League Two play-off final: Behind the scenes at Wembley’s first behind closed doors game

Northampton midfielder Alan McCormack took selfies with some of the cardboard cut-out Cobblers supporters after the game

There were cardboard cut-outs instead of real fans, strobe lighting instead of the usual deafening noise and a pre-recorded national anthem to replace the real thing.

No-one could fault the efforts of Wembley, the English Football League and the two clubs to make the League Two play-off final as much of a spectacle as safely possible.

However, without the presence of Exeter City and Northampton Town supporters because of the coronavirus pandemic, the overriding feeling was one of nothingness.

I was one of just a few hundred inside the national stadium for what is thought to be the first competitive game at Wembley behind closed doors, and it certainly was a unique experience.

A fan who ‘had to be there’

Don travelled the short distance from Ealing to support Northampton from outside Wembley

I spent 30 minutes on Olympic Way before entering the stadium and were it was not for the graphics on the outside of the ground you would not have known an important match was about to take place.

There were builders drilling outside the ground and locals going about their Monday evenings, a far cry from the pie, programme and merchandise sellers who normally dominate the famous walk.

But there was one fan, Don, who had felt compelled to come to Wembley and take in the ambience, without breaking any social distancing rules.

Don has followed Northampton since 1963 and travelled alone from Ealing – just five and a half miles away – so he could stand outside while listening to radio commentary on the final.

Sporting a Cobblers scarf, you could see how much it meant to him to be here, even if he could not watch the match – and the result will only have made his smile wider.

Pre-match temperature testing of the media was carried out inside a purpose-built tent just outside the stadium

My encounter with Don was followed by medical screening in a makeshift tent – a temperature check and some form-filling – before I was finally allowed to enter the ground.

Having not been to a game since lockdown, this all felt very strange but there were no moans or sighs, just an appreciation of everyone doing their utmost to make the stadium as safe an environment as possible.

Under the Wembley arch

Olympic Way – normally packed with fans on a match day – was deserted two hours before kick-off

This was a sign of what the FA Cup and Champions League finals will be like, as well as the League One and Championship play-off finals – all of which will be played in empty stadiums.

I’ve been lucky enough to cover several Wembley play-off finals and the noise is normally so loud I can hardly hear myself think.

This time it was so quiet, I could clearly hear my press colleagues typing, the Wembley generators humming and former Colchester and Wolves striker Chris Iwelumo giving his analysis as a radio pundit behind me.

Soprano Faryl Smith pre-recorded the national anthem outside the ground, with members of the media politely applauding after standing to hear God Save the Queen.

The national anthem was pre-recorded and broadcast on Wembley’s big screens

The game itself was probably the most normal part of the evening, and that is why football is so great.

Just 22 players running about kicking a ball and, for 90 minutes, you almost forget about the global pandemic that has affected our lives so much over these past months.

The big moments, though, were low-key – the goals meant just as much as normal, but you could not help but glance at the empty seats and imagine the emotion that would have been pouring out.

A red card for Exeter veteran Dean Moxey was the most peculiar incident, though. After being sent off for a late, lunging challenge on Ryan Watson, there was nothing – no ironic cheers, no hands on heads or shouting in the direction of the referee.

And it is that raw passion that is being missed so dearly.

On the final whistle Northampton players celebrated wildly with each other and manager Keith Curle in front of a camera lens, beaming their raw emotion to thousands of jubilant Cobblers fans watching from their living rooms.

The usual walk up the famous Wembley steps was abandoned, with Curle and captain Charlie Goode having to lift the trophy off its plinth on the pitch, instead of the usual dignitary handing it over to them.

It started as a socially distanced affair for the squad before quickly descending into hugs, dancing and lots of champagne.

Capping off the bizarre nature of the whole occasion was the sight of Northampton midfielder Alan McCormack, bottle of beer in hand, taking selfies with the Cobblers’ army of cardboard cut-out fans.

This was still football – there were winners and losers – but not as we know it.

Comedian Alan Carr and basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal were among the army of cardboard cut-out Northampton fans
Exeter flags were displayed in what would have been their area of the ground, alongside the now customary cardboard cut-outs of supporters