Going to a match in the COVID era: What's it like announcing at a game behind played closed doors?

The shutdown of 2020 raised numerous questions of how clubs would move forwards with no fans being allowed into stadia. Raith were in a fortunate position to be able to fall back on the countless hours of hard work and graft which had been put in by the Raith TV crew to develop a new and improved streaming service which allows fans in the UK the chance to watch matches.

However, the fixture against Arbroath brought unfamiliar territory. It was clear that fans wouldn't be able to watch the game. However, a small band of volunteers and press correspondents were allowed heavily restricted access to watch the game. One of those volunteers was match day announcer Jim Clark. He contacted us to give us an overview of what it feels like to go to a match in the COVID era:


The Announcer's Booth at Stark's Park

The famous quote from Jock Stein about football being nothing without fans has been quoted widely in recent months, to the extent that it has been attributed wrongly to a different manager from that era and used on a banner behind a goal at one leading club in the English Premiership.

I was lucky enough last weekend to put Stein’s mantra to the test when my services were called upon at Stark’s Park for the opening match of the new league campaign when Raith Rovers hosted Arbroath.

I am one of 42 folk who have a rare job in Scottish football in that I am the Matchday Announcer.

It’s a voluntary position, one that I’ve been involved with since August 2017 when the legendary Gordon Adamson asked me if I’d consider taking over from him as he planned to retire at the end of season 2018/19 after 20 years in the role. Gordon’s shoes were such a big fit that it was decided to split the role in two, with me sitting in the booth at the back of the main stand and Johnny MacDonald taking on the pitch side duties, with Andy Campbell on hand to step in should one of us not be able to ever make it along.

It’s a great job albeit it has meant I no longer sit with my mates at home games. My role is basically to pump out pre-match and half-time tunes and interject occasionally with some information for the benefit of the fans in attendance although I do sometimes wonder if folk really pay attention when I am speaking given that they hear the health and safety stuff week after week and probably know the team line-ups already from scouring social media, but at least the happy birthday and congratulations-style shout-outs get the occasional response!

Rovers took the understandable decision for the pre-season friendlies to keep the number of folk at the stadium to the absolute minimum and it was therefore no surprise that the services of the matchday announcing team weren’t required. The same situation prevailed for the opening competitive match of the season when near neighbours East Fife came calling in the Betfred Cup. Like most other fans desperate to see the team, I tuned in to watch things on RaithTV, a pleasant enough experience, especially when we scored a late goal to secure a 2-1 win. I was totally prepared to use the arrangement via my season ticket to do similar until the COVID restrictions were eased and all fans were allowed back.

There was a twist just two days after the East Fife game as the club got in touch to ask if I was available for what was described as ‘Tannoy Duties’ at the upcoming Arbroath match. The flag for clinching the League One title in 2019/20 was to be unveiled before kick-off and there was a need for some sort of official ceremony with an MC. The reason I was being asked was that the regulations around COVID restrict who can actually access the playing area, meaning the MC role would have to be done remotely and it was felt this could be best achieved from the booth at the back of the main stand where I work from in normal circumstances.

I was thrilled and honoured to be asked. I was also racked with guilt, with the realisation that I was going to be getting to a game ahead of a countless number of fans whose dedication to all things Rovers knows no bounds. I also felt bad that I was getting in but Johnny MacDonald wasn’t as there were no pitch side duties.

This strange, unreal feeling, combined with the fact it had been seven months since I last worked the mic, meant I travelled to the game with a real sense of nervousness, terrified that when I arrived I would find something was wrong with the equipment, such as the microphone not working because of a loose connection or the cable into the i-pod that I use to play the music being damaged in some way during the close season. These were stupid thoughts as the place had been under lock and key since March, except for the day Andy Campbell had gone in to give the booth a new lick of paint and a general clean-up.

In normal circumstances I arrive at the stadium just before 2pm, to a scene where the build-up is already underway with some home fans heading to the 200 Club at the back of the South Stand, the match sponsors and those who have taken a hospitality package already in the lounge under the main stand and various stewards heading to their positions as the turnstiles get set to open. There is always that palpable and familiar pre-match buzz and my usual routine begins with dropping into the club office for a quick chat with the staff, picking up a copy of the matchday programme along with some sheets of paper with details of the various announcements on behalf of the club, including those all important birthday messages.

