“I’ll see you in the tunnel.”
There was a time when that was more than a throwaway line on the pitch, even if some players found a way to make sure that they never showed up.
“One of my standard challenges was to (jump and) head the ball and put my studs down someone’s back — which you’d get sent off for now,” Liam Ridgewell, the former Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Portland Timbers defender, tells The Athletic. “I did it to the late, great Papa Bouba Diop at Fulham.”
Ridgewell, now a coach with MLS side Portland, pauses as he thinks back to what happened next.
“You know that GIF when Jim Carrey wipes his mouth and changes his demeanour? Well, Bouba Diop turned around, rubbed his back and went: ‘What. Did. You. Just. Do?’ And I thought: ‘S—.’
“He said: ‘I’ll see you in the tunnel.’ I was like: ‘No you f—ing won’t!’ After the game, I stayed out there (on the pitch) so long, even clapping the home fans, so that I didn’t have to go back down the tunnel!”
Tunnels in football, like most things in life, aren’t what they used to be. For a start, the more spacious layouts of modern stadiums mean that players are rarely rubbing shoulders with one another when they line up in them beforehand, taking away a lot of the tension.
The fixtures and fittings have changed in the area between the dressing rooms and the pitch too – glass has replaced concrete blocks at Manchester City so the VIPs in the ‘Tunnel Club’ can rubber-neck – and so has the behaviour of the players.
“Gary Neville and Roy Keane wouldn’t even look at their opponents – Gary didn’t even look at his brother,” says one current player, who has asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships, as he recalls the scene at Goodison Park when Gary was captain of United, with Phil wearing the armband for home side Everton.
“It was about the bravado of ‘We’re going to war!’ But – and I’m saying this as someone who is old-school — football isn’t about going to war any more. You can barely make a tackle these days. So it’s a lot more friendly in the tunnel now.”
In other words, it’s more a case of Jamie Vardy being the court jester, rocking back on his heels and mocking Kasper Schmeichel with his “Ooh, Danish friends!” joke based on a scene in UK sitcom The Inbetweeners as his Leicester team-mate palled around with then-Southampton midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, rather than Keane going nose to nose with Patrick Vieira, the “Crazy Gang” snorting Deep Heat or a couple of Nottingham Forest midfielders barking like dogs.
“Exactly,” replies the same player. “When I was younger, if the cameras were there, people didn’t even want to be seen saying hello to opposition players. But everyone is hugging and laughing now, high-fiving mascots – it’s a lot more relaxed.”
“I saw the Goodison tunnel on TV the other day and thought: ‘That looks nice.’ There were pictures on the wall. But when I used to walk down there it was pure Goodison — dirty and dingy. It set the stage for what you were going into — it was like a dungeon walk.
“But now you’ve got people asking for shirts before games, and asking how the wife and kids are doing. I wouldn’t have asked one of our players that!”
It feels like a sign of the times that a minor incident just outside the tunnel involving Manchester City’s Kyle Walker and one of the Arsenal backroom staff, after the Premier League game between the two clubs at the latter’s Emirates Stadium last month, caused such a stir.
Walker refused to shake hands with Nicolas Jover after the 1-0 defeat on the basis that Arsenal’s set-piece coach, who formerly held that job at City, refused to do the same when Pep Guardiola’s side beat them last season. A storm in a tea cup if ever there was one.
“A nerve has been hit here”
Kyle Walker reacts to the Arsenal set piece coach Nicolas Jover 😬 pic.twitter.com/xdZpRkWeUa
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) October 8, 2023
Indeed, post-match feuds in the tunnel are rare now.
In the February of last season, Leeds United thought it was disrespectful that Nottingham Forest had their dressing room door open and music blaring out after defeating them 1-0. In a classic case of tit for tat, Leeds did the same to Forest when they won the return fixture at Elland Road two months later. Forest head coach Steve Cooper wasn’t happy and a security guard ended up intervening in the tunnel.
All of that feels rather tame, though, especially compared to the days when John Fashanu’s Wimbledon debut coincided with a 22-man brawl in the tunnel of their away game at Portsmouth or, from personal experience, when you looked across and saw the opposition striker being throttled before a ball had been kicked.
“Don’t f—ing ruin our big day,” Jason Perry, the former Wales international defender, strongly advised Brett Ormerod, who was Blackpool’s star player and two weeks away from a move to the Premier League with Southampton when we lined up with Newport County, then in the seventh tier of the English game, away at Bloomfield Road for an FA Cup first round tie in November 2001. Perry had his hands around Ormerod’s throat at the time.
It would be stretching it to say that managers and players thought games could be won or lost in the tunnel back then, but there was certainly a school of thought that a bit of intimidation could help.
Aidy Boothroyd even put on an exercise before a play-off semi-final a decade ago where he divided his Northampton Town squad into two groups and the players had to practise leaving the dressing rooms and lining up in the tunnel.
