Do fans make any difference

One thing I’ve been truly thankful for during Lockdown is the continuation of Premier League football. I have to admit though, watching the games without fans in the stadium has taken some getting used to. I started off thinking it was terrible! Huge empty stadiums without fans cheering, singing or shouting at the referee just seemed wrong. Players even appeared to treat some games more like training ‘kickabouts’ losing any sense of spectacle or occasion. More Sunday League than Premier League. I, like many, started to worry about The Beautiful Game.

Thankfully things have improved a little. We’re now into the final phase of the season and it’s leading to some typical ‘seat of the pants’ drama around Champions League qualification and potential relegation. Normal(ish) service has been resumed. Phew! 

I now even find myself accepting the ‘fake fan’ noise, which has come on leaps and bounds since the comedy balls-ups at the start of the season.  

This got me thinking about fans in general and what impact the lack of fans in the stadium has had on performance. Statistically, there’s evidence that shows over the course of a normal season, clubs will win more games at home than away. With no fans therefore you’d expect this advantage to disappear, however results don’t necessarily support this view.

Liverpool FC we’re last year’s runaway PL champions, undefeated in a record-breaking run of 68 home games. During lockdown however, without their ‘12th man’ at the KOP, they have remarkably lost 9 (nine) PL home games. Teams arriving at Anfield are now feeling more confident and no longer appear to be overwhelmed and pressurised into making errors. The lack of fans looks like it’s made a difference on Merseyside!

Conversely, and more strangely, there’s also evidence of some clubs performing better without their home support present! West Ham for example, who had a dismal home record last season, have been posting impressive home wins during lockdown. Not such great news for fans wishing to rush back to the stadium!

Clearly, results, good or bad, cannot be exclusively attributed to the lack of fans. Far from it. There are many other factors that need to be taken into consideration, such as new managers, new players, tactical changes etc. all of which are more likely to have a greater impact upon performance than the presence of fans in a stadium.

We may never be able to accurately quantify any impact of fans on performance during lockdown, but one thing is certain, a fan-less stadium looks wrong and frankly, very sad! I’ve missed seeing fans in stadiums as much as I’ve missed being a fan supporting my own team, Southampton, at St Mary’s stadium.

I can’t wait to get back to the terraces with fellow fans to start feeling the tension, drama (and frequent disappointment!) first-hand once again. Anthropologists and sociologists will tell us that fandom is a deep rooted, social and ritualistic behaviour that’s part of our human nature and indeed our very identity. Being in the stadium might not make a difference to my team, but it sure makes a difference to me!