Aidan Smith: Spare us the make-believe cheering

Give us hope games will have real fans
Would television coverage of behind-closed-doors games from Pittodrie include the noise of seagulls? Picture: Craig Foy/SNSWould television coverage of behind-closed-doors games from Pittodrie include the noise of seagulls? Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Would television coverage of behind-closed-doors games from Pittodrie include the noise of seagulls? Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

It is, as they say, a fluid scene and by the time you read these words the return of Scottish football could be restricted to mere Zoom-style scenarios - teams slashed in number to four with no physical contact permitted and not even a ball, simply the competitors answering questions about the sport they used to play.

And if you insert into the quartets a celebrity fan – Sean Connery (Celtic or perhaps that other lot, Rangers) Fish (Hibernian), Marie Osmond (Kilmarnock), etc – then that’s your regular, nostalgia-tinged allusion to the Beeb’s hoary old Quiz Ball right there.

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But wait: there’s hope. Out of darkness and whataboutery and courtroom kerfuffling, some light. The First Minister in her latest condition check on our pandemic-pummelled nation has stated that live events outdoors could be allowed from 23 July.

Handily, football fits the bill. Conveniently, many of our grounds are rarely full so no problem with staying the requisite feet apart and then some. And opportunistically the next phase of easing the lockdown falls nine days before the new Premiership season is due to begin.

It would seem that all we need do before then to keep Oor Nicola onside is to huckle the R number down to the far corner flag and keep it there, wear our facemasks diligently on public transport and don’t go bampot beach bonkers like our good friends in England have been doing in Bournemouth and Brighton.

This is promising and, after the grim predictions of the league starting without any fans, infinitely preferable. English football has returned to empty stadia but with piped-in crowd noise for TV. Would we want this here? I don’t think so.

Initially I liked the ersatz punter ambience. I tuned into the first English game back, from Villa Park, and thought it helped, compared with the echo-chamber matches we’d witnessed in Germany’s Bundesliga. But now it’s beginning to irritate me.

All those pitch-perfect oohs and aahs. The precisely-modulated rise in sound as an attacking move develops, from a whisper to a scream. Call-and-response chants for “United” then “City”. Muffled growling after a bad tackle.

This isn’t football, at least not our version of it. Think of that juxtaposition of photographs of English and Scottish crowds reacting to a goal being scored which did the rounds on social media recently. The Scottish fans were piled on top of each other like participants in some ancient village-square ritual and when the dust settled everyone would have taken up a new position in the ground. The English fans all had camera-phones and were snapping away like football tourists from another country, which they might well have been. Scottish football is just more visceral. More real, too? We’d like to think so.

The make-believe cheering might seem not dissimilar to a soccer video game but maybe a furloughed musical-theatre chorus – their summer production of My Fair Lady cancelled by Covid – were requisitioned for the purpose. The end result of an afternoon in the recording studio could, I suppose, be titled Now That’s What I Call Crowd Noise, but it wouldn’t work as a soundtrack for Scottish football.

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Our football is not homogenous. The aural sensations are not the same at every ground. Celtic Park sounds different from Ibrox which sounds different from Pittodrie. Imagine watching a match broadcast live from Pittodrie with no supporters present. You’d want to hear the seagulls, wouldn’t you? It would be a non-game without their squawking.

With respect to St Johnstone, McDiarmid Park doesn’t thrum with constant stadium racket, exploding every now and then into wild chanting, as happens in the simulated English matches. It can be so quiet there you can hear a pie drop, or a pop-up plastic seat clunking. I bet that doesn’t feature on Now That’s What I Call Crowd Noise.

Celtic Park, for all its well-cultivated reputation as one of the great arenas, can be quiet, too, if the opposition are modest and everyone is waiting for the goals procession to commence. Therefore, for veracity, televised matches screened under lockdown conditions should reflect those moments where snoring can be heard, most likely coming from the padded-seats section.

And what of Ibrox? Once again, broadcasters couldn’t just pop Now That’s What I Call Crowd Noise into the CD machine and press play. It would have to be customised and made bespoke. A top sound-doctor – one of those cut-and-paste hip-hop DJs – would have to source a primeval roar for when Rangers score, the fearful fury signifying Govan is disappointed with the way the match is unfolding – and of course the revving of many car engines 15 minutes before the final whistle.

But – whisper it, like you’re not wanting to disturb the peace at Kilmarnock vs Ross County on a Tuesday night in November – the sound effects may not be necessary if season 2020-21 can after all start with fans in their usual place.

Some of them, at least. For, still under Covid conditions, there will have to be “physical distancing and restricted numbers”. So who would get to go to games? Who would choose? Would it be Oor Nicola? Her health guru Jason Leitch? An over-refreshed Rod Stewart picking balls out of a bag?

Maybe if you’ve got a perfect attendance record you would qualify. Maybe you’d hope a perfect attendance record would excuse you from any more agony. We’re not back at the football yet and you could still find yourself being sued by Hearts, but we’re getting close.

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