나는t starts with an email. Attached to it are a number of documents, some of which are written by people who haven’t realised the inverse correlation between the length of a document and the likelihood of someone willing to read it. No detail is left unprinted. 하나, read it I must and, 110 pages later, I tick the electronic box to confirm I now know the disinfecting regime for the corner flags. I return some key information: car registration, headshot, job title, blood type.
The confirmation email contains maps for parking and indicating which parts of the stadium have been designated the Green Zone, open to all of the operational staff on a matchday, the exclusive Red Zone, set aside for the players and technical staff of the participating teams, and the Amber Zone, which is for the media and people like me, visiting scouts.
There will also be a health declaration that has to be completed on the day of the game. When Covid-19 first broke out some clubs weren’t quite up to speed on how the virus worked, so they produced copious amounts of online documents. You had to print out and physically hand over the health declaration when you arrived at the club, handling and passing back the same piece of paper, which was the kind of absurdity that would drive my wife, a paramedic, apoplectic with rage; let’s enforce face masks and hand sanitisers but then ask everyone to sign in using the same pen.
Now all health declarations are online and only become active the day of the game. Some clubs have still yet to work out that for a 12.30pm kick-off, forms need to be online sooner than 10am for those of us with 200-mile journeys to undertake. I had to complete one form in the car park of the ground I was attending as I’d left home at 8.30am that morning.
My current role is as an Opposition Scout, which means I watch all the teams that we are due to play. Wherever possible this is the very last game before we play them although there are some variations according to the vagaries of the fixtures, now spread-eagled across the week for television. I have to observe and assess the formation that our next opponents employ, their pattern of play and the composite elements of their performance, both when they have the ball and when they have to defend.
What can be learned on each opponent very much depends upon the team they are facing and how the game itself pans out. There’s nothing like driving four hours to a game and then seeing a player sent off after 20 minutes to reduce your potentially point-winning assessment to some scrappy footnotes.
To ensure the integrity of the competition is retained, each home club must make six scout tickets available for each match; one per club for each of the next three opponents for both teams in that match. Most clubs use video technology much more these days in their match preparation, but there is still an appetite to use experienced heads and eyes to add to the analysis through watching the game live.
When there were no crowds, a maximum of 300 people attended each game, a large swathe of which is the media. On a normal matchday with a 20,000 crowd in the stadium, the various TV and radio commentaries get lost in the general hubbub but, with nothing but three rows of empty plastic-shrouded seats between us, I could hear every exhortation that Vicki Sparks is injecting into a drab 0-0 on a very cold, wet night.
While games without crowds seemed strange for most fans and players, they were not completely alien to me. I’ve been working as a scout for more than 25 years and have attended many reserve and under-23 matches in near-empty stadiums, where you can hear every last syllable a centre-half screams at a winger for once again not making an effort to track the opposing full-back.
I would arrive at grounds through deserted streets, bollards unemployed as they line the roads like orange-coloured sentries for a parade that isn’t coming. For the occasional local derby a bigger police presence would look lost, kicking their heels with fans having heeded the advice to stay home. I had to produce photo ID to get through the first checkpoint at the perimeter of the stadium grounds, the steward displaying amazing visual skills to align the eight-year-old photo on my driving licence with the masked and hooded individual cowering in the rain before him. Next was a temperature check to get access to the stadium itself and further verifications before I was handed a lanyard with my Amber Zone accreditation.
It was all very sombre. One club took the unusual step of playing the pre-match music at the same volume as they would if there were 40,000 in the stadium. I had to hide in the concourse to enable my ears to stop ringing before kick-off. There was also the surreal experience of witnessing a local derby to the accompaniment of a saxophone being played on the street outside the ground – the sound of zoot pop tunes bounced off the facades of the terraced houses nestled beside the ground and echoed across the pitch.
As I watched the games, players seemed to be finishing with less anxiety and defenders did not seem to be throwing themselves into opposing players as aggressively. I believe the lack of crowds was a contributing factor to both, and something we had to acknowledge as we prepared and adapted our own playing philosophy and strategy, particularly the longer it continued. I witnessed 39 goals in the first eight games I attended at the start of the season, all featuring 프리미어 리그 or Championship teams. This was not normal and the trend continued, with more goals being scored but from fewer shots on goal.
My most recent game behind closed doors was no exception, featuring five goals. When the referee blew the full-time whistle, I slid my pen and pad into my inside pocket and quickly exited the ground. With no large crowds, it was no longer necessary to leave the game early to avoid getting caught in traffic. Accreditations were retrieved and I strode on, giving a thankful wave to the two guys huddled in a car at the entrance to the one car park in use. It’s back to the motorway for a few hours and then more hours at home in front of a PC, constructing ways to get eventually beaten by a wondrous wave of Kevin De Bruyne’s right boot.