Football’s forgotten faces tell us why they look forward to going back to stadiums

“I was one of those people that thought, ‘Nice little weekend off, away from football’ – and here we are a year later.”

Kenzie Benali was not alone in underestimating the impact the coronavirus outbreak would have on the world as a whole, and on sport.

The 25-year-old works as the media presenter and stadium announcer for Southampton – and this weekend 4,000 fans will be allowed to watch the Saints’ FA Cup semi-final against Leicester City at Wembley.

The fixture is being used as a pilot event to trial the return of large crowds to UK venues. If successful it could see fans returning to elite sporting fixtures… at some point.

Yet the fact we are even at this stage is enough to make Kenzie a little teary-eyed.

“I think it will be emotional when I look into those stands. And see those faces I missed so much,” she says.

BBC Sport has been speaking to Kenzie and other ‘forgotten faces’ of football who make the matchday experience complete.

The burger van man

For most of us, game day comes with its own familiar routine. You meet at a designated spot (usually a pub) then it’s a slow walk to the stadium, grabbing some food on the way.

Step forward Bailey Farr – he provides the pies, burgers, crisps and more at Oxford United.

“In February last year we were gearing up for another fantastic year. Oxford were doing well, crowds were up, sales were up. Overnight everything stopped,” the catering boss says.

“We had a ridiculous amount of stock because we were expecting four or five games. All of the stock basically went in the bin.”

Without any stock and no clear indication of when they would be back selling at football grounds, Farr had a decision to make on how to keep money coming in.

“We did little things like a delivery service from home,” he says. “Then we totally switched up and started selling chairs instead. We went from catering to woodworking, selling covered seating pods to pubs and restaurants that allowed for outdoor eating.”

Bailey says he knows plenty of companies that did not survive the forced hiatus, and admits he will be cautious going forward.

“I can’t go back to where we used to buy stock and know that it’s going to go – we’ll dial down on making sure that we’re only ordering what we need.”

The stadium announcer

Nathan Redmond of Southampton celebrates after putting his team 3-2 up during the Premier League match between Southampton and Burnley at St Mary's Stadium on April 04, 2021
Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium, like football grounds up and down the country, has been off limits to fans for months

With your taste buds tickled and belly full when you take your seat, it’s back to Kenzie whose job is keeping the crowd entertained before kick off and at half-time.

“It’s certainly not been the same, we really can’t wait to have fans back,” she says.

“To be able to say, ‘Welcome to St Mary’s…’ again is just going to feel incredible.

“It’s all been done via zoom. We’ve been doing online shows, trying to make them feel as included as we can while they can’t be at St Marys. But there’s no half-time relays which I’m sure everybody’s missing a lot.”

The band

With the game under way, we all know how important the 12th man (the crowd) can be.

Since lockdown the erratic form of some teams and some results is considered a direct impact of fans being absent.

Chris, aka ‘Hanky’, is a member of the England Band who for years have been travelling the world drumming up support and noise for the national team.

When the group are not leading the international fans in song, some of them can be found at Hillsborough cheering on Sheffield Wednesday.

Chris says: “The punters aren’t just a pound note, they’re the heart and soul of the community, without those people the game really is nothing.

“Away teams are getting results which might not have happened if there were 20, 30, or 40,000 thousand home fans cheering on the team.”

Band mate Steve, or ‘Murray’ when he’s touring with the band, has resorted to watching old footage to relive the atmosphere he’s been absent from for a year.

“I watched the 2010 World Cup highlights package just to remember what it was like, you’re just yearning to be part of those sounds and be part of that atmosphere.”

Band leader John says the group have not touched their instruments in a year. They were due to follow England at Euro 2020 but that’s now unlikely to happen.

John said: “There’s no soul in it, the soul’s gone, it’s rubbish. The guys on the fake sound are doing their best but sometimes the crowd’s cheering for nothing.”

The fan TV channel

It seems no matchday experience is complete without the fans having their say at full-time these days – either to gush over the performance or demand the manager gets the sack.

Pre-lockdown, Paul Machin from The Redmen TV had more reasons to be happy than most. But when Liverpool won their first league title for 30 years, Paul, like thousands of others, was unable to celebrate outside Anfield.

“Covid has had a dramatic impact on how we film, what we film and the tone in which we film it. It’s going to be fascinating to see what happens when fans come back,” says Paul.

“I’ve enjoyed the challenge of more studio-based content, which was always the origins of what we did but I also love the rawness of being in and around the fans. Being able to strike a balance between that is going to be pivotal.

“Ultimately I’m excited to be able to try some different things.”

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