A peek behind the PL curtain: the scene before a game

Before the last Champions League final, The Independent’s Jonathan Liew wrote a wonderful article on the experience of sitting in an empty stadium in the hours prior to a major event. He was right, because on certain nights a ground really can hum with expectation.

It’s not always like that, of course. One of the more trite cliches claims there is magic in the air before every kick-off, irrespective of the game and the level it’s being played at. That’s outdated, really, because television’s exposure has been eroding the game’s mystique for years. Every player’s traits are archived, each team’s strengths and weaknesses are burnt on the collective retina. But the more mundane the occasion, the more you notice the banal details – not the events which will determine how the game is remembered, but what happens in a ground in the hours before its gates are pulled open, the little bits we all take for granted.

So to Boxing Day at Craven Cottage, where beleaguered Fulham drew with a Wolves side blunted by the festive period. It was a game befitting the occasion: 75 minutes of clumsy, tentative and hungover nonsense, with a brief, frenetic finale tacked on the end. Fulham scored. Then Wolves scored. Then it descended into basketball chaos, with both teams alternately charging towards the other’s goal until full-time.

Craven Cottage is a wonderful ground. It’s not the loudest, obviously neither is it the most fierce, but at this time of year, when the senses have been dulled by Christmas and there isn’t much energy left to give, it offers football on gentler terms. It’s a diet alternative for aching heads and queasy, over-stretched stomachs. The media sit just above the pitch on the side opposite the dugouts and, one steel girder aside, the view is perfect. In some grounds, the press can reach their positions without entering the common parts, but here, where there just isn’t the room for that kind of privilege, laptops and cameras have to be dragged through the narrow concourses.

It’s all the better for it, really. Nobody was ever supposed to play Premier League football here and so while it has been renovated over the years, its arterial concourses retain antiquated charm. No architect would design something like this now. It’s too pokey and too awkward. There’s too much brickwork, not nearly enough glass, and its ramshackle sheddishness makes it too different.

As I arrive on Wednesday, a sniffer dog is nosing his way through those corridors, leading his handler back and forth, trying to ferret out anything which shouldn’t be there. Around him, the kiosk sellers are getting into place. Crates of soft drink are being pushed through the holes in the wall and into their little bunkers, and the hospitality staff are swapping Christmas war stories.

It isn’t quite a blur of activity – there’s a clear sense of order, but dozens of people are marching about with purpose, ticking off a long list of tasks.

Much of what takes place won’t occur to the fans arriving later. Just after ten, a man in a tracksuit, wrapped up in a hat and scarf, comes out of the tunnel to test the goal-line technology. He carefully places the ball before the line, on it and then over it. One goal-mouth then the other. Surely that job could be more fun? Maybe if it was delegated to a couple of schoolchildren who fancied a kick about instead – put one in goal, another on the penalty spot, and let them get on with
it.

A steward’s day begins in conference, four hours before kick-off. Just after 11, a message comes over the tannoy announcing that the turnstiles are about to swing, but in the hours before they’re huddled around the ground, plotting the day ahead. Small groups of luminous vests – orange opposite me and to my right, highlighter yellow everywhere else – cluster together in each stand, taking instructions from a team leader. When they’re done, they’ll march in procession through every row in the stadium, hunting unfolded seats, suspicious objects and, now, any out of place cardboard clappers.

At 10.30am, the refereeing committee arrives. Marriner leads them out of the tunnel, carrying a football as if it were a Faberge egg. The PGMOL actually have a matchday dress-code. In winter, it’s hidden under overcoats, of course, but in the warmer months they stride across the grass in navy suits, pale blue shirts and brown brogues. It’s Reservoir Dogs, as if reimagined by Richard Curtis.

Marriner repeats the goal-line technology test, more thoroughly this time. He checks that the watch doesn’t beep when the ball strikes the side netting and then drops it over the crossbar, ensuring that the sag doesn’t set it off either.

By 10.45, everything is happening quicker. In the seats on the opposite side, ten rows behind the dugout, the pitch announcer is running through his routine. Today’s special guest will be George Cohen, club legend and World Cup winner from 1966. George isn’t there yet and he’s being understudied by a club employee; the PA introduces him to the ground and he stands up to salute the empty seats.

