LONDON — 5 things we learned from an empty stadium: In many ways, this was the perfect way to start the new Premier League season.
A stroll along the sunny River Thames to the most picturesque stadium in English soccer, Craven Cottage, to watch Fulham against Arsenal.
Of course, with the COVID-19 pandemic we know things are far from perfect right now and the first games of the 2020-21 Premier League season saw no fans in place. It will be that way for the rest of September and probably longer.
Plans were in place for fans to return in small numbers at Premier League games from October but due to a spike in coronavirus cases in the UK, that now seems unlikely. Fans continue their agonizing wait to be allowed into Premier League games for the first time since March.
Media, players and other club officials are allowed in, though. And I was at Craven Cottage on the opening day.
Full disclosure: this was my first game in a stadium without fans. During ‘Project Restart’ I was Stateside, but now I’m back home in England and the entire experience was one I will never forget, but also one that I feel like I will be getting used to for a long time.
Here’s a look at 5 things we learned from an empty stadium on opening day of the Premier League season.
Getting the tube across central London and down to Putney Bridge to Fulham, it was incredibly quiet for a Saturday with entire carriages empty and a mask had to be worn at all times. There were no Fulham or Arsenal shirts. No scarves. No chanting. An hour or so before kick off, Putney Bridge tube station would usually be rammed. Not today.
Waking through Bishops Park, it was busy. Instead of close to 26,000 fans streaming towards Craven Cottage, people were out running alongside the Thames. Playing with their dogs. Cyclists ran the show and outdoor gym classes were plentiful. One Fulham fan sat on the bench with his radio by his side, ready to listen to the game and speaking to a friend about their new signings.
There was the odd Fulham shirt in the park as plenty of rowers soared by on the Thames and as you approached Craven Cottage, dozen of kids were playing in organized sessions put on by Fulham FC, right in the shadow of the famous cottage. The excitable shouts of kids playing the beautiful game replaced the usual excited chatter of fans heading to Craven Cottage 45 minutes before a Premier League game.
It was all more than a little bizarre and sometimes the anticipation ahead of a game is better than the game itself. Now, there is no buzz as you walk towards the ground.
Outside the ground there were a big group or fans, mostly wearing Arsenal shirts but also Fulham, Crystal Palace and others. I spoke with them and they said they had walked from the Emirates Stadium to Craven Cottage in the morning to raise money for Men’s Mental Health organization in the UK. They just wanted to be around the stadium on a matchday.
They group were going to watch it at a pub nearby, but one fan (in the photo below) jokingly said to the steward “What do you mean we can’t come in and watch? That’s the first I’ve heard of this…”
He then asked if he could sneak in my bag to come and watch the game. He didn’t, but they wishes me well and wanted someone to at least enjoy watching the game live, in-person.
I was fully aware of how lucky I was to be watching not only a game, but the first Premier League game of the season.
I’m here for Fulham v Arsenal, as #Fulhamerica return to the Premier League. Quite a few Arsenal and Fulham fans strolling around outside before kick off.
Getting into the game was fairly straightforward. Not very different from the other accounts you will have heard from other journalists by now. My temperature was checked, lots of forms were filled out and a one way system was in place around this historic, cramped home of London’s oldest team.
Arsenal legend Pat Rice and a group of club officials stood in front of me as I waited to walk in and outside a few people were milling around, but not many.
Usually fans arrive from all of the different side streets around Craven Cottage, the jewel in the crown of English soccer which isn’t exactly the best suited to social distancing due to its tight seats, tiny corridors and dated concourses. But everything went smoothly as journalists, club staff and everyone else kept their distance and followed the rules. Looking around the empty stadiums, it’s not outlandish to think that 50 percent of fans could get into even a tight stadium like Craven Cottage and follow the protocols safely.
As for the games itself, the main difference is the sounds. I didn’t even notice the players had walked out for kick off. It was so quiet, with only a ripple of applause from club officials as Fulham had returned to the Premier League. Their fans would have let out guttural roars at that point, but there was nothing. Every Fulham fan would be buzzing for this moment, but the usual excitement around a newly-promoted club early in the season wasn’t there.
