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Buzziness as unusual: The lack of atmosphere around the Vitality Stadium is what you notice in lockdown football

By Andrew McSteen

One of our Crystal Palace reporters, Andrew McSteen, attended the first Crystal Palace game back under the Premier League ‘Project Restart,’ and gives an in-depth insight into the new normal of top-flight football.

 

It was the same, but different.

Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace extended their unbeaten Premier League run on Saturday, defeating Bournemouth away 2-0 to make it four wins from the last four without conceding a goal – a top-flight record for the club.

However, due to the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent Premier League shutdown, it was 106 days since win three and four for the Eagles after their home victory on 7 March against Watford.

Of course, Premier League football has now returned, in part, pushed along by the vocal and visible Palace chairman Steve Parish, but with it came a raft a restrictions – most poignantly, no fans are allowed in stadiums with games being played behind-closed-doors and only a maximum of 300
people with a job to do in attendance.

I was privileged enough to be one of the 25 accredited global media for the match for the South London Press and it was like any other match I have worked at in nearly 20 years of covering the South London club.

With all remaining Premier League games of the season being broadcast live on English television, kick-offs are heavily-weighted for the prime time evening slots, and while the BBC would not have chosen this game for their first-ever Premier League live broadcast – and first top-flight showing since 1988 – it was theirs, and a 7.45pm kick-off was decided.

The Premier League has strongly advised media attending games to not use public transport and to drive instead. Easy if you drive, impossible if you do not, like me. So, I was thankful to my wife who offered to drive the 230 miles or so from Catford to the Vitality Stadium and back.

Arriving early and with no admittance into the ground allowed more than 90 minutes before kick-off, a brief diversion to the nearby Boscombe Beach was made for some daily exercise and a packed lunch (dinner) in what was a balmy 20-degree evening.

It was certainly a first to prepare for a Palace match with paragliders flying overhead and the sight of four cruise ships – P&O’s Ventura, Aurora and Arcadia and Cunard’s Queen Victoria – all temporarily docked off a golden sandy beach due to the nearby port of Southampton not having availability for berths as the beleaguered industry finds some way to stay, ahem, afloat.

Having only been to the Vitality Stadium once before, for last season’s Monday night encounter, it was hard to get an idea on just how different the matchday experience was this time around.

With a capacity of just 11,364, the stadium is one of the smallest in England, but with a naming-rights deal with one of the biggest private medical insurance companies in the UK, surely it is one of the safest?

Combined with its setting among parkland and housing, it is not in a busy, central hub with lots of bars and pubs around and initially it did not feel too different from last season.

Upon approaching the ground, you could be forgiven for thinking there was a match on.

A few families were having a kickaround in the adjoining King’s Park, with the only shirts on show those of Leicester City and Arsenal.

A number of other people were sitting around enjoying the evening with a drink or two or three. The floodlights of the ground popping their head above the row of oak trees were not turned on. It was dead quiet.

But the closer you got, the more you realised it was different.

The programme-selling booths were closed. There was no hubbub outside of expectant fans. No sounds of a PA playing. Temporary fencing had gone up around the perimeter with security staff wearing facemasks and holding clipboards.

It was like gaining exclusive access to the backstage area of a music festival. Once in, you walked past the usual footballers’ cars plus a plethora of people carriers, which the assumption that some had brought Palace’s players to the ground (one number plate ended ‘PVA’).

It was then into a ‘secure’ area (Amber Zone) – although the family cycling through it raised eyebrows from more than one of the security staff – where you joined a queue to gain entrance.

My temperature was screened by a mounted infrared thermomete: “TEMPERATURE NORMAL” it shouted at me almost instantly. Anything above 37.8 degrees and I would be turned away – the same for the players too.

A health questionnaire was then completed, with disclaimers signed and then I took my seat on the opposite of the ground to the managerial dugouts and to where the media usually sit.

This was disappointing as I was hoping to hear how Palace manager Roy Hodgson and his coaching staff walked the players through the game. I had asked Hodgson in the pre-match press conference – on Zoom – if he was expecting to adapt his managerial style in any way during the games. “We have to be very, very careful about what we’re saying…and what language we choose,” he said, reflecting on the fact that his voice was going to be “blasted out into millions of viewers’ homes.”

Medical disposal bins were everywhere and ‘Sanitising Stations’ from the ‘Player Training Area’ were placed at strategic points. Stickers were on the floor of where to stand, like your local supermarket checkout line. Rubber gloves and boxes of tissues were next to wheelie bins.

