are bizarre times and unprecedented times, the goals for the season will remain exactly the same.”

The players themselves recognise that rather than relying on the crowd to get them up for games, the onus is now on them to ensure they are fully prepared for playing with no atmosphere.

“It’s a new challenge – we’ve all played in environments that haven’t been great and you have to lift yourself,” says McAnuff.

“It’s easier said than done but we’ve still got a job to do if we’re in an empty stadium we’re still going to do all we can to win.

“If there’s three points on the line, I’m sure every player will be competitive and would make them as ‘real’ as possible in each circumstance.”

Much of the discussion about the potential return of football has been about finding the ‘least unfair’ way of playing out the remaining fixtures – but with neutral venues on the cards and no fans in attendance, this throws up issues of its own.

Is the integrity of the competition compromised by effectively changing the competition rules mid-season? Or are these the types of compromises clubs have to accept to have some sort of outcome?

“I think that playing without fans is going to be a huge negative for some teams,” says ex-Aston Villa striker Gabby Agbonlahor.

“For example, earlier this season Villa played against Chelsea away. They had a full stadium of home fans, and now they won’t benefit from being able to play the reverse fixture at home.

“The Villa fans really are the 12th man – and they’re going to need them to get the win.

“It will have a negative toll on the players, and I just don’t think it’s fair.”

Clubs like Bundesliga side Borussia Moenchengladbach have come up with innovative ways to decorate their stadium, using pictures of fans on the seats

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Clubs like Bundesliga side Borussia Moenchengladbach have come up with innovative ways to decorate their stadium, using pictures of fans on the seats

For the neutral fans, there is a tantalising prospect in amongst this all that neutral venues completely levels the playing field.

If you’ve seen any games behind closed doors on TV as a fan, there certainly is a feeling although some games feel flatter and lacking in tempo, without crowds on your back, it could allow some players to feel more comfortable and play a more natural game.

The same is true vice versa, says McAnuff. Whilst some players may thrive with no spectators, the clubs who have had impressive home records could lose that advantage.

“We could see some surprise results where it’s become a level playing field,” McAnuff adds.

“Without a crowd there, it’s like playing anywhere else. So it’ll be interesting to have a look out for results because there will be some surprising ones, I’m sure.”

“We thrive off the atmosphere inside the ground, whether that’s the home fans with you or the away fans trying to upset you and put you off your game” – Jobi McAnuff

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“We thrive off the atmosphere inside the ground, whether that’s the home fans with you or the away fans trying to upset you and put you off your game” – Jobi McAnuff

There are doubtless plenty more hurdles to overcome before football returns.

And while it is a certainty fans won’t be allowed back inside stadiums for months to come, for many the mere prospect of some, any, football coming back is enough.

“It is going to have more negatives than positives, I don’t think anyone will disagree with that,” says Higginbotham.

“But it’s a means to an end, if they do want to finish the season. However what we need to remember, first and foremost, is the safety of everyone involved.”