“It didn’t do us any favours, by the way. We got pumped (3-0 by Bradford City) in the final,” Clive Platt, who was playing for Northampton at the time and now works as a football agent, says. “I actually did that before with another manager as well — Martin Allen, when I was with MK Dons. Again, it was to gain that advantage before the game kicks off.
“Aidy did it slightly differently. Keeping you waiting was a tactic of some teams. But he (Boothroyd) used to make us go out early, especially in those play-off matches, and stand in the middle of the tunnel.
“He was like: ‘Go and stand in the middle, pretty much on your tip-toes, jumping up and down, looking as big as possible, and also taking up as much room as possible,’ to kind of show that it’s our tunnel, not theirs.”
Occasionally, the tunnel can be more intimidating than the opposition.
Galatasaray, back in the 1990s, was a case in point.
A window on their team coach was smashed on the way to the stadium and that set the tone for what was to follow. Welcome to Hell, as Galatasaray liked to say at the time.
Attacked, detained, deported: Inside Man United’s ‘Welcome to Hell’ game, 30 years on
“I was in the tunnel a bit further back and you could hear the noise, which sounded like there was a massive hailstorm outside as you came up the steps,” Graeme Le Saux tells The Athletic. “I was thinking: ‘It (the weather) wasn’t meant to be like that.’ But then as you come out, there’s this roof of riot shields, like an extended tunnel, and people are launching all sorts of things at the riot police.”
It was an extraordinary scene, which is captured in the picture below, and is seared into Le Saux’s mind.
“If the shields hadn’t been there, I don’t think they’d have thrown stuff at us. It’s all part of this build-up and I presume the riot police are in on it! Because as soon as you come out, they don’t carry on throwing things. It’s like the ultimate distraction and intimidation.
“But once the game starts, you’re almost in an exclusion zone, you’re looking in rather than out. There was so much nervous tension in us going out but we channelled it into a performance and we took them apart.”
Chelsea, inspired by Tore Andre Flo, won 5-0 and turned a cauldron into a cakewalk.
Red Star Belgrade’s Rajko Mitic Stadium is another of those places where minds can easily wander in the tunnel — and not in a good way.
With the changing rooms outside the stadium itself, it is a 240m walk from there to the playing surface — more than two football pitches end to end, by far the longest in Europe. The tunnel itself is not for the faint-hearted: anyone taller than 6ft (182cm) needs to stoop in places, just 15cm of concrete separates the ceiling from the ultras in the stand above it, and the riot police presence along the route is unnerving rather than reassuring.
“There’s a good picture of Gary Speed leading us out,” the former Aston Villa and Sunderland midfielder says of the photo below. “It is a proper tunnel — long and dark — and then you’ve got the athletics track to cross as well when you get out of it. There were riot police at the top and they were also lined up in the tunnel.
“They try to intimidate you, it’s as simple as that. But we went there and turned them over.”
The psychological side before a game is fascinating, especially as kick-off nears. Nerves and anxiety can easily take over, so much so that it’s not uncommon for players to vomit just before lining up in the tunnel — Per Mertesacker would often do that in his days with Arsenal.
“As a player, you’re constantly overcoming the demons,” Le Saux adds. “The worst bit for me throughout my whole career was the journey to any stadium. It’s no man’s land. You can’t do any more preparation and you can’t get into the zone of being ready to play because there’s too long a gap.”
In the tunnel, it’s different — it’s game time.
“Then, it’s a fine line between focus, that bit of bravado and posturing, but there’s also that internal dialogue of getting ready to play,” Le Saux says. “Tunnels, for me, are sacred places — the Anfield sign at Liverpool is one of them. They’re waiting rooms where you come out onto the pitch, when you’re crossing that Rubicon and passing the point of no return.”
It’s almost a game before the game.
For example, at Goodison, where the tunnel is narrow and goes down some steps and then back up again to the pitch, Le Saux would try to stand on one of the higher steps, especially if 6ft 4in (193cm) Everton striker Duncan Ferguson was around.
“I was still shorter than him but at least I could look into his eyes as opposed to into his nostrils,” he says, smiling. “Even if you are nervous, you’ve got to put on a front.
“Playing against Wimbledon, (John) Fashanu, the stuff they would say, the jumping up and down, the music, the shirts off, snorting Deep Heat and Vicks VapoRub – I wouldn’t be surprised if they were rubbing it in their eyes.
“I remember we played Poland with England and they had what felt like the world’s longest tunnel. Their centre-back, who was 6ft 4in and a bruiser, jumped up and headed an iron girder on purpose – and then looked at us.”
Le Saux can laugh about it all now, including the way that some players had no interest in engaging with the children serving as mascots after emerging from a dressing room that was full of adrenaline and testosterone.
Some players overthink the game during those final moments and end up inhibited on the pitch. Others zone out and perform.
