There aren’t many situations that today’s top-flight professional footballer will find themselves in that I’ve not experienced.
But what has happened over the past few months is a new one for me, and it has been interesting to hear how players have been coping in lockdown. Given the money in the game, you often hear people say it’ll take something big to stop football in its tracks and some thought it may never happen, but the game had to be suspended in March.
There are a couple of elements of Premier League football returning that share some similarities to my career – the first being games being played behind closed doors. I was in goal for the second leg of our European Cup Winners’ Cup game against Real Madrid’s second team, Castilla, in October 1980 that was played behind closed doors in front of just 262 people
We won 5-1 and progressed to the next round but that day was eerie – it was very strange. The total number in the crowd included both teams and officials and all the apprentices were our ball boys and were dotted around the stadium.
The one lasting memory I have of that game is hearing every single word on the pitch – the swearing was just incredible, particularly at the other end of the pitch! I’d never heard that before because usually it’s lost with the crowd. They did film the match and even to this day, I’m not sure how they managed to get rid of all the swearing.
As you can imagine, with no crowd there was no atmosphere. I know it didn’t matter as won and went through but we wouldn’t have wanted to play nine or 10 games like that. You get a lift playing in front of your own fans – Upton Park was like our 12th man on many occasions.
For today’s team, playing matches behind closed doors will like playing practice matches on the training ground. The players will need to come up with ways to motivate themselves without a crowd there to give them a lift when they need them.
There are people who say West Ham play badly when the crowd gets on their back so at least they won’t have that excuse anymore. With no fans in the stadium, this should, therefore, mean that we end up mid-table! In terms of potentially playing a number of games in a short time, we experienced this in the 1986 season when we had a really bad winter
It started in December with frost and snow and carried on from there – that’s why we had so many games to catch up at the end of the season. I know it’s not the same because ours was down to the weather and we still had fans in the stadium but it was a weird feeling.
We had gone from playing week in, week out to nothing. We were still training and keeping fit but we just weren’t playing any games. We had the gym if the weather was bad outside but there is a huge difference between being fit and being match fit.
The players need to go through the process of getting their match fitness back and that’s not easy without having a run of friendlies under your belt before the season restarts. As a goalkeeper, timing and confidence play a huge part of your game. All of a sudden everything stops and you have to start all over again.
There will certainly be some apprehension from goalkeepers for those first few games back. Usually you get pre-season to sort everything out but they are going to be going straight back into it. I know people have missed watching football – whether that’s in a stadium or on your TV.
But I think this season, should be scrapped and we should, hopefully, start up again in August with a brand new season. When the Premier League finally announced it was stopping this season, I honestly didn’t think it would be returning.
I know it is very hard not to give the title to Liverpool because they were so far ahead. But the issue you have is the teams in the relegations zone – there’s still plenty of games left so it would be hard to argue that teams get relegated because of where they finished when football was halted.
I don’t think – in the grand scheme of things – it’s important to finish the season. There’s a lot more at stake.