Now we’re a few weeks into the restart, it’s interesting to see how the players in the Premier League have responded to playing in empty stadiums. I suspected they would do well – there’s always an element of questioning, because it’s unknown, but a good professional should be able to adapt.
My own experience was that I loved playing in front of fans. I especially loved it in grounds where the crowd was close to the pitch, so close you can feel the atmosphere. Some can find it hard to perform in those settings.
Every player has their own favourite ground they like to play at – sometimes you can get so close to the fans that you can hear everything they’re saying. That’s great. But some players don’t react well to it, and that’s why you would often hear stories about players being ‘homers’ who aren’t so good on the road.
I was the opposite. I didn’t really like the grounds where fans were a long way away in stadiums with a running track around the outside of the pitch. Maybe that’s why I was so disappointed with my performances in the two cup finals for United! I’m only joking – sort of – but I do believe it’s not as personal.
One game that brings home the point was our Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Porto in 1977. We lost 4-0 over in Portugal but the second leg was completely different at Old Trafford. The crowd drove us on, and we felt as if we would do the impossible. We scored five goals but let in two so unfortunately we didn’t qualify, but the atmosphere at the Theatre of Dreams was memorable to say the least. It will stay with me forever. It goes to show the difference a crowd can make because I’m sure they inspired us to come as close as we did.
However, like I said at the top, professionals should learn to play in any situation. The reason why I was confident is because in many ways it takes them back to their early days. When we all started kicking a ball we were doing it without an audience.
Most players have been through the rigours of youth team and reserve team football when they were coming through the ranks, and even when you have a dip in form, or are trying to get back your fitness after an injury, you play in these settings. You might be playing on a cold afternoon with one man and his dog in attendance but you know a report will be going back to the manager if he’s not there, and that report could well determine if you get called into the first team.
I’m not saying crowds aren’t important – they definitely are. It’s been great to see United playing as well as they are but I’m sure those guys would admit that it would be much better in front of a crowd of supporters. Maybe their confidence would be even higher.
That’s at the top level and the Premier League as a spectacle can survive without the fans, as clinical as that sounds. The presence of supporters is critical, though, to the survival of clubs in lower leagues – the revenue that is created by that support can be the difference between survival and extinction. It seems like there is no answer to this virus but I hope that football returns for those clubs quickly enough for their future to be saved.
Maybe if there’s one thing to be taken from the pandemic, it is that it has put into perspective the importance of the football pyramid, and the sobering experience of playing in front of these empty stands will hopefully be a reminder that the lower reaches of the football landscape need to survive in order for the game to remain in good health.