5 things we learned from an empty stadium on opening day

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LONDON — 5 things we learned from an empty stadium: In many ways, this was the perfect way to start the new Premier League season.

A stroll along the sunny River Thames to the most picturesque stadium in English soccer, Craven Cottage, to watch Fulham against Arsenal.

Of course, with the COVID-19 pandemic we know things are far from perfect right now and the first games of the 2020-21 Premier League season saw no fans in place. It will be that way for the rest of September and probably longer.

Plans were in place for fans to return in small numbers at Premier League games from October but due to a spike in coronavirus cases in the UK, that now seems unlikely. Fans continue their agonizing wait to be allowed into Premier League games for the first time since March.

Media, players and other club officials are allowed in, though. And I was at Craven Cottage on the opening day.

Full disclosure: this was my first game in a stadium without fans. During ‘Project Restart’ I was Stateside, but now I’m back home in England and the entire experience was one I will never forget, but also one that I feel like I will be getting used to for a long time.

Here’s a look at 5 things we learned from an empty stadium on the opening day of the Premier League season.

1. Matchday travel, lack of buzz sets the tone

Getting the tube across central London and down to Putney Bridge to Fulham, it was incredibly quiet for a Saturday with entire carriages empty and a mask had to be worn at all times. There were no Fulham or Arsenal shirts. No scarves. No chanting. An hour or so before kick off, Putney Bridge tube station would usually be rammed. Not today.

Walking through Bishops Park, it was busy. Instead of close to 26,000 fans streaming towards Craven Cottage, people were out running alongside the Thames. Playing with their dogs. Cyclists ran the show and outdoor gym classes were plentiful. One Fulham fan sat on the bench with his radio by his side, ready to listen to the game and speaking to a friend about their new signings.

There was the odd Fulham shirt in the park as plenty of rowers soared by on the Thames and as you approached Craven Cottage, dozens of kids were playing in organized sessions put on by Fulham FC, right in the shadow of the famous cottage. The excitable yelps of kids playing the beautiful game replaced the usual excited chatter of fans heading to Craven Cottage 45 minutes before a Premier League game.

It was all more than a little bizarre and sometimes the anticipation ahead of a game is better than the game itself. Now, there is no buzz as you walk towards the ground. It sets the tone for the entire experience.

2. Fans will turn up, no matter what

Outside the ground there was a big group of fans, mostly wearing Arsenal shirts but also Fulham, Crystal Palace and other jerseys. I spoke with them and they said they had walked from the Emirates Stadium to Craven Cottage in the morning to raise money for a men’s mental health organization in the UK. They just wanted to be around the stadium on a matchday.

The group were going to watch the game on TV at a pub nearby, but one fan (in the photo below) jokingly said to the steward “What do you mean we can’t come in and watch? That’s the first I’ve heard of this…”

He then asked if he could sneak in my bag to come and watch the game. He didn’t, but wished me well and wanted someone to at least enjoy watching the game live, in-person.

I was fully aware of how lucky I was to be watching not only a game, but the first Premier League game of the season.

3. Protocols in place; everyone feels safe

Getting into the game was fairly straightforward. Not very different from the other accounts you will have heard from other journalists by now. My temperature was checked, lots of forms were filled out and a one way system was in place around this historic, cramped home of London’s oldest team. Then, all of a sudden, you were in the stadium. No crowds. No noise. It was all very peaceful and there wasn’t the usual rush to dash through fans to get to the press box.

Arsenal legend Pat Rice and a group of club officials stood in front of me as I waited to walk in and outside a few people were milling around, but not many.

You could be forgiven for not knowing there was a game going on.

Usually fans arrive from all of the different side streets around Craven Cottage, the jewel in the crown of English soccer which isn’t exactly the best suited to social distancing due to its tight seats, tiny corridors and dated concourses. But everything went smoothly as journalists, club staff and everyone else kept their distance and followed the rules. Looking around the empty stadiums, it’s not outlandish to think that 50 percent of fans could get into even a tight stadium like Craven Cottage and follow the protocols safely.

4. Sounds, not sights, the big difference

As for the game itself, the main difference is the sounds. I didn’t even notice the players had walked out for kick off. It was so quiet, with only a ripple of applause from club officials as Fulham had returned to the Premier League. If fans were in the stands they would have let out guttural roars at that point, but there was nothing. Every Fulham fan would be buzzing for this moment, but the usual excitement around a newly-promoted club early in the season wasn’t there. Also, this was a big takeaway for me: journalists will often have one eye on their laptop and one on the game. And it’s quite handy when you’re constructing a wonderful sentence to then hear the crowd shout or cry out so you can take your eye off your laptop. But that doesn’t happen now. The fans aren’t there to help. That took some getting used to.

Other journalists told me this was actually one of the better stadiums to watch games at with no fans. Due to its reduced capacity of 19,000 due to the Riverside Stand being redeveloped, Craven Cottage felt even smaller than usual. Instead of towers of empty seats at the 76,000 capacity Old Trafford, this setting at Fulham didn’t magnify the strangeness of the situation. You could hear everything and we were very close to the action.

With the concourses empty under the main stand, it felt eerie. Those concourses reek of history and are usually packed to the rafters on a matchday. But it was as if time has stood still. Journalists and media were spread out throughout the stand, not in the usual cramped press box, and as planes occasionally flew over the stadium on their final approach to Heathrow Airport the roaring of jet engines was the loudest noise you heard all afternoon.

5. Superstar players now seem more normal

And the players, well, somehow they don’t seem as superhuman when they aren’t playing in front of fans. They seem like normal human beings rather than the superstars they actually are.

Hearing things up close and personal is the best bit. Tim Ream’s American accent gets stronger when he’s barking out orders. Mikel Arteta switches between four languages to tell his team what to do. Aleksandar Mitrovic is terrifying when he’s shouting at a referee. All of these things you wouldn’t hear if there were fans present.

After the game, a comfortable 3-0 win for Arsenal, you could hear the Arsenal players celebrating in the away dressing room by the famous cottage in the corner of the stand. Right now, you get to see a different side to these players. It’s more personal. You get to peek a little more behind what is usually a very closed curtain.

And all in all, the game on the pitch was of Premier League quality but with no atmosphere it just isn’t the same spectacle. That is obvious. This entire experience underlined just how important crowds are to this incredible league watched around the world.

When fans can return to stadiums safely, it will be a truly beautiful moment. Until then, I will continue to feel lucky and privileged to be one of the very few people who can watch a game live where Aubameyang’s stunning goal received a few roars of approval and a smattering of applause. Instead of thousands of people going bonkers. The fans are missing and nobody is taking for granted just how important they are. That is the main thing I learned.