Existentialist players and quarterback coaches: the sound of crowd-free football

Paul Doyle
·5-min read

Please do not rush there right now, but there is a video on YouTube consisting of eight hours of vacuum cleaner noise. It has been viewed, or listened to, more than 10 million times. Apparently people find it soothing, the logic being that a monotonous drone shields sensitive souls from the shock of unexpected sounds. There is little scientific support for this theory and no academic has confirmed publicly that it explains Steve McManaman’s commentary career, but we can probably say, if only because anyone likely to object will not hear us, that it is for similar reasons that some folks choose to watch matches these days with canned chants and cheers. There is comfort in the seemingly familiar.

Such people do not know what they are missing. Empty stadiums are a challenge that reveal much about players and coaches. How to fill the silence?

Related: Joe Gomez recovers from shaky start to offer hope of filling Van Dijk void | Ed Aarons

Not everyone strikes notes as perfectly as the Villa Park announcer did during the first match there this season, when John Egan was distraught to be sent off after only 12 minutes. As Sheffield United’s captain trudged towards the tunnel like a convict towards the gallows, the overwhelming quietness accentuated his lonely despair – until the man on the PA bellowed, like God from the heavens, “RED CARD, EGAN!” All that was missing was a Nelson Muntz-style “Haha”.

Egan is usually the loudest communicator on his team and, as has become clearer behind closed doors, it is a similar case at most clubs, with centre-backs generally the most vocal by far. Conor Coady talks his Wolves teammates through every move at astonishing volume and is also apt to belt out a motivational motto when the going gets tough. Recent examples range from “LET’S DO THIS TOGETHER!” and “LET’S DO WHAT WE DO!” to the even more existential “REMEMBER WHO WE ARE!” A post-playing venture into fridge magnets or car stickers should not be ruled out. It is easy to see why Gareth Southgate, who has long lamented how techno-society renders most young folks timid and gauche, has made Coady part of England’s leadership group straight after calling him up.

Conor Coady talks his Wolves teammates through every move at astonishing volume.
Conor Coady talks his Wolves teammates through every move at astonishing volume. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Tyrone Mings is equally commanding. Villa’s manager, Dean Smith, spoke of his pride at tuning into the recent England-Denmark match and hearing Mings hollering orders and encouragement just as he does at his club. Listening to Coady and Mings in that game was almost like hacking into an airport’s radio control tower. Albeit one where Kasper Schmeichel keeps butting in to tell everyone off.

Which brings us to the Jordan Pickford/Virgil van Dijk polemic. Or rather, to the lack of much commotion at the time. If ever there was a case for surrounding a referee and/or an opponent to bawl for justice and/or retribution, that was it.

It is all very well writing stern letters after the event and bellyaching in press conferences, but communication would have been most effective on the pitch in the aftermath of the foul, when officials could have been influenced for immediate gain, perhaps even convinced to think harder about their raison d’être.

Liverpool’s lobbying was muted. Perhaps everyone suffered from the lack of the usual hubbub. A full house would certainly have incited more vigorous action.

One suspects that Jürgen Klopp tells his troops not to harangue referees because he does not want them earning cards and he is more than capable of doing the berating himself. At times Klopp has seemed so determined to give officials the benefit of his insights that it has been a surprise to not hear him offer them a Zoom code in case they wanted to have their ears warmed by him into the wee hours.

Not that Klopp spends all his time counselling officials. He is among the Premier League’s loudest in-play coaches. Mikel Arteta and Ralph Hassenhüttl trigger their teams’ presses from the sidelines (“not yet … not yet … GO NOW!”). Klopp does not need to do that so often any more. But he still dictates plenty. Fascinatingly, he could be heard before one of his team’s corner kicks at Stamford Bridge in September ordering “Routine No 12”, citing a playbook like an NFL quarterback.

How many corner routines do Liverpool have? What was it about Chelsea that convinced him No 12 was the one to use at that moment? Does the fact that the corner was cleared at the near post indicate that Andy Robertson botched the delivery or that someone got No 12 mixed up with No 17?

Liverpool’s manager, Jürgen Klopp, makes himself heard on the touchline.
Liverpool’s manager, Jürgen Klopp, makes himself heard on the touchline. Photograph: Peter Byrne/AP

“FUCK OFF!” Everyone heard Frank Lampard shout that at Klopp during a previous Liverpool-Chelsea clash, in July. That was soon after Lampard griped about how speechless his players had been during the 3-0 defeat at Sheffield United. “They must have character to talk to people around them,” he said.

Lampard has a habit of complaining about players not heeding his advice. His own voice was conspicuous by its absence when Chelsea were 3-0 down at the Hawthorns last month. José Mourinho was quick to mention that during a tête-à-tête with his former charge in the Carabao Cup a few days later. The Portuguese later gave a censored version of their exchange: “The only thing I was telling him, just an opinion of an old coach to a young talented coach, which was when the players need us, it is when they are losing. I felt really sorry for him [against West Brom] because he was sad and quiet in his chair.”

In fairness, Chelsea ended up drawing that match 3-3 and Tammy Abraham said the comeback was inspired by Lampard’s half-time patter. “Everyone was a bit head down so he had to lift us,” said Abraham, though he added: “Credit to the boys, who never dropped their heads.”

Communication seems to be a problem at Chelsea. It was interesting to hear Villa’s manager say this week that there is only one advantage to playing behind closed doors. “Players cannot cop a deaf one to what you tell them,” said Smith, a coach who can organise a team to defend as well as attack.