This time around, I got there two hours before kick-off as I wanted to check on all the equipment and do any repairs if necessary without panicking. It really didn’t have the feel of a matchday, partly as I was so early but more so as there was a lack of activity in and around the stadium. If everything felt different, it was because everything was different, from the fact that I had to enter the stadium at the gate beside the North Stand where the first thing that happened was a steward checked my name off against a very small list and then took my temperature – I was relieved that ScotRail had been unusually effective on the day and I hadn’t ended up running down from the station, working up such a sweat that I’d have mistakenly been diagnosed as running some sort of fever that could be COVID-related.

I had been advised by the club in advance that I had to make my way to the booth via a particular route behind the dug-outs and that under no circumstances was I to enter or use any part of the stadium which was designated and signposted as a ‘Red Zone’ – which turned out to be just about everywhere except the steps in the main stand up to the booth! I was also asked to stay in the booth at all times during the match and not to come into contact with any of the substitute players who would be seated in the vicinity of the booth as they weren’t allowed down to the usual spots in the dug-outs. Oh, and I was required to wear a mask at all times…

It didn’t take long to check that all the equipment was in working order which meant I had a good deal of free time on my hands before I got the music underway around 50 minutes before kick-off. As a very small number of familiar faces were going about their business and I was able to nip down to the terracing between the stand and the pitch from where I could say a quick hello after seven months to Simon Pollock (kit manager), Niall Russell (media officer) and Eric Swinley (groundsman) all before the Arbroath team arrived and made their way onto the pitch at which time I retreated to the booth.

I don’t make too much use of social media but I did post on Facebook to the effect that while it was a privilege to be at Stark’s Park it was strange not to be surrounded by so many friends and familiar faces. I was encouraged by a few warm responses wishing me luck and soon it was time to get the playlist going with what was become my traditional opener – ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’.

That’s when it hit me that I was indeed back at Stark’s Park for the first time since mid-March and it wasn’t a dream. So much has happened on and off the field in the intervening period, but suddenly it was all real again and a football match was going to be played out very soon in which I had a small role to play. It was time to get to work……

The pre-planned tunes were aired as I downloaded the team lines from a pdf sent to me vis the phone – again this was different from normal as a printed sheet is usually delivered to the booth by Niall. I had known in advance about the new arrangement which is why I brought along a notepad and pen to write the team lines down for use during the game. I also used the notepad to come up with a script that for use when the league flag was being unfurled, with ‘Celebration’ by Kool and The Gang cued up on the i-pod.

Those duties done, I looked at the clock and saw it was now 2.30pm. It dawned on me that the pre-match playlist was going to run out before kick-off as I hadn’t factored in I’d need more tunes than normal as I wasn’t making any pre-match announcements plus Jonny Mac, wasn’t there to do his pre-match pitch-side routine of chatting to the mascots, something which usually takes up at least five minutes.

There was no other option other than to read out the team line-ups, and to do it very slowly and deliberately to a crowd consisting of five journalists together with a handful of first-aiders and stewards. The only other folk to be seen were the players and coaches out on the pitch going through the pre-match warm-ups.

I had decided I wanted the musical build-up to be as routine as possible with various ‘go-to’ tunes such as ‘Dancing In The Streets’, ‘Pump It Up’ and ‘Our Time Is Now’. In my head, I was thinking it might also help inspire the players, with the realisation from the music being aired that this was an occasion – a meaningful match rather than a pre-season friendly.

As the players left the field to their separate dressing rooms, I geared up for my big moment, reading to myself the script a few more times and changing a couple of words at the last minute.

By this time, there were around 25-30 folk in the stadium, consisting of the directors of both clubs and the small number of Rovers office and admin staff. The flag ceremony went without any hitches and I was pleased when one of the directors turned around to give me the thumbs-up for a job well done.

The game got underway and I settled down to enjoy it as best I can, with the enjoyment factor being wholly dependent on how well the Rovers would play. It was a strange experience – with no crowd around me, I was able to keep an open door and this enabled me to better pick up the noise and sounds from pitch-side.

We’ve all been to games in public parks and the noise and chat was no different. The coaching staff were encouraging from the sidelines, the more vociferous players were making their feelings known to all and sundry, and the referee was on the end of all sorts of claims and pleas, with a fair amount of swearing along the way. But the skill factor on show, and the pace at which the game was being played left nobody in doubt that this was well beyond a mere kickabout.

With the realisation of there being no likelihood of an emergency announcement such as asking the owner of a badly parked car to return immediately to their vehicle, I settled down knowing that my next own involvement would come through a goal or a substitution.

