England’s game against Croatia in October 2018 – their 988th senior international – was their first to be played behind closed doors
Whether it was the Champions League, Europa League or top-flight matches in Spain, Italy or France, the sight of top-level football being played in empty stadiums became increasingly commonplace at the start of this month.
The coronavirus pandemic continues to have a major impact across sport, with a huge list of events postponed.
When football does eventually return, the prospect of playing games behind closed doors appears a very real possibility.
Such matches are known as “ghost games” and, according to some of those to have done it, playing in a top-class competitive match without a crowd is an “eerie experience”.
It is a rare occurrence for English clubs – only three have been in that position in the history of European competition – West Ham in 1980, Aston Villa in 1982 and Manchester City in 2014.
It will not be new for some Premier League players. England’s Nations League tie in Croatia took place in front of an empty stadium in October 2018 because of Uefa sanctions against their hosts after a swastika was marked on their pitch before a game in 2015, while Wolves and Manchester United were among the clubs to play behind closed doors in Europe as the coronavirus situation worsened.
So what is it really like? We find out from those who have been there.
An England game ‘shrouded in an unreality’
Can you let me in please?
“There has been a PA announcer on reading out the teams. I don’t know why. We’ve all got team sheets and there’s nobody here to read the teams to. He could have had the night off.”
That was one observation from former England captain Terry Butcher during an unusual evening in Rijeka for the Three Lions’ goalless draw in Croatia.
Defender Ben Chilwell, who was making his full debut, described the night as “strange” and said there was “a weird environment”.
BBC Sport’s chief football writer Phil McNulty, who was one of a select group allowed inside the stadium, said “It was an occasion that, in a sporting context, held an almost morbid fascination.
“The whole evening was shrouded in an unreality that made even reporting on it an occasionally bizarre experience.
“Sometimes a look up from a laptop is prompted by a roar from the crowd – this time it was as a result of a raised voice on the pitch or an increase in volume levels from the players.
“Moments of quality were greeted with polite applause rather than roars of approval as pretty much everyone inside the stadium was part of the media operation or were dignitaries, sponsors or stewards.
“It was an occasion that perhaps got the match it deserved and the final whistle was blown to a backdrop of silence.”
‘The players could hear the radio commentary’
West Ham legends Trevor Brooking and Phil Parkes both played against Real Madrid Castilla – the Spanish giants’ B team – in what went down in folklore as one of the most famous matches to be played at their old Upton Park home, because there were no fans there to watch it.
“It was a very, very surreal game,” Parkes told BBC Sport. “Even now, I think: Did I dream that, or did it really happen?”
Brooking played 643 games in all competitions across 18 seasons during his glittering career for the Hammers, but the unique and peculiar circumstances of Wednesday, 1 October 1980 mean it stands out in his memory.
West Ham trailed 3-1 after the first leg of their European Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Castilla – a game that had been marred by the trouble that led to the crowd ban – but back in east London they eventually prevailed 6-4 on aggregate after extra time.
The goals, including a hat-trick by David Cross, and the comeback are not what Brooking and Parkes remember most, however.
Upton Park had a capacity of 39,500 in 1980. The attendance for the game against Real Madrid Castilla was recorded as 262, which is the lowest in the club’s history, but no fans were present
“It was very odd from the moment we ran out to warm up,” Brooking explained.
“Normally you would have the noise of the crowd lifting you before the game and during it. There was always a fantastic atmosphere at Upton Park for the big games.
“But that night was very eerie. You could hear the radio commentary drifting across the pitch, and what the coaches were saying to themselves in the dugouts.
“In fact that was the only game in my whole career that I could hear everything that was said from the bench.
“One voice stood out above the others – Eddie Baily, a World War Two veteran as well as a former England international. He was our chief scout, and a man who definitely liked to see commitment from his players.
“Let’s just say he was very vocal about it, and pretty volatile! Lots of his encouragement was related to the use of a bayonet.
“His voice could always be heard even when there was a crowd there and, that night, I am sure his cries of ‘get stuck in’ would have been heard from a long way away.”
Applauding policemen – but no players’ wives
TV cameras were allowed into Upton Park but live coverage was not allowed and Uefa turned down requests to show the game via ‘beamback’ at local cinemas and Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road ground. Highlights of the game can been seen on YouTube, although one TV show at the time appears to have dubbed in crowd noise when the goals go in
Parkes, who played 444 games in goal for the Hammers between 1979 and 1990, says the Castilla game was the only one in his career that his wife was not able to watch.
Players were not given any tickets for family or friends, and the official attendance of 262 consisted of the players, match officials, administrative staff and the media.
That figure did not include some West Ham supporting policemen, whom Brooking recalls clapping the home goals from otherwise deserted terraces.
Uefa’s ban included preventing any live TV coverage – just three minutes of action were permitted to be shown on the news.
And because so few people were present, there are plenty of claims about what else went on – including that Parkes listened to commentary of the match on a ball boy’s radio behind his goal in the second half.
“That’s a myth, I’m afraid,” Parkes said. “Most of the time I was listening to what was going on in the other box, which never happens in a normal game.
“But I do remember talking to one of our apprentices, who was stood behind the goal, in a quiet moment.
“We actually had all of the youth players spaced around the ground, in every stand. We only had one ball and there was no-one else to get it back when it went in there.
“They were flying around, doing their best, but even so, if the ball went up to Row Z of the Chicken Run, it would still take two or three minutes to come back if there was nobody near it.”
How can players prepare for such unique circumstances?
Playing under floodlights made the experience an even stranger one for Hammers goalkeeper Phil Parkes because he could not see beyond the edge of the pitch
With Premier League players used to stepping out in front of capacity crowds, is there anything they can do to prepare for such an unusual situation?
“We were certainly not looking forward to it,” added Brooking. “But we did not want to lose in those circumstances.
“Our manager, John Lyall, organised a full-blooded practice game at Upton Park against our reserve side and asked them to treat it like a competitive game, to give us some idea of what it will be like to play there when it was so eerie, without any atmosphere.”
Even that did not help the players too much, according to Parkes.
“We trained at Upton Park during the day in the build-up to the game,” he said. “But the game was at night under floodlights, and that is what made it weird.
“During the day you can see everything around and outside the ground, but when you are playing and the floodlights are on you cannot actually see much beyond the edge of the pitch.
“So, when we scored it was almost as though you expected the crowd to cheer. There was no-one there of course, but you couldn’t see that there was no-one there.”
A version of this article was first published on 11 October 2018.