Life in the Premier League’s Amber Zone – a view of Project Restart – The Guardian

That bloody bird has been putting me off all game. High up in the stand above me at Carrow Road, a seagull is roosting and making a right old racket. It seems to be distracting the Norwich defence too, as Nathan Redmond strolls through and scores to put Southampton 3-0 up. There’s a brief cheer and a polite round of applause from a couple of Saints staff members in the stand before Redmond performs a Black Power salute. It’s all very surreal. Black Lives Matter meets Behind Closed Doors football. Welcome to the world of Project Restart, the Covid-19 version of the Premier League.

For the last two weeks I have been lucky enough to be one of the chosen few to be let in to see the resumption of top-class football in England. When normally I could be one of between 20 to 50 photographers attending these matches, now it’s just a maximum of 10. Current rules state there must be no more than 300 people inside the ground at any one time.

My first game back was the one that launched the resumption, at Aston Villa as they faced Sheffield United. All attendees at matches are required to have a temperature check before accreditation is given. In a building in the main car park I’m stood on a designated spot and look at a screen, like a high-tech speak-your-weight machine. This equipment deems me safe and my pass is handed over. Rumour has it that Manchester City have splashed out on an even flashier thermometerand a scanner operated by a real nurse. At the other grounds I’ve subsequently been to, the temperature check is performed with a little white plastic gun to the forehead. At Spurs, before their game v West Ham, it’s boiling hot. To make matters worse the man with the gun is waiting at the top of a flight of stairs and I’m carrying a ton of gear up there. My fingers are crossed as the gun points at my red, sweaty temple.

Every ground is divided into three zones: green, amber and red. Roughly speaking, green is the immediate vicinity outside the stadium, amber inside the ground, red on the pitch and the tunnel area. Only players and club officials, those who are regularly tested, get into the red zone. I am amber. Before every game I’m sent a health declaration form to sign along with safety protocols to read. These vary enormously from club to club but the most substantial and well organised is definitely Liverpool’s, courtesy of their safety officer, Mr Stan Tickle.

As I go into the first match at Villa, I look up at a big screen. “Face coverings must be worn at all times” it declares. I’m led to my allotted spot by a couple of kind, middle-aged stewards who are wearing their claret and blue masks as chin warmers. “You can’t move from there” they tell me “and you must wear your mask at all times”. “No problem,” I say as Jamie Redknapp brushes past me looking very dapper in a navy suit but mask-free. A member of ground-staff comes to disinfect the corner flag near me. As I pick up my camera, he is told by a colleague “put your mask on properly, you’re having your picture taken”.

The atmosphere inside all the grounds is very strange and eerie. These are stadia I know so well yet it all seems unfamiliar. It’s a real sensory scramble, not only visually but also aurally. I was at Goodison Park for the Everton v Liverpool match, sat in the front row of the Gwladys Street End. Normally a febrile atmosphere emanates from the home fans in that stand, scorn pouring down on anything red. Around me this time are acres of tarpaulin sheets adorned with faces of the Everton faithful. A couple of metres away sits John Powell, Liverpool’s official photographer. “Lovely isn’t it?” he jokes.

With 10 minutes left, and the game tied 0-0, Tom Davies hits the inside of the post and Everton are denied a famous winner. It is such a dramatic moment but all I can hear, apart from a couple of expletives from players, are the mellow tunes of a jazz saxophonist playing Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty from outside the ground.

After a few matches I start to get used to the noise of these games. You can hear everything the players, coaches and referees say – it’s quite illuminating. There is so much shouting from the players I begin to wonder how they have the energy to run around. It takes me back to park football, refreshing to hear that multi-millionaires can still say such well-known football phrases as “Man on”, “Push Up”, “Keeper’s ball” or “Pull your finger out” although the last one did include a swear word as well.

It’s fascinating to see how clubs have adapted to the rules laid down by the Premier League and government health advisers. Goodison Park’s notoriously tight tunnel means the away team change in a portable building in the car park, while at Tottenham the home team have shifted their changing room to the other side of the ground where the huge, expansive NFL rooms are situated. It’s also meant a lot more work for ground-staff, as they have disinfecting duties with balls, corner flags and goalposts.

At Norwich they have an old-fashioned bucket of Dettol to drop balls into, while at Spurs they have armed their staff with Ghostbusters-style backpacks to spray down the posts. Even with all these safety requirements, things can go slightly awry. I was at Watford, positioned near the sideline where the substitutes were warming up. In the stand behind the dugouts the subs had carefully distanced seats to sit in, but as they started to stretch their limbs they gathered in a tight bunch, completely blocking my view of the game. One Watford player put his leg onto the board right by my camera, looked at me in my mask a couple of feet away, realised he was far too close to an amber zone non-tester, and moved away sharpish. After talking to his fellow subs, they all scarpered giving me a lovely clear view again.

At Anfield last week, just after Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold arched that beautiful free-kick into the top of the Crystal Palace net, I could clearly hear a commentator eagerly describing the goal, even though he was high up in the Centenary Stand, probably a hundred yards away. It made me think what that stadium would have been like if the crowd had been there and I felt sad for them, deprived of seeing a moment like that in the flesh.

I hope that before too long they will back and that the abnormality of behind-closed-doors football will soon be consigned to history.

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