Dave Seddon’s Preston North End Press View: Hollow ring to Championship’s showpiece game

If there was a game in which the reality of football played without a crowd hit home, it was Tuesday night’s Championship play-off final.

Saturday, 8th August 2020, 8:00 am

This particular final has long been dubbed the richest one-off game in football because of the rewards which promotion to the Premier League brings.

Not so long ago it was the ‘£100m final’ – by the time Fulham and Brentford met that figure had crept up to the £160m mark.

The game is deserving of a packed Wembley, with so much at stake.

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The occasion got to Brentford at Wembley – a bit like Preston when they lost to West Ham (above) in the 2005 Championship play-off final (Getty Images)

But watching from my armchair it had such a hollow ring about it, the piped crowd noise on Sky’s coverage not disguising row upon row of empty red seats.

Would I had rather seen Preston North End there competing for a place in the top flight rather than one of either Fulham or Brentford?

Of course I would. But just think how detached it would have felt to play such a huge game with fans getting no closer than their living rooms to the action.

The sooner football can safely get fans back into stadiums – the sooner every sport can – the better.

We are looking at October at the earliest at the turnstiles clicking again, that with strict limits put on numbers.

Away supporters? I just can’t see grounds being able to accommodate them, nor a mass movement of folk every Saturday and Tuesday from one part of the country to another being encouraged.

So even when fans get to return in some capacity, it still won’t quite be life as we know it.

Any delay beyond early October will be a blow to football clubs and fans.

Owners and chairmen everywhere are having to budget to get through the opening weeks of the season with behind-closed-doors games.

In some of the steps of non-league, the plan is to delay the start of the season to October to ensure fans can be there from the word go.

With no television deals and solidarity money at that level, supporters are the only source of income.

Something I found ludicrous this week was hearing of some non-league clubs getting a warning for having a handful of fans at pre-season friendlies last weekend.

We’re talking 40 or 50 people at most spread around four sides of the pitch. It’s safe for them to sit in the clubhouse and have a pint, but God forbid they stood in the fresh air socially distanced, watching a kickaround.

I do think fans can be brought safely back into football stadiums.

The organisation I came across at Deepdale, and the other grounds I covered North End at following the restart, was second to none.

I accept putting safety protocol in place for a group of journalists will be quite simple compared to having a few thousands supporters inside a ground.

Credit where it is due though, procedure was strictly adhered to at those last nine games of the season and they passed without incident.

Matchdays were strange in that they started off with you having to fill in a health questionnaire and submit it to the club where you were travelling to later that day.

There was a temperature check when you collected your press pass, the result carefully noted down next to your name.

Once hands had been smeared in sanitiser, it was straight up to the press box and you stayed there.

At some grounds you weren’t in the actual press box, social distancing meant you spread out into the seats nearby.

At a couple of grounds, sadly not the ones Preston played at, reporters were relocated to the executive boxes – minus the prawn sandwiches.

Press conference were done via Zoom, battling with dodgy wi-fi and the noise of the groundsman’s mower to get your questions heard by the manager.

It was a means to an end to complete last season safely and it looks like similar until the autumn.

When fans can return, how will clubs decide who comes in?

Ground capacities are going to be low to start with, demand likely to be much higher than the number of seats clubs can make available.

Hence I totally see the reasoning behind North End not putting season tickets on sale yet. What if they were to sell a similar number to last season but the Government capped capacity below that figure?

Back to where I started, the Championship play-off final didn’t go the way many envisaged, with Fulham beating Brentford.

The Bees have been the darlings of the division this season, rightly so at times with an exciting brand of football and their ‘BMW’ front three.

Unfortunately for them, the BMW’s engine spluttered somewhat at Wembley, Fulham stifling them with a disciplined performance.

For a side only relegated from the Premier League a year earlier, the Cottagers got very little of the limelight in the build-up – it was almost like they were there to make up the numbers.

On the night though, their experience counted, they had an edge to their play.

Were Brentford a bit like North End were in the 2005 play-off final against West Ham? I think they were.

The occasion got to them a little bit, they couldn’t quite produce what they had done so impressively in the regular season.

Whatever the result was, we were going to lose a London away trip from next season’s fixture list.

It is Craven Cottage which has gone –no walk by the river and no listening to the Fulham fans and their paper clappers.

Brentford remains in the schedule, as it has done for PNE for every season bar one since 2011/12.

There will be another postcode to punch into 
the Satnav though, with them on the move to a new stadium.

What will be interesting is to see which of their key players they hold on to and who are tempted away to the Premier League.