Rovers fans will know I’ve tried to adopt a particular style of announcing the scorer of a home goal which is a pale imitation of the celebrations you hear from commentators in Brazil or Argentina. It’s loud and it’s excitable, with the aim being to get that second roar from the crowd shortly after they have reacted to the ball hitting the back of the net – it’s all about getting acclaim for the goal scorer. I had spent the whole day wondering how best to play it and while I knew it wouldn’t be an OTT shout when the time came, I wasn’t sure how it would actually pan out.

Thirty-one minutes in and I got my answer. Any thoughts of a low key approach were blown away by the quality the opening league goal of the season, with Dan Armstrong cutting in from the right hand before hitting a low shot, from 25 yards out, into the bottom corner. It was a goal that deserved a loud shout over the mic and it was a goal that got a loud shout over the mic.

Nobody turned towards me to give me a funny or admonishing look. A few seconds later, a text came in from Johnny Mac saying I had come across nice and clear on the RaithTV coverage and how good it was to hear my voice again. A couple more texts came in, all saying much the same and just as I was settling myself down again, the Rovers scored a second goal, courtesy of Regan Tumilty. Once again, the natural instinct kicked in and I announced not just the name of the scorer but advised the throng of spectators that it was his first ever goal for the club, again with a fair bit of pitch and volume in my voice.

After that, I was cruising, safe in the knowledge that I had made a successful comeback after seven months out of the hotseat. There was a further goal just before half time which I wasn’t so loud about as it came from the penalty spot, and while that proved to be the end of the scoring, there were a number of substitutions to be called out in the second half, as well as reading out the name of the man of the match. Oh, and in trying to keep with the norm, I had also earlier read out the half-time scores, albeit to a near empty stadium as the directors and staff had retreated to their own secure part of the stadium for their cups of tea and sandwiches. Still, I think the journalists appreciated the gesture.

The final whistle went at 4.45pm. The home win meant that the tradition established by Gordon Adamson could be maintained and so the residents of Pratt Street were treated to a rendition of ‘Rocking All Over The World’. On a normal day, I would quickly lock up but being conscious of the prevailing situation, I took time to give the booth a thorough wipe-down with the cleaning materials I had brought along, making sure that the microphone, sound desk and switches were as free from any threat as they could be.

A quick passing word with the RaithTV crew and then it was time to leave the stadium by the same route as I had come in, well away from the spaces under the stand where my normal ‘Access All Area’ pass would allow me to drop in and say well done to the players and management, as well as meeting up with other volunteers, such as John Greer, with his post-match task of doing an interview or two for use in the next edition of the matchday programme.

I therefore ended up back at the station well ahead of normal and so I phoned a few folk who hadn’t been at the game to talk about what my experience had been like.

It had been far from unpleasant which I hope I’ve been able to convey from these words that I’ve typed out a few days later. But at the same time, I knew immediately that it hadn’t been anything like as enjoyable as normal, something that really hit home post-match as the adrenalin drained away suddenly and there was nobody to directly share the euphoria of seeing a great performance or to talk excitedly in a group setting about the afternoon’s entertainment.

Reflecting on things, Jock Stein was just about spot-on with his observation that football without fans is nothing. I say ‘just about’ as the players on both sides didn’t treat it as a nothing occasion and they deserve huge credit for going about their business in as professional a way as they would if the expected few thousand paying punters had been in attendance.

There’s enough of us out there who care so much about our clubs that, even if we can’t get to a game for some reason or other, the result makes or breaks our weekend. Season 2020/21 will continue for now in very unique, challenging and unprecedented conditions and while we will miss our fix of getting along on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening (or on a day and at a time at the behest of the TV schedulers), we will still engage as best we can with or choose, be it through watching a live stream, listening to an audio broadcast, keeping up with progress through social media or indeed just finding out the score afterwards.

I’m genuinely not sure if Raith Rovers will require anyone for ‘Tannoy Duties’ at our next home game on 7 November when Greenock Morton will be the visitors. I hope so, not for any selfish reasons but more because I think it is important to have as realistic a pre-match build-up as can be achieved to give a sense of occasion, something that can then be carried through during the game when goals are scored and substitutions are made. Indeed, the way things are panning out across the country, a new set of travel restrictions look likely to prevent me getting across from Glasgow but Johnny or Andy are more than capable of doing the honours.

No matter how it turns out, I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to being one of a small handful of Rovers fans allowed in on matchday and I’ll certainly always have pangs of guilt as I take my seat. I really long for the day when it all gets back to normal. Here’s hoping.

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