FEATURE: Inside the Silent Stadium

Covid-19 is keeping the crowds away but one group of people are determined to make sure the masses get their sports fix. Zak Hayes talks to the professionals bringing the action to the fans.

“Prenton Park” by longwayround is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The only audible sounds are the players on the pitch, their shouts echoing through the eerily empty stands.

It’s November 11th, 2020 at Prenton Park in Birkenhead, and Tranmere Rovers are hosting Wigan Athletic in the Papa John’s Trophy.

There are no chants or songs, no smell of Bovril or cigarettes, just flags and banners fluttering in the breeze left to represent the supporters.

Much has changed this year, but there is a constant which has remained at football matches though; the photographers poised pitch side, keeping a keen eye for the opportunity to put their view on the back page of tomorrow’s papers.

Richard Ault has been an official photographer at his boyhood football club, League Two Tranmere Rovers for six years.

It’s a club that is very much in the blood for Richard. He said: “I’ve supported them all my life. I’ve done photos for agencies and photographed England and Europa League games but they don’t compare to Tranmere.”

The Prenton Park main stand, viewed from outside. Released under a creative commons license by SalopianTank01.

During that time, from the side of the pitch, he’s witnessed the Whites get relegated twice and promoted twice, with three Wembley visits along the way.

He now has the privilege of being one of the only people allowed through the gates on matchday, six years on from his decision to give football photography a try.

Richard said: “I actually went to Chester Uni and did a Journalism degree so I was using photography and Getty Images way back then when writing for websites.

“I played a lot of amateur football and whilst injured it felt like the perfect time to get into photography and practice on the team I’d been playing for. I asked Tranmere if it would be possible to do it with a couple of youth team games initially in 2014 and they asked me how I felt about doing the last three first-team games of the season. That summer they asked me if I wanted to do it properly from then onwards.”

In his broad Wirral accent, he confessed he missed doing his job with the Rovers faithful as his backdrop, describing games behind closed doors as “bizarre”.

“You don’t get used to it,” Richard said. “You can hear every word that’s said on the pitch, from the moment you get to the ground everything is different.”

The circumstances have even changed where photographers are allowed to operate in the ground.

Richard said: “I’m not allowed in front of the advertising hoardings, that’s now called the red zone and only players and officials are allowed in the pitch and tunnel areas.”

Richard thrives off the increased pressure of providing a close-up look in times where supporters are restricted to watching on a screen, however.

“There’s nothing better than getting people enjoying the photos as I’m achieving what I set out to do, I’ve got to where I am over eight years and thousands spent on equipment and travel so it’s great to see them viewed far and wide and I feel immensely privileged.”

As he continues, a sense of personal achievement comes to the surface.

“The last few years have been amazing, it’s very rewarding. The photos the club have released of the Wembley victories have been mine. I’ve got stacks of print-outs all over my house and office.”

His down-to-earth attitude shows when summing up his job as “class, mate”.

Ben Reardon is another of the lucky few allowed in to Prenton Park. For him. the press box is his base in the November chill as the 25-year old reporter, five years on from completing a Sports Journalism degree, keeps a keen eye for what to include in his analysis for the Liverpool Echo.

After spending the first 30 months after leaving the University of Central Lancashire freelancing for national newspapers and websites before picking up a role in the Media and Marketing Department at Tranmere, Ben was made redundant due to Covid.

He wasn’t away from Prenton Park for long though, gratefully accepting an offer from the Echo to cover the club in August.

“Prenton Park” by domfell is licensed under CC BY 2.0

He said: “I’ve always loved football and always loved writing, so I thought why not try and combine the two. It’s a very enjoyable profession, it’s very hard with very long hours but it’s worth it to get that buzz from reporting.”

Ben stands out in the press area, with his Lancashire accent standing out from the general Merseyside dialogue. If the transition from Bolton to Birkenhead wasn’t enough, he’s felt the impact of the pandemic in more ways than one.

“It’s been massively different, we have to have checks on our temperature, have to wear a mask, it’s like an alien world. In the past I could just turn up, show my press pass and get straight in. Now there’s a whole load of protocols and a specific time I have to show up every week.”

“In terms of my actual role nothing’s changed if I’m honest in terms of day-to-day, it’s only on matchday things have become less normal, even if it’s odd doing press conferences via Zoom.”

It’s clear that another thing that hasn’t changed is the determination of photographers and reporters to bring the game to the people.

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