A mere handful of games in and already, this looks like being a very singular EPL season with results and scorelines looking unlike anything that even the most clued up pundit might predict.
By Dave Bowler
The consensus is that empty grounds are the catalyst for it all, that the eerie atmosphere and the lack of a baying crowd is somehow playing with the dynamics of games. This is probably true, but not necessarily in the way that we would have anticipated.
The logic would be that home advantage doesn’t matter as much, that not having thousands of fans urging on the home side would automatically make life better for the away team.
Tell that to Aston Villa and Liverpool after the hosts destroyed the champions of England 7-2. And even if Spurs’ winning at Old Trafford might have been more on the scale of what we might expect to see, for Manchester United to lose 6-1 to anyone, anywhere, is still off the scale weird.
It seems that the biggest difference isn’t so much whether your fans are there to outnumber the other lot and so drive you on. It’s more that when there are no fans at all, when you don’t have that constant rumble of noise that gets the adrenalin going, footballers lose that competitive edge, that extra couple of percentage points that makes the difference.
Players have already spoken about playing in an empty stadium, that is a surreal experience to them. Statistics tend to show that players aren’t running as far, nor as fast, as in comparable fixtures in front of crowds. I don’t think this is anything deliberate on their part, they’re not choosing to slack off. I think it’s more likely a simple physiological reaction to that lack of adrenalin.
When it isn’t there, then you have to compensate for it yourself and that’s where mental strength comes in, an area where the modern sportsman is perhaps lacking, so great has been the concentration on athleticism.
In many sports now, we regularly see that once one team or individual gets on top, the other capitulates. In tennis, until you get to the sharp end of tournaments, we seem to see far more one sided matches than in the past. How many cricket Tests between relatively well matched sides are now all over bar the shouting by the second day, the one side virtually throwing the towel in rather than trying to chisel out a draw?
Digging in in the face of adversity takes real character and it’s where football has tended to do better than other sports in recent times. As it now turns out, there was largely because of the nature of the crowd.
In individual sports, crowds are rarely that partisan. In cricket, the crowds are smaller and much further away from the action. But in football, the crowds are on top of you, immensely vocal, and you let them down at your peril. Which isn’t to say huge beatings don’t happen in front of huge crowds of course, but when things go against you in front of empty seats, you have to find the hunger to fight from deep within, not by drawing on the crowd. That separates the wheat from the chaff.
Aberdeen are instructive in that regard, one of the few teams to have played in front of a crowd – albeit 300 people – this season. They beat Kilmarnock 1-0, manager Derek McInnes saying how the few fans immediately made a difference and how determined the players were to reward then with a win.
Their next game at Pittodrie was back behind closed doors against bottom placed Motherwell. They conceded after four minutes and by halfway through the first half were losing 3-0.
So perhaps we are going to have to get used to teams collapsing like a house of cards, perhaps even both in the same game as happened between West Brom and Chelsea. It’s all in the mind you know…
Dave Bowler is the author of “The Magic of the Cup 1973/74”, telling the story of Liverpool’s FA Cup win in 1974. Available here: https://www.curtis-sport.com/books –
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