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22 July 2020

The Restart was better than nothing, but without the crowd to spur players it’s not really football

Nigel Pearson noted that players have had to switch from actors performing live on stage to actors recording in an empty studio. 

By Hunter Davies

Nigel Pearson, as manager of Watford, came out with a good simile. Or was it a metaphor? Or a simple comparison? Years since I did O-level English. Fortunately, these days I have people on my staff to correct my grammar.

Mr Pearson said that during these weeks of the Restart the players have had to switch from actors performing live on stage to actors recording in an empty studio. Neat, don’t you think?

I have always been a fan of Mr Pearson. I remember watching him 20 years ago at Brunton Park in his first managerial job, at Carlisle United. I could see him clearly on the touchline from my seat in the stand with my dear friend David Clark, surely you remember him, a member of Tony Blair’s first cabinet. Mr Pearson stood so erect, short brushed hair à la brosse, as they used to say in France. He looked a class act, spoke well, sensible, a leader, clearly going places. I felt cheered that CUFC had found a half decent manager at last. I could never understand why later he got eased out at Leicester. Or why he has now been sacked by Watford.

But was Mr Pearson totally correct in his comment? I am sure he was in reference to players – most do much prefer a crowd to an empty ground. But he also inferred that performers such as actors and musicians also prefer performing live. Is this always true?

The Beatles grew to hate it. They loved playing gigs in their early days, as the Quarrymen, and the first couple of years as Beatles when they started touring in Britain, but not once they went global. They were stuck in US baseball grounds with 30,000 screaming fans, unable to hear themselves. They sang the wrong words, or played too fast, to amuse themselves, knowing nobody could hear. There was no fun in it any more. After their performance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in August 1966, they gave up playing live. For the last three years of their lives as Beatles, despite being offered millions to do another tour, they played only in the recording studio – apart of course from that one-off lark on the roof of the Apple building in Savile Row in 1969.

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The difference between pop performers like the Beatles and professional footballers is that the Beatles were a creative group. It was only in the studio that they made their music, in the sense of creating new songs, new sounds, and only in the studio could they endlessly go over the same few chords, try out new words, hour after hour, which would have totally bored most audiences. I used to eff and blind under my breath in the Abbey Road studio thinking oh God not again, it sounded right to me the first time, can’t we go home now?

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It is, of course, a daft comparison, playing football with playing music. They are both in show business, doing it for money, trying to please an audience, but a footballer can’t really play by himself. Footballers need to play as a team and play best when they are being watched. It makes them play better, try harder, makes it real and worthwhile.

We fans also prefer it when they are playing live on their stage in front of an audience. It has been better than nothing, watching them in empty stadiums, but so much has been missing during these weeks of the Restart. I miss the smell of the Bovril and the hot dogs. Yes I know you can’t smell it on TV, but when I see crowds I always know how they smell, just as I know the words of their chants, even when they are not singing.

I will be pleased to see the back of five subs. Too many changes ruins the flow. And the pointless drinks breaks. And all those annoying advertising banners draped over the empty seats. And the taped audience noises that never quite fit with what is happening. I want the games to be fast and furious again. Obsessive possession is for training.

Oh God, I will be so pleased when all this nonsense is over and we return in September to the real, live living thing, witnessing and enjoying the flesh and blood of the game and the flesh and blood of the crowds. See you in September… 

Hunter Davies is the author of “The Beatles: The Authorised Biography” (Ebury Press)