Spectator sport

Football is better without the crowds

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

The Liverpool defence might have decided in a rare show of togetherness to demonstrate what the word ‘appalling’ means, and Spurs only had a pathetic Manchester United to beat, but something strange is happening to football. After all, Manchester United have conceded six goals before (well, one other time since the 1930s) and Liverpool have conceded seven before (just a couple of other times since the 1930s) — but both on the same day!

So what’s going on? Like actors performing out of their skulls at dress rehearsals because the pressure of a first night is off, are footballers flying through games with freedom, flair and zest, ready to try the unexpected, because the crowds are not there? Spurs’ Erik Lamela would have certainly felt at home on the West End stage after falling to the floor as if taking a straight right from Tyson Fury when United’s Anthony Martial had lightly touched his cheek. ‘Typical Latin,’ remarked Graeme Souness afterwards, and few would disagree. Still, a touring Erik Lamela thespian troupe could do a lot to save the entertainment industry.

And just as lesser actors can shine at dress rehearsals, so unheralded players — talented but not superstars, such as Villa’s Ollie Watkins, ex-Brentford, Exeter City and, er, Weston-super-Mare, and now with a hat trick against the Champions, European Champions and World Club champions — can start to shine in a crowd-free atmosphere.

After all, wouldn’t you rather be lining up a delicate inswinging corner without some frazzled old granny sitting behind you at the flag, her face twisted in hate and furiously flashing V-signs at your back? And somehow a throw-in becomes just a throw-in without a gang of tattooed half-wits a couple of feet away from you shouting foul-mouthed abuse.

Managers are conducting themselves impeccably too. Jurgen Klopp was his usual magnanimous self after the thrashing at Villa Park, and Villa’s Dean Smith as excited as a schoolboy with an Oscar-winner’s autograph as he revealed that Klopp had simply said to him: ‘Wow.’

Even Jose is behaving well — and good for him for stalking off down the tunnel the other day after a particularly demented VAR ruling pulled play back as if in some nightmare version of Back to the Future to award a late penalty against Eric Dier, whose arm had been brushed by an Andy Carroll header. Newcastle scored from the spot and Spurs were denied two points. Personally I hope Jose smashed a passing partition wall. It was a shocker.

Old moaners saying all sport is rubbish without a crowd should have a bit of afternoon fun at home and tune into the Indian Premier League. It’s got the best cricketers in the world operating above and beyond, with scarcely credible feats of fielding.

And if I’d known there might be a peerage at the end of it, I might have taken my own batting and bowling more seriously all those years ago. I realise the benefits of a decently rewarded sinecure in old age but it’s some time since I rattled the stumps or managed to get the cherry even off the square, let alone to the boundary. To think that if I’d tried a little harder I might have qualified for the £323-a-day attendance plus travel expenses and subsidised restaurants. Could do worse on a cold winter’s day. Nevertheless, Baron Botham of Ravensworth in the county of North Yorkshire struck a rather forlorn figure as he lumbered about the Lords chamber during the swearing-in like an old bear lost in the woods. You can’t help wondering if he’d be better off with some other well-paid gig: a non-exec seat on the board of some prestigious wine company, maybe.

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