At 11.02am the announcement comes: the ground is open and the tannoy comes to life. The curtain has been pulled and, now, this is pre-match as everybody knows it. The visiting Wolves players traipse out of the tunnel to Bittersweet Symphony and gather in little groups in one half of the pitch. What do players talk about when they do that? Nuno Espirito Santo’s players just kick their heels next to one another, occasionally creasing at the waist at some in-joke or another. Not Morgan Gibbs-White, who just stands aside and alone, headphones in and with a fixed, thousand-yard
stare.

Maybe those moments are the most enviable part of playing professional football. Not the actual games, which look like an unnatural, athletic slog, nor the aftermath, when social media’s manchildren are pillorying a bad performance or threatening a family member in retribution, but the coach journeys to the games and those idle moments when the profession must seem like an unimaginable joy. Maybe Gibbs-White had actually forgotten to pay his council tax or was
wondering whether he’d left the iron on, but he looked so lost in those moments. His career is so young that perhaps he was just dwelling on the fantasy?

“Someone is paying me to do this…”

The more the game changes, the more you hope that players still think like that.

Kick off is now an hour away and the technical staff are on the pitch, laying out cones, balls and water bottles. Either side of both penalty areas, makeshift goals with scraggy nets have been set up for the goalkeepers to warm up in. Every club has its own routine – Tony Pulis’ sides have that header-knock-down-second-ball drill, Tottenham have their attack versus defence exercise – but goalkeeping warm-ups don’t seem to vary. The second and third choices usually come out first, clapping above their heads and jogging like pre-season goalscorers. Then: footwork, crosses,
clearances and shot-stopping, all getting gradually harder.

An aside: is the best finisher at every club actually the goalkeeping coach?

The outfielders come out to more ceremony. Fulham are played on by Faithless, Wolves by Blur’s Song 2 and you suspect, somewhere (probably in an air-conditioned American office) somebody is working on a proposal to brand this part of the day. With fireworks, perhaps, a stencilled logo painted on the pitch, and maybe even a title sponsor who sells arms to a human rights abuser or has pioneered some kind of bitcoin. One for Gloucester Place, perhaps.

In his World Cup diary, Deadlines and Darts With Dele, Jonathan Northcroft wrote an absorbing passage on the sound of a professional player kicking a ball. It was his highly original way of renarrating England’s penalty shootout with Colombia, in which he marvelled at the level of technique and surmised that, no matter how much practice or training, a civilian could never achieve the same contact or generate an equivalent noise.

Here, with kick off less than 30 minutes away, it’s impossible to avoid drawing the same conclusion. When I kick a football, it makes a thump. When they do, it hardly makes a sound: it’s a clip or a caress, something far more gentle. There isn’t any tension and most people aren’t even paying notice but it’s in those moments that you see just how good these players actually are. The way they kill the ball; how they chop through its back; how easily they snake their passes through the cracks in the rondo.

The cameras are still trained on the pitchside pundits, so nothing happening here will have any YouTube posterity, but then that’s a good thing: little original flecks of football that, as was once always true, belong only to those who actually to see them. A flush volley in a shooting practice, perhaps, or a heavy punt dragged effortlessly out of the sky.

At 12.15pm, all the activity drains from the field and flows back into the dressing-room. That’s a great sound: the mild roar which accompanies the players as they depart. It’s always the first jolt of tribalism in the day and, now with enough fans in the ground, the first choruses spill out of the away end.

Out comes the Premier League’s ridiculous gazebo and the silly little throne for the match ball. The sprinklers have sprung up out of the grass, too, and the gaps in the stands have nearly all closed. Staccato chatter is punching out in the cold afternoon and, in the press-box, the starting elevens are being typed at the head of empty pages.

It’s the only point in the day when nobody regrets coming. The locals don’t mind the ticket prices, those who have travelled down from the Black Country aren’t thinking about their journey back across a packed London and, for now, even the journalists aren’t complaining about the wifi…

It’s the long pause before the season’s grumbles infect the day and the moans start to leak from the stands.

The apex of all the optimism, the blank canvas.

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter

 

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