Other journalists told me this was actually one of the better stadiums to watch games at with no fans. Due to its reduced capacity of 19,000 due to the Riverside Stand being redeveloped, Craven Cottage felt even smaller than usual. Instead of towers of empty seats at the 76,000 capacity Old Trafford, this setting at Fulham didn’t magnify the strangeness of the situation. You could hear everything and were very close to the action.
👊 Ready to go here at Craven Cottage for Fulham v Arsenal, the first game of new season!
Didn’t plan for my face mask to match Arsenal’s new third kit… #FFC #AFC #FULARS #MyPLMorning pic.twitter.com/e1RPf5gt3U
With the concourses empty under the main stand, it felt eerie. Those concourses reek of history and are usually packed to the rafters on a matchday, but it was as if time has stood still. Journalists and media were spread out throughout the stand, not in the usual cramped press box, and as planes occasionally flew over the stadium on their final approach to Heathrow Airport that was the loudest noise you heard all afternoon.
And the players, well, somehow they don’t seem as superhuman not playing in front of fans. They seem like more normal human beings rather than the superstars they actually are.
Hearing things up and close and personal is the best bit. Tim Ream’s American accent gets stronger when he’s barking out orders. Mikel Arteta switches between four languages to tell his team what to do. Aleksandar Mitrovic is terrifying when he’s shouting at a referee. All of these things you wouldn’t hear if there were fans present.
After the game, a comfortable 3-0 win for Arsenal, you could hear the Arsenal players celebrating in the away dressing room by the famous cottage in the corner of the stand. Right now, you get to see a different side to these players.
And all in all, the game on the pitch was of Premier League quality but with no atmosphere it just isn’t the same spectacle. That is obvious. This entire experience underlined just how important crowds are to this incredible league watched around the world.
When fans can return to stadiums safely, it will be a truly beautiful moment. Until then, I will continue to feel lucky and privileged to be one of the very few people who can watch a game live where Aubameyang’s stunning goal received a few roars of approval and a smattering of applause.
A ripple of applause as Fulham’s players trot out onto the pitch at Craven Cottage. #FFC are back in the Premier League! #FULARS #MyPLMorning pic.twitter.com/V1CcAEeTOw
Fulham boss Scott Parker knows the highs and lows of the Premier League, and he’s focused on keeping the lows in perspective as the Cottagers restart life in the top flight.
Parker’s men were outclassed at home by Arsenal to the tune of a controlling 3-0 loss at Craven Cottage on Saturday.
The boss was relegated as a player with West Ham and Fulham and took over the Cottagers toward the end of their relegation season in 2018-19, leading them back to the PL via the 2019-20 Championship playoffs.
Now back where owner Shahid Khan wants his side, Parker is laser-focused on keeping an even-keel during what’s expected to be a relegation-threatened campaign.
“It’s going to be a big test for us. There’s a realism for me and that’s going to be installed in this team. Teams that struggle in this division are teams that keep letting defeats get to them. Understand we are going to lose football matches. We may lose two, three on the bounce but that’s where we are as a team and a football club. Of course we want to get better but the most important thing is to not let these defeats build up, build up, and become a bigger issue.”
Fulham visits Ipswich Town in League Cup action on Wednesday, a chance to get some good vibes into the team room ahead of important early season tilts with Leeds United and Aston Villa.
How many points will the Cottagers have after three match days? The club doesn’t meet another top six side until Nov. 28 begins a run of Leicester City, Man City, and Liverpool.
Tottenham Hotspur adds one of the best strikers in the world in American forward Alex Morgan, who joins the Women’s Super League club on a short-term loan from Orlando Pride.
The new mom, 31, will get back in form ahead of next summer’s Olympics in Japan, joining fellow USWNT stars on Women’s Super League clubs after Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle signed for Man City and Tobin Heath and Christen Press headed across the city to join Manchester United.
Morgan has 107 USWNT goals in 169 caps. She’s tied for fifth in goals with Michelle Akers and 33 caps off the top ten all-time.
With Morgan on the women’s side and Harry Kane on the men’s, few clubs have a better combination of scorers on their top sides.
2020 is the year of the unexpected, but next up — the first stamp on Charlie’s passport. #COYS @SpursWomen pic.twitter.com/EkGnmFaQBN
Of course, the Women’s Super League is on NBCSports.com and NBCSN this season. Find more info here in this month’s WSL season preview. Spurs drew West Ham 1-1 on opening weekend.