“Ultimately, that’s what will define you in some ways,” Le Saux adds. “Coming back to Galatasaray and the build-up in the tunnel before the game, it would have been so easy to have felt my hamstring that day. But I think top-level players know that the outcome… that’s what we play for.”
The referee always rings twice.
Players are expected to be out and into the tunnel sharpish after the official sounds a bell for a second time. There is a 30-second period of grace before each half, and clubs will be fined if their players arrive any later.
Amid all the tension and the thousand-yard stares back in the day, mascots occasionally lightened the mood.
In 2006, Jake Nickless, who was a Chelsea fan and five years old at the time, put a thumb to his nose when Steven Gerrard went to shake his hand in the tunnel at Stamford Bridge. Nickless claimed years later that his father had put him up to the stunt and promised him some PlayStation games in return.
As for Gerrard, he was thrown totally off-guard. “The only time I smiled in the tunnel was when the Chelsea mascot played a trick on me,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I went to shake his hand and he pulled a face at me. If it was an adult I would have wanted to wring their neck!’”
Players can be childish too, though.
“One of our first games of the season with Forest was against Arsenal away,” Andy Johnson says, recalling a match at Highbury in 1998. “We were lining up against Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, and Geoff Thomas said to me: ‘When we get in the tunnel, look at them and start barking and growling at them like a dog.’ So the two of us were doing that — barking like dogs — at two World Cup winners (with France, little more than a month before), who were looking at us like we’d gone mad.”
For the game’s gym addicts, it’s the perfect time to flex.
Danny Shittu had a reputation for emerging from the changing room with his shirt off – “19 stones (266lb; 120kg) of prime beef, letting out monosyllabic and neanderthal grunts and screams, beating his chest all the while,” is how Clarke Carlisle once described his former Queens Park Rangers team-mate.
Others can get carried away with their own voice.
“I think in the tunnel I was too excited — that was down to just childishness,” goalkeeper Joe Hart reflected after his England side’s dismal showing at the 2016 European Championship, where he was filmed before the group game against neighbours and long-time rivals Wales shouting expletives outside the dressing rooms. “I thought it was the right thing to do. I just let my emotions get the better of me.”
The notorious Keane-Vieira episode at Highbury in 2005 was unusual in the sense that tunnel altercations — and that one was a proper bust-up — generally happen after matches, not before them.
Indeed, Manchester United and Arsenal have plenty of history in that department.
“The Battle of the Buffet” at Old Trafford in that 2004-05 season’s reverse fixture the previous October goes straight in at number 1 here.
Fuelled by a sense of injustice after United were awarded a controversial second-half penalty for the first of their two goals, and angry that Arsenal’s 49-match unbeaten Premier League run had come to an end, Cesc Fabregas hurled a slice of pizza (believed to be Margherita but the topping was never confirmed) that hit United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, of all people.
Seventeen years later, Fabregas finally came clean.
The Spaniard told UK broadcaster ITV Sport that he was both hungry and frustrated when he got to the dressing room after the game, and explained that he “took a slice of pizza” and then “started hearing noises” in the tunnel.
“You started seeing (Arsenal manager) Arsene Wenger and players everywhere,” Fabregas said. “The first thing that occurred to me was to throw the pizza, because I didn’t have the power, or the courage maybe, to go into that fight. They were monsters in there.”
The row that followed between Wenger and Ferguson, both in the tunnel and publicly, was box office.
“In the tunnel, he (Wenger) was publicly criticising my players, calling them cheats,” Ferguson said three months later. “I was told about this when they came into the dressing room, so I went out into the tunnel and said to him: ‘You get in there (the away dressing room) and behave yourself, leave my players alone.’ He came sprinting towards me with his hands raised saying: ‘What do you want to do about it?’ He was standing right there.”
Managers and coaches are every bit as likely as players to cause problems in the tunnel. Haranguing referees at half-time, as well as full-time, was commonplace in the past, but happens a lot less frequently now.
Jose Mourinho had form for that, and more.
Ridgewell hasn’t forgotten a fracas involving Mourinho at Stamford Bridge in 2013, when Chelsea were awarded a dubious late penalty that allowed them to avoid defeat against his West Brom side in the Premier League. In the melee that followed in the tunnel, West Brom defender Jonas Olsson claimed home manager Mourinho called him “a Mickey Mouse player”.
“It still sticks in my brain now,” Ridgewell says, a decade later. “We were winning 2-1 and they got a naughty penalty. It all kicked off over that, and as we were going down the tunnel, you’ve got Jose Mourinho standing at the top of the stairs, leaning over one of their players, and Jonas Olsson was at the bottom trying to get to him.
“I recall Mourinho saying: ‘You lot are just a Mickey Mouse club.’ If he said: ‘Micky Mouse player’, that would explain why he set Jonas off.
“I love Jose Mourinho, but that left a sour taste, because we battered them that day. But it was a classic tunnel moment.”
(Additional material: Phil Hay)