It was around an hour before kick-off and the ground was silent, except for the noise of Sky Sports’ commentary team, including former Eagle Danny Gabbidon, as they prepared and tested their equipment for kick-off.

First out for warm-up were Palace coaches Ray Lewington and Dave Reddington, both without masks, then the goalkeepers and their coach Dean Kiely. Both Vicente Guaita and Wayne Hennessey warmed up by running around in complete silence, at one point one of the guests – a scout – chatted with Hennessey from the sidelines. It felt exactly like a pre-season friendly.

With the Premier League providing branding and message dressing to all stadiums to cover their first tier of seats, it meant that Bournemouth’s tiny stadium was completely covered. Motivational messages such as “Up The Cherries”, “Everyone, Together,” and “Come On You Reds,” adorned
them as well as sponsor logos and “Thank You Key Workers”.

The dressing also worked as some sort of slide for when the ball went out, so it could roll back down. Spare balls were hidden under the
dressing with ball boys and girls not present.

You could hear players talking during the warm-up but as the rest of the squad emerged for the pre-match, music from the PA system started playing and it almost felt like a normal pre-match, such is the tendency for fans to now take their seats a few minutes before kick-off in the era of all-seater
stadiums.

There was no matchday programme on offer, not even a virtual one, although there was a virtual mascot with the picture of the young boy displayed on the stadium big screen, his big day not turning out how he expected.

It was the first time I had covered a game without having a tea, but journalists were encouraged to bring their own food and drink and a number had brought their own packed lunch, sitting snuggly next to their laptops.

At 7.30pm, the Palace players, who had trained in two groups – one with the starting 11 and one with the increased allowance of nine substitutes – retired to the changing rooms. It appeared that Patrick

Van Aanholt had stolen Vicente Guaita’s blonde hair dye with the Dutch international bringing back memories of Romania at World Cup 1998 and Guaita returning to his pre-Palace look.

The sprinklers went on, but only in one half, the one that Palace would be defending, and it was the
same in the second half too.

By the time kick-off came, teams were regulated to come out separately, with Palace appearing first.

Jordan Ayew and Wilfried Zaha brought out their belongings needed during the 90 minutes in a plastic box under their arms, just like they do at training. It was dead quiet, eerie almost.

While Palace waited for the home side to come out, they started passing the ball around in a circle like a local league team waiting for a late opponent.

By this time, deafening video messages from Bournemouth fans played on the big screen with motivational messages like “we can do it”, “we believe in you” and “we’ll be with you”.

Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe had said pre-match, “we’ll certainly miss our supporters.

When needed, they’ve really pushed us over the line, but very quickly you adapt.” But the messages were non-stop and
relentless, and quickly became overpowering.

When Bournemouth did emerge, they were welcomed out with more of a show, as the Opus song Live is Life played, maybe ironically with lyrics including “…everyone gives everything and every song.”

The two teams lined up, a little disordered, and under the Premier League pre-match branding while the official Premier League anthem played. Spaced out more than normal, no pre-match handshakes took place, as per the new normal of the league.

Just before the players took their places around the centre circle for a moment’s silence in memory of those lost to COVID-19, Vicente Guaita signalled ‘hello’ to his opposite number Aaron Ramsdale in the Bournemouth goal – any followers of football will know the special bond that goalkeepers have, no matter what team they are on, and the Spanish shotstopper did not want to let this moment pass.

Then referee Stuart Atwell blew to start the match and the players and officials immediately took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, with Jordan Ayew, Cheikhou Kouyate and Patrick Van Aanholt also raising their fists.

The sun was out, it was t-shirt weather, and the seagulls were flapping and squawking above. There was also a different kind of squawking from assistant manager Ray Lewington too, the mouthpiece of Hodgson from the bench, as well as the sound of mobile phones ringing echoing around the enclosed space.

Guaita, who had to hold his hand up to shield the sun a number of times, took his time on a few kicked clearances in the first half, underestimating the pressure he was under, maybe due to the lack of home fans’ ‘ooooohs’ from less than a metre behind him in the tightly-compacted stadium.

You were able to hear the constant dialogue on the pitch though and that of the assistant referee on the touchline nearest to the media seats.

You heard Christian Benteke talking in French throughout the game with Jordan Ayew and Cheikhou Kouyate, telling him where he was, what they should do. The Belgian international’s goalscoring record of just one in the last 22 is rightly a point of pain for Palace fans and no doubt his manager too, however, his tactical play, aerial superiority, work rate and guidance were, maybe, even clearer to see
inside this calm environment.

