Football: the Premier League’s quiet return

“Well, here we are again,” said Barney Ronay in The Guardian. The return of the Premier League last Wednesday was “technically a resumption”, the conclusion to a season that began ten months “and one global health trauma” ago. Yet in reality it felt like “something self-contained and entirely other”: football as a “high-speed entertainment product, sealed within its bubble”. So what’s in store over the next four weeks? Well, there’ll be no dramatic race for the title. Liverpool has it in the bag and could lift the trophy as soon as this week. However, there is still the competition for Champions League places; and at the bottom of the table there’s a “potentially fraught relegation fight” between four clubs separated, as of last weekend, by just two points. “Pretty much anything could happen down there.”

The strangest thing about watching football in the Covid-19 era is just how quiet it is, said Alyson Rudd in The Times. Without any fans in the stands, you get to hear what’s actually happening on the pitch: you hear what the coaches are saying; you “hear the players swearing”; you can hear “how the referees address the players”; in games at Brighton and Bournemouth last week, you could even hear the seagulls. If viewers find that a little too eerie, they have the option of watching with artificial crowd noise, said Molly Hudson in the same paper. Broadcasters can choose from the 1,300 tracks in the database of EA Sports, which makes the Fifa videogames; among the options are “team-specific chants and songs”. Sound crews do their best to “follow the ebb and flow of the game”, but not always successfully: in the first match last week, a save from Dean Henderson, the Sheffield United goalkeeper, was accompanied by a roar – “as if a goal had been scored”.

Premier League matches without fans feels like a logical progression, “not a hiatus”, said Alan Tyers in The Daily Telegraph. For a while now, football’s “direction of travel has been away from the live in-person experience and towards being a broadcast and digital product”. That’s hardly something to celebrate, said Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times. “Football without fans is like Hamlet without the Prince. It’s why the game exists as a, uh, spectator sport.” It’s why the results of the game matter less than the other things it delivers: “a sense of community, a chance to meet friends and band together in a raucous unholy communion”. If this is all it now amounts to, “I’d rather they’d rendered the season null and void”. There may be a silver lining, though, said Matt Dickinson in The Times. One regrettable aspect of football, before the pandemic, was the “tiresome nonsense” that so many footballers were guilty of: “the endless rolling around, the clamouring for every decision, the incessant abuse of officials”. But during the first Premier League matches last week, there was a striking lack of such behaviour – because “there were no fans to howl with outrage”. We can only hope this new spirit endures when “we’re back to ‘normal’”. Yes, matches without crowds might seem “bloodless”. But football, “even without the noise and clamour, is much better than no football”.