Oxford United took on Oxford United yesterday. Chris Williams was in the stands to see it...
Attention to detail. That’s what it’s all about.
It’s Sunday 4pm and I park carefully two spaces away from Dan Agyei who I am momentarily surprised to see emerge from his car in full playing kit. He is carrying a water bottle and has had his pre-match meal at home. This is a new world and the planning for today’s dry run has been meticulous.
With no food at the training ground Jasmine Campbell, the club’s fantastic nutritionist, has devised a diet for players to stick to before training, after training, pre and post match and in particular for recovery on Friday night when we travel back from Portsmouth after the play-off first leg with recovery at that stage key.
All departments have been similarly plotting and planning for today’s in-house rehearsal. Michelle Walton and the safety team have had the unenviable task of applying the guidelines and protocols within the stadium. She is there to greet me and check my temperature as I am guided into the Red Zone. Let me explain…
I'll get my colours muddled but to simplify, think of the stadium as a traffic light. The Red Zone is only for the players and officials who have been tested. It takes in the changing rooms, the pitch and tunnel as well as South Stand Lower. The Amber zone is the other three sides of the pitch and belongs to photographers, groundstaff and a small army of cardboard fans. And their pets. You lot are weird.
South Upper sees the green zone and that is where the media and a handful of directors will be. Keen to make it a meaningful exercise Director Zaki has come along so we can make sure that the system all works to plan. The same applies to the local media who can’t comment on the game that is to take place but can get used to life under lockdown.
Once you are wristbanded to a zone you are there for the duration. Zones shall not cross. I am red so I can’t take my usual seat in the press area. Instead I have brought a table along and set it on a small platform just above the tunnel. Then I send a zoom invite to my media chums and the first teething problem bites us.
The plan was for Karl to do his after-game interviews in this way but when I speak to Pritchard of the Mail it gets picked up by another microphone and that gets amplified in to Jerome Sale’s laptop and loops perfectly into Nathan Cooper’s. The over all effect is akin to a soundcheck for the Jesus and Mary Chain with howls of distortion and overdrive. It makes Pritch sound better but is clearly not going to work on the big day when we will have 20 reporters present.
A new plan is formulated and Mick Brown is informed so he can change the information being sent out to journalists this week. EVERYTHING is new and we are all being flexible. I passed 1,000 games worked this season, Mick has been at all of those plus 1,000 before that. But systems that have been in place for decades need to be torn up and we agree that it has been a good chance to evaluate everything we have ever known about matchdays behind the scenes.
The most obvious changes are for the players. Team talks are done pitchside, warm ups conducted in match kit, subs and staff then take their place in the stands instead of the dug outs. Even the walkout is different. The two teams step on to the pitch at different times meaning I miss my signal to Nathan to play ‘Yellow Submarine’. He then rings and says ‘there are people outside the gates, do I announce the teams?’ In the end we compromise. “Number 1” he says “Alan Judge. Number Two, Dave Langan…” I catch Josh Ruffels’s eye- sorry, John Trewick’s eye - and shrug my shoulders to say ‘we are doing our best’
It’s about authenticity. The pitch is immaculate and the ground looks a picture. One team is in yellow the other in blue, kick off is at the same time as the first play-off. Goals are announced as ‘sponsored by Tripp Hearing’, music is played at half time, staff are on station: one has even worn his matchday suit..
The one thing we can’t replicate is officials for a friendly like this so a member of staff does a brilliant job in the middle, even standing up to a volley of mock abuse from a senior player for awarding a last minute penalty. The names have been left out to protect the innocent but use your imagination. “Book him” someone says “Can’t, No cards” says the ref. All I can say about the game is it was high intensity and fast paced. But we expected that. The players were already ready; this was more a chance to get their surroundings right and make everything less strange when we kick off for real.
I can only speak personally but I found the whole exercise incredibly worthwhile. Little things like remembering a mask as well as my laptop, completing a questionnaire, seeing that new systems work. So many things to remember; drink breaks, spare balls dotted around the pitch, posts being sanitised at half time…
The last three weeks have been incredible. We have done everything right and everyone behind the scenes has lived like hermits: I don’t want to test positive and miss the games so I am ultra cautious at all times and I’m only going to be there to write about the game. I am expendable. Think how careful the players are having to be.
Five more days and then all those sacrifices will be worth it and we get to play competitive football once again. Two, hopefully three, of the biggest games in the club’s history played in the strangest environment.
None of us want to play games like that. We want to share every kick, every chant, every moment with you. That’s sadly not going to be possible but whatever happens you can be sure of one thing.
We will be ready.
See Karl discussing the lack of fans above with a full version in iFollow.
Chris Williams is the club's Communications Manager but the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the club's. He is the Peter Leven of press officers