independent– As a professional footballer whose career spanned 20 years, in which grounds like Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Upton Park were homes, there is one sound that sticks out in Joe Cole’s mind.
“You know you used to hear the click of the wooden seats?” He asks The Independent. “Do you remember that? The “bp-bp-bp-bp-bp”. I used to love that.”
The noise he describes is the sudden closing of fold-down seats created by fans rising to their feet at the sight of a sublime bit of play, or that such magic was in the offing. The sound of expectation.
“I used to love the sound when you’re playing, and you get the ball and people get off their feet because you’re dribbling and doing something. You feel it.”
With spectators returning to football grounds across the country this weekend, this aural sensation returns with them. So too the cheers, chants, boos and cursing, Their absence has made the beautiful game feel hollow these last nine months
For those lucky few in possession of these golden tickets, it will be a return to routine, a welcome opportunity to re-engage with another aspect of normality amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Those coming through the turnstiles will also help bring that normality back to those still watching from afar.
There will be no need for canned cheers. No more delayed celebrations for a goal, or erroneous celebrations for a close miss. The eery atmosphere of football a cappella will gradually phase out. Slowly but surely, the viewing experience gets back to what it was.
A survey conducted by eToro has found that three in four fans have been enjoying football less in lockdown. As many as 73 per cent say they missed key incidents while watching remotely, with just over 64 per cent putting a lack of enjoyment down to the distractions of life and home. During this period, live sport has not provided its usual escapism. Cole is unsurprised by these findings.
“The punters are so important to the spectacle, to the show,” he says. “I just hope when we come back that’s reflected from the clubs, from the broadcasters, from everyone really. That they realise how important the fans are to making it a spectacle. Considering the ticket prices and the travel, they are vitally important to us.”
As a former player, he appreciates this more than most. From memory, he can’t recall ever playing in a behind-closed-doors match for club or country beyond reserve and youth team games. As for many blessed to call it a profession, playing in front of packed houses is part of the dream.
“Every footballer you see has been a fan once. Every footballer would have sat on a terrace up and down the country, watching their team, dreaming of being off being on that pitch one day. You’ve got to be so thankful and appreciative when you do get there because it is a privilege, an honour to be a footballer. Having the fans singing your name, that’s an amazing feeling. I’ve been blessed to be able to have that.”
His most profound experience in the stands came during the summer of 1996. He attended every one of England’s group games in Euro ’96, lucky enough to be at the Old Wembley for that Paul Gascoigne goal against Scotland.
Now, with over 500 professional appearances, 56 England caps, and one of the lucky few access grounds since Project Restart as a pundit for BT Sport, Cole hasn’t been an outright fan for a while. Though he does admit the odd relapse.
Prior to his retirement in 2018, he spent two years at USL Championship side, the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It was here in the United States that he remembers dipping back into fanaticism while watching Chelsea come from behind to draw 2-2 with Tottenham Hotspur in May 2016, which ended Spurs hopes of a title, handing the Premier League to Leicester City. “I was off my seat in my front room, thanking the lord,” he jokes. “I felt the tribalism in me then!”
Running through Cole’s career is to realise not many will have accumulated a memory bank of varying fan groups and experiences. He was part of one of the dominant Chelsea sides in the club’s history, picking up three league titles, two FA Cups and appearing in a Champions League final between 2004 and 2010. He had the honour of wearing red in front of the Anfield Kop, and is a cult hero at West Ham. He also made it to three World Cups.
But when asked for a memorable game, where he felt the most tangible effects of a partisan crowd, there is one standout.
“I think Chelsea versus Barcelona, when we won 4-2,” he answers, in a flash. Trailing 2-1 from the first leg at the Nou Camp, Jose Mourinho’s side blitzed Frank Rijkaard superstars to make it through to the quarter-finals of the 2004/05 Champions League. “I’d never heard Stamford Bridge like that.
“We had arguably the greatest team we’ve seen, that Barcelona team coming to our ground. That first 20 minutes it felt like you were floating on air. The fans were right on it: it was loud, the ground was shaking, it was a proper European night. Thinking back and you can hear these memories. It’s vivid and the fans that night were sensational.”
Alas, getting back to nights like these will take time, even with news of a vaccine ramping up enthusiasm well beyond the game. Social distancing will be in effect well into the New Year. But the weekend is the first tentative steps towards bringing them back. Even for those returning, strict protocols when entering grounds and distance between other supporters will be two of many new elements to get used to.
“I think initially it’s going to be a novelty. We’ll iron out the little bumps along the way. The referees are going to have to readjust to being with fans.”
Might we also see a change of tact on the field? This season has seen many freak results, in part due to the absence of home advantage. Though 2,000 fans spread across modern grounds built for, say, 60,000 capacity venues will carry its own eeriness, Cole anticipates a greater step-up in intensity.
“The majority of the players will love it. There’ll be a few that don’t, but the majority want to be on that stage. You have to have that in you.”
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