Caught by the River

The sound of no one at a football match

14th March 2021

What does a football match sound like when no-one’s there to watch it? Anton Spice eavesdrops on Arsenal v Dundalk.

Travelling towards a stadium on match day is like joining a tributary which becomes a stream which becomes a river, which eventually empties itself into a four-walled reservoir. The closer you get, the greater the surge.

People talk about the magic of traditional English stadiums as hidden between terraced houses, bricked into the fabric of the neighbourhood. Highbury was like that, barely visible two streets away, then looming flat and high at the end of Conewood Street like a dam, making a gulley of the Avenell Road which runs along the straight edge of the East Stand. The art deco façade blocked the sunlight and the TV signal. Dennis Bergkamp remembers the first time he approached the stadium as something almost uncanny, how easy it was to take a wrong turn on the neighbouring roads and miss it all together.

Growing up with its shadow cast across our garden, I never had the experience of travelling to a match. Throw on a scarf, grab a bottle of water and maybe a snack, find a few quid for the programme and rush out of the door, sometimes as late as ten to three.

I usually sat in the West Stand, so getting to the ground meant little more than skirting East and North and finding the gate up on Highbury Hill, sandwiched between houses like a portal to another world —  a Narnia or Secret Garden, or some other childhood fantasy.

The closer you got the louder it became, until the moment that you were inside, so close  that its mass seemed to disappear, funnelled upwards and away, leaving you with the detail of ground level. Rustles of programmes, snippets of conversations, seats falling upwards, the clip of Thierry Henry’s heels as he stalked the left touchline looking for a way in.

Slipping from the mundanity of a residential street into the electric communality of the stadium was never not magnificent, and I rarely envied those who had the anticipation of the underground to negotiate first.

Whenever I didn’t have a ticket, I would hear the sound of the crowd — those swells of emotion, outburst and eruptions stifled, exasperated or exultant — often just that split second sooner than the radio in the kitchen. I moved out a year after Arsenal did.

The Emirates is just a cross-field ball from Highbury, up over the railway tracks. Despite now living a couple of miles away, I occasionally catch an echo of the stadium’s song on the wind. They say that the borders of a church parish were once defined by the reach of its bells.

When football resumed after its initial hiatus at the start of the pandemic, the silence at televised matches was so eerie as to be almost alien. Here was the game, stripped and naked, no more than the sum of its parts. So came the option of crowd noise, lifted directly from EA Sports’ Fifa video game series — a collision of the virtual and the real, seamless to a point, exposed every time the operator hit the ‘gasp’ button a moment too late when a chance went begging. As a child, I used to imagine some wonderful future when the Fifa graphics would be so good, I’d be controlling a team of what looked like real players. 

The canned crowd has proved popular, and is widely preferred. That there are no fans in the stadium is less important than the atmosphere they provide. For a visual experience like watching football on TV, it is sound rather than sight which creates the meaning and the jeopardy. But what of the sound at the ground itself? On a damp Thursday evening in late October 2020, I threw on a scarf, packed a bag and went to the Emirates on match day to see what I could hear.

It is strange going to a game that no one else is going to. It is a personal rather than a collective experience. Where once you’d join the tide, that night I felt like I was travelling upstream, performing some deeply obscure, counter-intuitive act. Walking along the Holloway Road from Highbury and Islington Station, the absences were everywhere. An area once defined by this footballing calendar was all but unaware of the humdrum visit of Dundalk in the Europa League.

Instead of a power surge, the energy which the stadium emits on match days was more like a cold element, the spectacle of the match smuggled out of North London on a digital signal. That the streets outside were so quiet seemed to speak of a future in which no action is grounded, where physical space is at best liminal, at worst derelict, and meaning is severed from context. 

Although not quite as closely flanked by houses, the Emirates concourse remains open for public use. Walking up to the ground, I suspected I would not hear anything at all from within, that those high walls built between pitch and pavement would erase the sonic residue of the game, in a way that open-cornered stadiums, designed to fit like Tetris blocks into squared plans, would have allowed. Modern stadiums are circular and as such seem completely sealed.

But the Emirates is as porous as a sea-sponge. The concourse that runs below the stands is hollow, the stadium just a shell, more space than substance. As I approached, muffled shouts began to slip through the gaps, caught like paper in the wind and spiralling upwards. Sometimes they’d be short and punchy, at others they would drift aimlessly between the high-rise blocks that flank the stadium.

Walking around its circumference, away from the prevailing wind, sounds began to come at me from peculiar angles, as if the game was actually happening over on the other side of the tracks. While you could still hold your ear to the door, as you could at Highbury, being closer didn’t necessarily mean hearing more clearly. Step back to the railing and a wider spectrum emerged, the referee’s whistle longer and more piercing than I remember it.

Towards the end of the first half, Arsenal scored and the once-celebratory chants played over the loud speaker echoed out of the stadium bowl like the ghost of another age. ‘Good Old Arsenal…’ tangled in the wind. Eddie Nketiah was heralded as the first goalscorer, the tannoy announcement falling flat with no one there to hear it. At half time, a circus of pop songs and TV adverts played on regardless, like the radio left on in the kitchen.

More urgent than the sound of the game was that of the renewed life which surrounded it. The diminutive cries of elite sportsmen were often obscured by the patter of joggers’ footsteps, the swoosh of tyres on wet concrete from cyclists as they skirted by just meters from the game. Dogs were walked, gossip swapped.

Sometimes a train would thunder past and obliterate all trace of the game, taking a handful of people elsewhere. Fireworks cracked in the distance, sirens and horns from the Holloway Road coalescing with the ambient hum of the stadium’s internal power supply. Under one entrance, a small group was having boxing practice, the thud of their gloves a rhythmic backdrop to the echoing melodies of people talking or shouting nearby. 

At one point, two Dundalk fans walked by, as if to pay their respects in person, drinking and laughing about how an upset might be on the cards. Security guards joked about a game they’d once seen. Down by the statue of Herbert Chapman, a teenage girl was taking two pet ferrets, one named Octavia, for a walk, drawing a small crowd of observers with iPhones. It was as if the area around the stadium was being re-wilded. 

It takes decades for meaning and mythology to be baked into the brickwork of a football stadium. Like the games themselves, they are given significance through collective experience. Until that returns, the absence of sound within has exposed the presence of sound without — a memory of which that might make it feel a little bit more like home.


Anton Spice is a writer and former editor of The Vinyl FactoryYou can follow him on Instagram here.