'A surreal experience': What it was like inside Premier League grounds

‘A surreal, hollow experience’: With just 300 people allowed into Premier League grounds for matches, the lucky few reveal it was ‘weird’ to be inside, with crowded bars replaced by temperature checks and face masks

  • Premier League returned to action on Wednesday after 100 days of suspension
  • Two matches were played behind closed doors for the first time
  • Around 300 people were at each match – players, coaches, staff and media
  • Security checks were praised but the atmosphere was hollow 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

After 100 days of suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, Premier League football finally returned on Wednesday night.

Aston Villa hosted Sheffield United in the curtain-raiser, which was followed by the main billing of champions Manchester City against Arsenal. For the millions watching at home on Sky Sports with their artificial crowd noise on, the experience wasn’t too dissimilar to normal – barring the water breaks and extra substitutions that have been brought in to cope with playing in the summer after three months off.

But for those inside the ground, the experience was completely different to what they are used to, with fans not allowed in due to lockdown measures.

Reporters watch the action at the Etihad Stadium while being kept socially distant

Manchester City showed fans’ reactions on a big screen during the match

Around 300 people, including security staff, were present at each stadium, with players, coaches and media all having to go through rigorous checks on entering the stadiums. Aston Villa’s Villa Park usually hold around 43,000 people, with Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium closer to 55,000 including players and staff. So both giant stadiums were operating at less than 0.1 per cent of their capacity.

Those select few media allowed in were full of praise for how the checks and zones were organised to ensure no infections were brought into the stadium and that social distancing was enforced once people were in.  

In Birmingham, the BBC’s chief football writer Phil McNulty explained: ‘The media went through high security checks, including hi-tech temperature testing before being allowed in… Zones were divided into green, amber and red with strict sanitisation and a one-way walking system in operation – all superbly efficient and well-organised by Aston Villa, the first club off the block in this context.’

Also at Villa Park, the Daily Mirror’s John Cross seemed delighted how the operation ran: ‘It was incredibly well-organised, you park in the main car park which I have to say was a bonus because you never usually get that perk! They take your temperature, you have to sign in, fill in your declaration forms, get your accreditation, go round a one-way system round the car park – walking that is, of course, and then sanitise your hands, get the face mask on and on the concourse there’s lots of yellow and black ribbons to mark out very clearly where you’re supposed to walk, where you’re not supposed to walk.’

A sanitisation station at Villa Park was set up to ensure those present kept their hands clean

Security staff in Manchester wait to greet a press photographer entering the stadium

Up in Manchester, The Times’ chief football writer Henry Winter tweeted: ‘Well organised by #mcfc from stewards outside ground, directing route into one-way amber zone, temperature check (health questionnaire filled in online), everyone in face coverings, stewards pausing line to let players’ cars through, social distancing. Feels hollow without fans.’ 

It is that last sentence which is most poignant, however.  

Managers have spoken in the build-up to the Premier League restart about how trying to create an atmosphere without fans, to ensure players were sufficiently motivated, was going to be the biggest challenge.

Ground staff at Villa Park disinfect matchballs while wearing protective gloves

McNulty witnessed this going on at Villa Park. He explained: ‘Just below the media area, the sound of thumping music emerged from the dressing rooms as the players tried to create their own atmosphere. As players warmed up and those of us on the margins looked on, Villa at least tried to inject some atmosphere with a heavy metal soundtrack over the public address system before the players filed out separately.

‘It was somewhat incongruous as Villa’s announcer revved up the team announcements, brashly welcoming back John McGinn after his long injury absence, the stadium itself festooned with flags, banners (one from as far away as Prague) and coverings to at least add a dash of colour to an anaesthetised occasion.’

Given the medical nature of these unique circumstances the country and football finds itself in, anaesthetised seems an apt word. Surreal is another that came up.   

‘A surreal experience,’ tweeted AP’s Rob Harris in Manchester. While reflecting on the Villa game’s conclusion, McNulty wrote: ‘There was almost a sense of relief among all of us inside Villa Park that this, with all its surreal and unaccustomed elements, was out of the way.’

‘The experience felt as weird as it looked, though,’ tweeted ESPN’s Mark Ogden at the Etihad Stadium. ‘It’s football, but not as we know it.’

Vast swathes of empty seats were covered with flags as Manchester City beat Arsenal 3-0

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