Dave Seddon's PNE pressview: It's been a strange old season
They came in restricted numbers but what a joy to see and hear fans back in English football grounds over the past week.
Last Saturday, Wembley opened the turnstiles for the FA Cup Final, with the EFL play-off semi-finals and penultimate set of Premier League games in midweek all played in front of supporters.
There had been a horrible feeling creeping in that empty stadiums were becoming the ‘new normal’, a phrase I loathe.
We were slowly growing accustomed to empty seats being covered by huge banners and tarpaulins, to piped noise, to goals being celebrated in silence.
At last we got a sense of what things were like pre-March 2020 – 14 months seems a lifetime ago.
With Preston North End’s season finishing a fortnight ago, it will be the summer when Deepdale can open its doors to fans again.
That won’t come a moment too soon, with 29 first-team competitive games having been staged behind closed doors since last June’s re-start.
What has changed off the pitch since then? The away team’s dressing room has been in the players’ lounge for starters.
Since April, two Crown Court judges have presided in the Sir Tom Finney Stand and Invincibles Pavilion, two of the hospitality lounges having been turned into Nightingale court rooms.
Where conversations were once had about the merits of one up front, jurors now decide guilt or not in manslaughter and burglary trials.
Hopefully come August when the 2021/22 campaign kicks-off, the wigs and silk will have gone and replaced by scarves and bobble hats.
I’ve been in a privileged position to have continued following PNE’s fortunes up and down the country this last year or so.
This my 30th season covering football for various organisations and was the strangest – and least enjoyable.
I didn’t hate it, after all there was a game of football to be watched. But there wasn’t anywhere near the same level of enjoyment to be had.
The audience you are writing for and relaying information to, have only had iFollow or the occasional Sky game as a means to watch.
I’m not sure as much pleasure can be gained from watching a win that way as you would do from being inside the ground.
When it comes to a defeat, the frustration and anger levels perhaps increase by not being there.
Reflecting on the season, it is strange to think that no PNE fan was able to see Daniel Iversen, Emil Riis, Sepp van den Berg, Ben Whiteman, Liam Lindsay, Anthony Gordon and Jayson Molumby up close and personal so to speak.
There was no one to see Paul Huntington make his 300th Preston appearance, no one there when Paul Gallagher played his last competitive game.
Scott Sinclair’s shot from 40 yards sailed over the head of Bournemouth keeper Asmir Begovic without a paying spectator seeing it.
Ryan Ledson made his breakthrough as a Preston regular and picked-up the player of the year award against a backdrop of no one.
Frankie McAvoy has yet to applaud the fans in person as the lead man in the North End technical area.
What I saw from covering games during the pandemic was the huge amount of organisation done behind the scenes to make sure matches went ahead.
Not only did football have to be safe, it had to be seen to be safe, hence goalposts being sprayed clean and footballs being disinfected.
Teams were kept well apart until they entered the field of play, away dressing rooms being relocated to another area of the ground.
It meant last season was able to be played to a finish in the top two divisions, while this season all four divisions were completed.
Entering a ground for a journalist has required a health questionnaire to be answered in advance, then a temperature check on arrival.
For the record, Watford, Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest have the swankiest hi-tech equipment to take your temperature. It was the other end of the scale at Luton, a hand held thermometer stuck in your ear.
Every credit to Watford for refuelling the media with a pie and brew, the only ground in the Championship still to do food.
Post-match interviews were a mixed bag in terms of being done either via Zoom or live.
Zoom calls and groundsmen mowing the pitch don’t mix by the way.
At Bristol City in January, Alex Neil was sat next to the dugout talking into a laptop as the Press strained to hear his words in the top tier of the stand.
The competition came from four mowers being pushed up and down the Ashton Gate pitch, all with engines which sounded like they would grace an F1 car.
While some matches were clearly affected by a lack of fans in the ground, some of them were entertaining and played to a high standard.
The second-half comeback against Brentford was superb, so too the 3-0 win over at Reading.
Perhaps the best was the 3-2 win over Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium, on the basis PNE got their tactics spot on for 75 minutes, the counter-attacking a joy to watch.
Sinclair’s long-distance goal was sandwiched in between Preston cutting open the Cherries defence for Tom Barkhuizen and Patrick Bauer to score.
The fact that win came on the back of two defeats in which they’d shipped seven goals, made it a bit special.
Derby away on Boxing Day was excellent, after all who doesn’t love a 97th minute winner from Alan Browne?
The coldest game of the season was a toss-up between Wycombe in the FA Cup and Birmingham away in January – Huntington’s landmark came in wind, rain, hail and sleet.
Fingers crossed in August we are approaching normal, empty grounds consigned to a brief period in history.
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