Life in a soccer cocoon – a photo essay

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In soccer’s strangest year ever, the Guardian sports photographer Tom Jenkins shares his insight on covering national sports behind closed doors.

It’s Lockdown 2’s second day and it’s the ideal night for soccer watching: cold and crisp with a light mist. I’m standing outside St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton, ninety minutes before kickoff.

Around me, the stadium holding their equipment is patrolled by occasional stewards and a few TV technicians. Only by the popping of fireworks from the other side of town is the silence broken.

Suddenly, from outside the waist-high fencing, I was shocked by a loud roar. “Come on you Reds,” a cyclist calls, passing me by. He looks at me and shrugs, “Somebody’s gotta say it, right?” he goes on, repeating his cries as he vanishes into the darkness.

Southampton will be at the top of the Premier League for the first time by the end of the evening.

Just before Southampton’s match against Newcastle at St. Mary’s on Nov. 6, outside St. Mary’s.

The corner flag is disinfected before kickoff of the Crystal Palace vs. Newcastle match on Nov. 27.

Soccer behind closed doors seemed like a whimsical interruption in June, when the Restart project was still in its infancy. All of us were so happy to have it back in some form. How we grinned when we saw slats sprayed from odd corners of the stadium with disinfectant and away teams emerging, maybe having modified some version of the hut of the groundskeeper.

Colorful and optimistic were the motivating tarps covering vacant seats and emblazoned with club mottos.

It was summer, five replacements were permitted, and drink breaks were open. All now seems to be a long time ago and it feels very different.

Winter is here, the grounds have been enveloped by darkness, the floodlights are on, bathing in a milky light not just the courts but the local neighborhoods. It is now much more evident from the outside that a game is happening, a strong indication to fans that a party is taking place and they have no invitation.

Seven months have passed since soccer came back. I’ve been a lucky guy for all this time: a photographer – one of the few allowed in.

A fan takes a photo outside Anfield of a Jordan Henderson mural.

On the first matchday of the season, I’m in Liverpool with some time to spare before the exciting match between the champions and promoted Leeds. A freshly painted mural showing Jordan Henderson raising the Premier League trophy is hanging on the gable end of a house on a typical Anfield street.

A woman pulls her mobile phone out as I photograph it and does the same.

I can’t help but feel guilty, because I’m going to see this interesting game on my way, and she’s definitely not.

After the game, I think about her again and feel even worse.

4-3, the kind of game that makes your heart swell and reinforces why you love soccer, why you go through the turnstiles to see it. A breathtaking game has finished.

A few days later, for the Sheffield United v Wolves contest, I’m on the other side of the Pennines. On the radio, there is talk of the imminent return of fans. There is a good feeling that now we’re going to get out of this soon. Two early goals were scored by Wolves, and I imagined how much hate would rain down from the big Kop standing behind me.

For Sheffield United, Wolves’ Romain Saïss made it 2-0.

It is now as much a part of my routine to fill out health clearance forms and temperature tests as to pack my camera bags.

I’m sticky and sweaty as I lug my gear to the front entrance of Chelsea in early October. The temperature checker points toward my forehead with a small white gun. He says, “That’s 32.2,” “If that were true, surely I’d have organ failure,” I say. The steward duly waves me in.

I’ve been to a few Chelsea games in the last few months, and I’ve been chatting with a friendly stewardess who hands out our sanitized photographer’s bibs.

She tells me how worried she is about some of the regulars, especially their mental health, in the West Stand.

She recalls how it was like a second family to come to the stadium, seeing everyone there, and being part of the culture, helping her through some tough personal times.

Sandbags at the exit doors under the Birmingham Road stand before the West Brom vs. Tottenham match on Nov. 18.

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