Which teams have played in front of fake fans or pumped-in atmosphere?

Guardian sport on 25 March 2020

“With the increase in games with no spectators because of the coronavirus outbreak, have there been instances in the past of teams using loudspeakers, cardboard cutouts of fans, or similar effects to try and replicate the atmosphere of a full stadium?” wonders Christopher Sato.

“Sadly, my lot (Boro) tried this during Steve McClaren’s race to try to pep up the atmosphere for our Uefa Cup run,” writes Garry Brogden. “They put out a casting call for people to go down and record a few chants one day – about 12 people turned up, including an acquaintance from a Middlesbrough online forum. They duly recorded a few of the current chants.

“At the next Uefa Cup game against Steaua Bucharest, 1-0 down from the first leg, and within 20 minutes, 3-0 down, during an early lull, everyone suddenly became aware of what sounded like a dozen blokes morosely shouting ‘Come on Boro’ over the PA. There was laughter round the ground. A few minutes later, the Gregorian monks started again, ‘Come on Boro’. This time there was laughter and a few obscenities flying. After one more go, with about the same reaction, the experiment was binned. We came back to win in one of the greatest Boro nights ever. I wonder whether they still have the tapes?”

A number of readers flagged up the ‘Highbury Mural’, painted to hide construction works on the North Bank in 1992. “It caused a lot of controversy,” writes Elliot Leaver. “The underrepresentation of people of colour and women was pointed out and children’s charities were not happy that kids were next to people who didn’t appear to be their parents. It was repainted several times to make it more diverse, including the addition of four nuns in the top left hand corner; one was hit in the face by a Lee Dixon clearance.”

Steve Bould didn’t get far enough forward to take aim at a nun but he did speak in 2006 about the experience. “The mural at that end was weird: all those silent, painted faces staring at you,” he remembered. “First game with it there, we led Norwich 2-0 and lost 3-2, which summed up how it felt to play in front of it.”

The mural season was a disastrous one for the Gunners. When a parachutist almost crashed into the wooden construction on the opening day of the Premier League season it set the tone. They limped to 10th place.

Arsenal mural
Arsenal and Norwich play in front of the Highbury mural in 1992. Photograph: Getty Images

Arsenal were involved in another attempt to replicate a lack of atmosphere. The 2019 Europa League final with Chelsea in Baku was a farce that only around 12,000 genuine Arsenal and Chelsea fans could attend. Amy Lawrence stumbled upon organisers testing out speakers intended to add atmosphere to a match that was largely attended by bemused locals who were bussed in and were about as active and noisy as the painted faces on the North Bank in 1992.

In 2010 Serie B side Triestina came up with a creative way to deal with their disappointing crowds. Struggling to get anywhere near the Stadio Nereo Rocco’s capacity of 32,454, owners took the decision to close an entire stand along one side of the pitch. To avoid having rows of empty seats on display on the rare occasions they appeared on TV, the seats were covered with giant vinyl posters of fake fans, making it look like a crowd from an old computer game. “We’d love to have a full stadium with real supporters and we’ve done everything we can to get people through the gates, but the reality is that we can’t,” said colourful owner, Maurizio Zamperini. “This way at least we create a bit of atmosphere, a bit of theatre.”

Prolific single-season penalty scorers

“AZ defender Teun Koopmeiners has already scored nine penalties in the Eredivisie this season,” writes Bas Vlaming. “This is a lot, but surely someone must have scored more penalties in a season?

They certainly have, Bas. “You’ve got to mention the English record holder Franny Lee,” suggests Navin Patel. “Lee scored 15 penalties for Manchester City in the 1971-72 season. He ‘earned’ many of those penalties himself, but there have been suggestions that many of them wouldn’t stand up to current VAR scrutiny. City could do with such a successful penalty taker these days, given that they seem to be pretty useless in that department at the moment, but perhaps even more useful in our current predicament would be his ability to make toilet rolls, a business that made him a millionaire.”

Indeed it did. He was in the paper-recycling business and toilet rolls were made in a factory he owned on Parrott Street in his hometown, Bolton. “When I finished at Derby the company had between 80-100 employees in 1978,” Lee said in 2015.

Francis Lee
Francis Lee: good at the business of scoring penalties and making toilet roll. Not bad at posing in front of his car, either. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Unusual ways to decide a tournament

“The 1957 Floodlight Cup final in Germany between Frankfurt and Schalke was decided on the number of corners won (8-6 to Frankfurt) after the tie finished level on aggregate,” writes Andrew Burrows. “Any other unusual ways of deciding matches or tournaments?”

Paul Nash winds the clock back to early in the 1992-93 season and the curiosity that was the Anglo-Italian Cup. “Bristol Rovers lost to West Ham on a referee’s coin toss!” yelps Paul. “They had finished the English group stage on the same points and same goal difference. Rovers were a heads away from a European tournament with some relatively big names – Reggiana and Pisa (who had David Platt playing for them the season before) – and it was made even worse that neighbours Bristol City qualified. Everyone I’ve told in the intervening 30 years doesn’t seem to grasp the magnitude of it.”

Knowledge archive

“Is Juventus’s attendance of 237 against Sampdoria in the Coppa Italia this season a record low for any top-flight team in the big European leagues (barring games played behind closed doors, of course)?” asked Peregrine Roscorla in March 2006.

We haven’t been able to find anything more miserable than that, Peregrine, but were amused to find that Europe’s least appealing club competition may well be the InterToto Cup. The 2003 first-round clash between Olympiakos Nicosia and ZTS Dubnica (Slovakia) attracted an impressive 71 punters, while a far more respectable 80 turned up two years later as Olympiakos Nicosia hosted Gloria Bistrita (Romania), again in the first round. On the international front, the record low for Uefa competitions remains the Euro 96 qualifier between Azerbaijan and Poland in Trabzon (Turkey), when precisely 200 hardy souls went out of their way to watch a 0-0 draw.

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Can you help?

“Marlon Pickett made his AFL debut for Richmond against Greater Western Sydney in the 2019 Grand Final before a crowd of 100,014. His second career game this weekend, against Carlton, was played in an empty stadium due to the coronavirus outbreak. What is the greatest differential in crowd size for a footballer playing in consecutive matches?” asks Graham Clayton.

“What is the latest in a season that a team has won a league title?” asks Richard Smith.

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