So what is it like inside the bubble in the Premier League’s new biosecure world? My first experience of it, at Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Arsenal on Saturday, felt like being airlifted onto the set of a sci-fi movie.
To get anywhere near the smart Amex Stadium in the first place you needed to have filled in a fair bit of paperwork to indicate you had no symptoms of the coronavirus, had not recently arrived from abroad and were not in a vulnerable category. On arrival, I was instructed to stay in the car and wear a mask (the club had provided one in their blue club colours, complete with a Seagulls logo). Then you had to wind down the window for a temperature check. I was declared healthy and allowed to park.
Normally on a match day you would be among thousands of fans as you arrived, and swap banter with fellow commentators and media people while having a cup of coffee or tea and a bite to eat in the media room. But apart from Brighton club staff in those blue masks, there was almost nobody around the deserted stadium perimeter and that media room was closed, like all the food outlets. You had to bring your own sandwiches and refreshment. It felt like a sad and surreal ghost town.
The stadiums are divided into zones, with the players and officials and essential medical staff kept apart from everyone else in the red zone. All these people are tested for coronavirus twice a week, with anyone found to be positive ordered to self-isolate. First in the Bundesliga and now the Premier League, that has ensured a safe environment for the leagues to restart.
All media are in the amber zone and are not allowed anywhere near the pitch or tunnel areas. My microphone and headphones were wrapped in a sanitised bag for use exclusively by me. All the other wires and equipment had been scrubbed clean.
Behind the masks, there was a chance for a socially distanced chat about possible lineups with fellow commentators Jonathan Pearce, of the BBC, and Jim Proudfoot, who was working on the broadcast of the game sent out by the Premier League to the whole world. Normally we would put the finishing touches to our match preparation in the media room, and go down to the tunnel area where there may be the chance of picking up a vital morsel of information about players and tactics. Now that is impossible. I had to go straight to the outdoor commentary position, so just as well it was a warm sunny day on the south coast of England.
When Arsenal arrived, I was able to phone a contact in that red zone who informed me that Gunners manager Mikel Arteta was likely to make a few changes; Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe among those expected to play, and Rob Holding was sure to get a rare outing in defence.
The conversation turned to the tricky travel logistics for away teams in this strange new world. The Premier League have advised clubs to make their journeys on match days to avoid the risk of transmission during overnight stays in hotels. Arsenal had taken some flak for flying up for Wednesday’s 3-0 defeat at Manchester City as late as 5 p.m. for an 8 p.m. kick-off. They were accused of cutting it fine, and harming the players’ preparation.
But think about it. What are clubs supposed to do? Travel early and be left kicking their heels for hours in a faraway town? They cannot follow their normal routine of a sleep and prematch meal at a local hotel without breaking the guidelines. For this game, I learned that Arsenal had eaten at their training ground north of London in late morning and then made the 90-minute trip in two coaches to maintain social distancing on board. It is hardly ideal, but the away teams are facing a dilemma.
And so to the game itself. The piped-in crowd noise may not be to everyone’s taste, but, for this commentator, at least it helps create a more authentic feel and buzz. Otherwise, no matter how good the game, it can feel like a reserve match with the players’ shouts echoing around a cavernous arena. TV broadcasters are giving viewers a choice, and most are opting to watch with the sound effects on.
The clubs have done a fantastic job in dressing up the stadiums with attractive, colourful canvas covers for the empty seats, and Brighton have cardboard cutouts of 1,500 fans and famous ex-players sitting in their East Stand. They are doing their very best to make it feel like home, and managers are staging a lot of training sessions at the ground to get the players accustomed to the new environment.
I think they need to tweak the drinks break idea. They are only necessary on a very hot day. It was farcical to see it in the pouring rain in Friday evening when Tottenham hosted Manchester United. The new five-substitute rule, meanwhile, is a nightmare for commentators. By the last 10 minutes, half the outfield players have changed. It is almost like a different game. I understand the increased risk of muscle injury after such limited preparation, but five subs makes it feel like a friendly.
Clearly some teams are more rusty than refreshed. The restart is proving traumatic for Arsenal, with two defeats and a stack of injuries already. Brighton led the fight against staging matches at neutral grounds and it paid off with a dramatic late 2-1 win over the Gunners on home turf.
Sad that their fans were not there to see it. As commentators we are privileged to be there to tell the story for those denied entry. It is good to have football back. And as weird as our “new normal” is inside the stadium bubble, it beats calling Bundesliga games off TV pictures from your office at home!