It was reassuring to hear the same shouts from Champions League-winning players which you would make yourself in a Sunday League clash or at your local five-a-side centre. “Come on let’s go”, “man on”, “on your left”, “yes Jordan”.

Late on Ramsdale shouted “have a day off ref” when VAR was used to see if Kouyate had indeed received an elbow to the throat from Lewis Cook. The initial pain of the Senegalese international saw him slap the ground in pain – a sound quite clearly heard by all inside.

There was even a big “f*cking hell” from Gary Cahill midway through the second half with Palace out of shape in defence after they were nearly caught on the counter-attack.

Non-verbal communication also appeared more evident with Zaha taking a long, hard stare at Dominic Solanke after the Bournemouth player had thrown the ball well past the Palace forward as he waited for it to take a free kick. The Eagles’ talisman was in the mood, despite no fans booing him,
even getting an earlier talking-to by Atwell for getting in the face of Bournemouth’s Harry Wilson as he
lay prone on the ground.

The fact that Palace eased to victory appeared in no doubt from the warm-up, looking fitter and more motivated than the host team.

Captain Luka Milivojevic scored a beautiful free-kick in the 12th minute to put his side 1-0 ahead, ignoring the Premier League guidelines in the process by spitting to the ground just before his run up.

Just over 10 minutes later Ayew slotted home from the edge of the box to make it 2-0 after a fluid team move – the Ghanaian international was able to celebrate immediately with a drink as a regulated stop for fluids immediately followed the strike.

The nine substitutes were sitting spaced apart in the stands and in the shade, Andros Townsend even asked for a jacket to be brought to him in the first half as the sun faded behind the Steve Fletcher stand just before the break.

Half-time came and went and the players were left waiting for the referee to restart having emerged three minutes early.

Half of the CPFC 2010 consortium were in attendance as two of the 10 allowed club directors for each club – Steve Parish in his role as chairman and Stephen Browett as a silent shareholder.

Bournemouth had a number of guests in their Executive Boxes.

Palace’s Head of Sport Science and Strength & Conditioning Scott Guyett even had the job of using the fourth official’s board for substitutes and with the first two, James McCarthy and Christian Benteke, he could not get it to work. The players had no idea who was coming off and on, having to
relay the info by shouting over to each other.

When it was Benteke’s turn to leave the field, in the 76th minute for Andros Townsend, he simply just walked off at the nearest sideline, and at the point it looked like 12 players were on the pitch.

By the third Palace substitute, Jairo Riedewald in the 89th minute, Guyett had the problem sorted.

The internal global feed on the TV for those journalists present briefly cut to the selected 16 Bournemouth fans – they all looked dejected. The players were too, and you could hear their groans clearly when fellow teammates did not spot a run or overhit a cross or pass, which happened with
regularity.

After six minutes of additional time, the referee blew his whistle and applause broke out from about 30-40 pairs of hands, celebrating the away win.

It was just the fourth win ever for the club in June, following a 3-1 defeat of Norwich in 1940, 2-1 win over Inter Milan in the Anglo-Italian Cup in 1971 and play-off victory against Blackburn at home in 1989.

But it was not over for me. New regulations meant you had to leave the ground within an hour of the whistle, but with a Hodgson press conference and player interview to be had that was near impossible, so despite us all being at the same location, both interviews were conducted in a car – not
driven by me of course, but my wife – on the motorway home.

First, speaking to James McArthur from outside the changing room on long-time club servant Terry Byfield’s phone – hands-free of course, and then logging into a Hodgson Zoom virtual post-match media conference with the Palace manager sitting in the club media room, some journalists at home,
and some still in the stadium.

Copy was transcribed and written up by the time we returned to Catford well past midnight. The Palace squad and staff, who had spent some time in a Bournemouth hotel before the match, were some way behind us, as they returned to the training ground in Beckenham before driving home.
They returned in no time, having their recovery session and testing there on Sunday.

After a day off on Monday, they trained again on Tuesday before travelling up to the north-west to face European champions Liverpool tonight, where they will stay over.

While the near-54,000 capacity Anfield tonight is likely to be an even stranger experience for those in attendance, down in Bournemouth Benteke did not score, Zaha was fouled, Ayew struck, Palace kept a clean sheet and Luka scored a free-kick, so what was really new?

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