Can she help Spurs put down a marker after rivals Arsenal scored six to start it season?
Crystal Palace – Southampton: The 2020-21 Premier League season begins for Crystal Palace and Southampton on Saturday (Watch live at 10am ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at Selhurst Park.
Saints look to improve on a terrific finish to the 2019-20 season, while the host Eagles are hoping to channel a midseason form that had them in the discussion for Europa League qualification before a dreadful finish to the campaign.
Here is everything you need to know ahead of Crystal Palace – Southampton this Saturday with team news, odds, stream link and more.
Loanee Michy Batshuayi starts on the bench for Palace as Wilfried Zaha and Jordan Ayew lead the attack for a very familiar XI.
Danny Ings and Che Adams will lead the line for Saints, who opt for Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek at center back over Jannik Vestergaard.
There is no tighter match according to our betting partner PointsBet, which has Crystal Palace at +205 to win and Southampton at +145. That may be a bit misleading since Saints are favored and away from home, a draw at +215 barely less likely than the hosts winning at Selhurst Park.
PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links
Two teams with the best odds to look fluid given lineup continuity. There are some magic-makers in the bunch and we fancy both teams to put one home in a 1-1 draw.
LONDON — Arsenal – Fulham was a good spectacle to start the 2020-21 Premier League, as the new boys caused problems but Arsenal’s quality shone through in a 3-0 victory at Craven Cottage.
Alexandre Lacazette, Gabriel and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the goals for Arsenal as Mikel Arteta’s side got the job done with minimum fuss against a spirited Fulham side.
After winning the FA Cup and Community Shield in August, Arsenal have momentum and have started the Premier League season as they mean to go on.
1. Gabriel settles in superbly after shaky start: Aside from a communication mix up early on which saw Bernd Leno have to save well, Gabriel was solid. The Brazilian defender is the imposing center back the Gunners have wanted and he looks like being a bit of a bargain buy from Lille for $34 million. He scored a header on his debut, looked calm on the ball and slotted in seamlessly. The early signs are very promising.
2. Fulham can take positives: Scott Parker still has plenty of new players to bring into the mix and there was enough promise shown, especially in the first half, to show that they can stay clear of the relegation zone this season. Defensively they were a little sluggish and they missed Aleksandar Mitrovic up top as he battles through injuries. With goalkeeper Alphonse Areola, right back Kenny Tete and left back Antonee Robinson not in the squad, Parker is still assembling his team and will be keen to shore things up in the back knowing he has plenty of creativity in the team. Some lovely moves showed promise.
3. Arsenal’s abundance of grit will please Arteta: This wasn’t a silky Arsenal display but it was one they were mostly in control of. They worked hard for this win and have a shape and system which is working really well with Tierney as one of three center backs and Maitland-Niles and Bellerin as wing backs. Elneny and Xhaka have plenty of grit and Dani Ceballos does now too. All in all, Arsenal are more workmanlike now and that means they will grind out more wins this season. Arteta’s Arsenal aren’t free-flowing (even though they love to play out from the back) but they get the job done. That is a good trait to have.
Fulham started well as Aboubakar Kamara almost made the most of a mistake at the back from Arsenal but Bernd Leno saved well.
A slick move down the right from Denis Odoi saw him cut inside but Leno saved his shot easily and just as Fulham looked the most likely to score, Arsenal took the lead.
Lacazette was in the right place at the right time as a shot deflected into Willian’s path and even though he was denied by Marek Rodak under close pressure from Tim Ream, Lacazette was on hand to tap home.
Fulham stuck to their task, to their credit, and Neeskens Kebano had a powerful shot blocked. But Arsenal were a threat as Bellerin crossed but just missed everyone, then Mohamed Elneny had a shot blocked by Ream and Willian hit the foot of the post with a free kick as Arsenal were in the ascendancy as half time arrived.
Willian’s corner from the right found Gabriel who nodded home a header for a debut goal, as Fulham’s marking was awful and the Brazilian beat Michael Hector easily.
Soon it was 3-0 as Lacazette did superbly to hold the ball up for Willian and he pinged it wide to Aubameyang. The Arsenal skipper then ran at goal and curled home a textbook stunner into the far top corner.
Arsenal threatened to run away with things later on as Rodak made a fine reflex save and Aubameyang was denied following a goal-line clearance from Hector.
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