Have players and staff become more like fans during lockdown?
The first goal I ever saw Manchester United score in a behind-closed doors game came at Goodison Park in November 2020.
Scored by Bruno Fernandes, it couldn’t have been more different to the last one I’d seen in person: Scott McTominay’s injury-time classic against Manchester City in Old Trafford’s last fan-attended game.
But it was equally surprising. Because while there was no writhing mass of delirious Reds celebrating behind the goal, there was noise. Undeniably loud noise. And, to my ears, an even bigger noise than the sound that had greeted Everton’s opener.
How could that be, given we were playing away, in an “empty” stadium? Where was the din coming from? And who was providing it?
The answer, of course, is the players themselves. Or from the bench, where the substitutes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his staff reside. And maybe even among the media horde, where United well-wishers are smattered around, throughout TV crews, journalists and press teams.
And, increasingly, these impromptu noises are gaining attention. Are players and staff attempting to fill the void left by absent fans? Are they becoming more emboldened as behind-closed-doors football approaches the 12-month milestone?
When United beat Aston Villa 2-1 on New Year’s Day, our episode of Access All Areas drew a bit of a reaction. In it, with none of the “fake” noise that is often applied by TV companies present, you could clearly hear the cries and euphoria that greeted Eric Bailly’s last-minute block to deny Keinan Davis. It sounded like there were Manchester United fans inside the ground.
So are these bursts of support having an impact?
“It's been the soundtrack of the lockdown, really – having players and staff actually shouting encouragement and supporting like fans,” says MUTV commentator Stewart Gardner. “It's the only equivalent of fans that we've got, and the Eric Bailly block was a classic example.
“The other one that stands out to me was at Leicester on Boxing Day. We were opposite the tunnel, high up, miles from the benches, which were on the opposite side of the field and where the subs are. I can't remember the precise incident, but there was a great tackle and you could clearly hear roaring from the substitutes, shouting applause. Roaring! And that was from the other side of the ground.”
For journalist and fan Andy Mitten, the vocality of United staff is something that’s increased as the club has got used to playing behind closed doors.
“I've noticed the players becoming vocal and supportive in the last few months,” he says. “At first, because it was unprecedented, I don't think people knew what to do. I remember Crystal Palace away, soon after lockdown, where United won. There was a roar when the goals went in, but I think that came from the manager.
“Then you've got players sat further back in the stands. I spoke to one player at half-time and it's really good when you see how much they buzz off their team-mates doing well. They probably wish it was them doing it and I mean that in a positive way. They're a footballer, they want to win, they want to achieve, they want to be on the pitch, but I think it's become more acceptable to get behind the team.
“The best celebration I've seen was Everton away in the cup – that late goal [by Anthony Martial] that killed the game. I was right by it. I was working for TV and I was like 10 metres away, and I was the only person there and – these were the lads on the pitch – but it was absolutely brilliant. I think they're realising now in the last few months that it can be an advantage to feel like you've got fans with you. And the benches are that big, it's probably more than Wimbledon brought to Old Trafford in the ’80s!”
In normal times, fans of different teams will try to outdo each other to give their clubs the best support during a match. And Gardner says that a similar kind of battle might kick in behind closed doors, even though the only spectators are now professionals.
“In the Europa League semi-final, the Sevilla squad were just in front of us and it was like having fans in,” he marvels. “They were so noisy every time there was a chance, a tackle, anything. So noisy. You almost thought: I can't believe it. All of the 11 subs were making a racket, and it was incredible. It was so loud – the loudest I've ever known.
“Does it then become a contest between the two sets of staff? Yeah, I think so, a little bit. I thought Sevilla were a little bit over the top, to be honest. I've never known anything like it. But what else have you got, in terms of sound? I think the silence means that people have encouraged staff, substitutes to be more vocal, because it's still so weird to have games with total silence.”
I was sat opposite the Bob Lord Stand – where the substitutes and staff reside – for Tuesday’s win at Burnley, but even there, when Paul Pogba found the net there was a clear outburst of noise in the stand housing the press.
“You're not banned from making noise,” admits Mitten. “As a journalist, it would be very unprofessional to do so, so I haven't done. But I've felt like it, do you know what I mean? At Everton I just wanted to go in the away end and get a one-man away end going. I recently wanted to go in the home end at Villa to stop Liverpool scoring in the FA Cup, in perhaps this mistaken belief that one person can make a difference. But I think you've got to have that bit of hope that you can as a fan. I've just noticed that you can see it [the atmosphere] is an extension of the good team spirit, and it's all positive.”
High above us on Tuesday was Gary Neville, in his commentary role for Sky Sports, plus Darren Fletcher [first-team coach] and Martyn Pert [conditioning specialist]. Could they have been responsible for the cheers we heard? The Athletic’s Laurie Whitwell tweeted that Fletcher and Pert enjoyed a celebratory fist-bump and that the Scot “leapt” to celebrate Pogba’s goal.
Gardner says his co-commentator Ben Thornley is also living every minute. “Ben’s like a jack in a box. He's up and down, he's living it all. You don't want somebody shouting all over the commentary for every goal or a normal goal. But in certain circumstances when it's so dramatic, you want that. I dread to think what he'll be like at Anfield on Sunday! But he's a fan; he lives every moment of it.
“Where we are in the press box is up by the analysts. Darren Fletcher's in there now, and Fletch is not up there screaming and shouting, but he's kicking every ball and he's involved.”
When we grab a crucial winner – as we did on Tuesday against Burnley – perhaps legends like Gary Neville or Fletcher could be excused for giving it the big’un.
I’m not saying our former club captain was responsible, but there was undoubted noise. Solskjaer and co were miles away on the other side of the pitch!
Then again, cynics might suggest I'm merely covering my own back. As a season-ticket holder whose only avenue to watch the Reds in the flesh now is working in a media capacity, I’m privileged to be in the stadium for the odd game. But can I hold it together when we score a crucial winner that takes us top of the table? I’ll have to pass on that one and “plead the fifth”, as they say in the United States.
But without the Red Army present, I can say one thing with complete honesty: it gives me a different kind of special thrill to see the players, management and staff united, providing their own brand of support to give us whatever extra lift they can.
We supporters might be absent from stadiums as a collective, but our spirit remains very much alive and kicking.