Sky Sports made a strong return to live Premier League action… overheard manager meltdowns and player talk gave games a fun five-a-side feel, roving reporter Jamie Redknapp was all over HawkEye farce – but commentary drifted without fan noise
- Viewers could choose to watch the Premier League with artificial fan noise
- But the silence provided an intriguing insight into how things work on the pitch
- Sky’s new ‘roving reporter’ role was a success thanks to Jamie Redknapp
‘I’m just looking forward to some football,’ said David Jones, with a giddy, boyish tinge to his usually pristine delivery. Gary Neville chuckled in the background. ‘I think we all are, aren’t we?’
It was, at first, a back to school vibe on Sky Sports as the Premier League made its eagerly awaited restart – a reunion of old friends, if you will, after 100 days. And with old friends, it takes no time to pick up where you left off.
‘They might just have missed each other,’ Jones, the host for Manchester City’s match against Arsenal, said as he introduced Neville and Jamie Carragher.
David Jones (right) fronted Sky coverage of Manchester City v Arsenal alongside Jamie Carragher (left), Gary Neville (second left) and Micah Richards (second right)
The Sky crew stood pitchside at the Etihad and were sure to maintain social distance throughout their broadcast on Wednesday evening
The first game was played at Villa Park between Aston Villa and Sheffield United – Jamie Redknapp (centre) shared a picture with his colleagues Ian Taylor (left) and Kelly Cates
You bet they have missed each other, just like we’ve missed them. They are a mischievous duo and have enjoyed a verbal jousting via Zoom or Twitter but it’s not the same as in person.
And while it was the first day back, coverage began with what we all love to see on Sky Sports – Carragher and Neville assessing the scene, showing just why they are the star students of punditry by quickly finding their groove.
Playing out from the back will be easier for more technical teams, barked Carragher, because there will be a less palpable sense of crowd anxiety as defenders pick passes around an attacking press.
Neville, meanwhile, pondered how possible a managerial sacking could be between now and the end of the season. He decided it would be unlikely but we are resuming in the business end of the season. Nobody is here to make up the numbers, he warned.
Carragher and Neville have stayed sharp enough on Sky’s excellent Football Show that has kept fans ticking over in lockdown. Here, back inside a stadium, they stood in a socially-distanced back four of their own alongside Jones and Micah Richards, who is fast becoming an impressive pundit in his own right.
Meanwhile Kelly Cates, who with Jones has done a super job of steering the Football Show through the odd Zoom hiccup, was at a rainy Villa Park alongside Jamie Redknapp and former Villa midfielder Ian Taylor.
It was a refreshing sight to see Jamie Carragher back at a football stadium as a pundit
Fellow Sky colleague Gary Neville was also on hand at the Eithad stadium for City v Arsenal
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder gave the first socially distanced pre-match interview – he would not have been smiling as widely after the final whistle at Villa Park
Patrick Davison had the honour of the first socially distanced pre-match interview with Chris Wilder and Dean Smith, the latter of whom touchingly reflected upon the loss of his father to coronavirus.
It was all as slick as ever for Sky. The first real noticeable change was when Cates handed over to Andy Hinchcliffe and Rob Hawthorn on commentary. Usually, there is a split second where neither host nor commentator has the air and the crowd’s songs billow into your living room.
But here, the silence was so eerie, it was as noticeable as any loud chant or cheer. A few sporadic claps could be heard, be it from coaches in the dugout or the likes of Villa chief executive Christian Purslow, alone in the stands. It just sounded ironic.
Sky provided the option of fan noise but, particularly after watching the Bundesliga, it was fascinating to view a match while able to understand the instructions players would shout. It was Premier League football, but with the chatter of a Wednesday night five-a-side match under floodlights – and that’s no disrespect to any team on show.
‘Douggy! Douggy!’ screamed a Villa player as Douglas Luiz – born in Rio de Janeiro, not Birmingham – collected possession on the halfway line.
‘Billy, tuck in. Come on Bashy’ roared Wilder as his United side took their defensive positions for a Villa throw-in. Billy Sharp was the first man Wilder was calling, and he came back for more with his captain moments later.
‘SKIPPER! BILLYYYYY,’ he bellowed. It was impossible not to imagine his face turning crimson as you heard him scream. ‘THAT’S FOUR TACKLES WE’VE MISSED! FOUR!’
Wilder could soon be heard bellowing out instructions to his players in an empty Villa Park
Brazilian midfielder Douglas Luiz (left) is affectionately called ‘Douggy’ by the Villa team
Jamie Redknapp was a success as a roving reporter – he said hawkeye had stopped working
It was intriguing to try and spot players responding to the instructions from their manager. A fascinating by-product of UFC returning behind closed doors was how fighters credited the commentary of Daniel Cormier, which they could hear, for changing their game-plan mid-fight. They all went on to win.
Jamie Redknapp had a roving role, walking around the pitch to deliver insight as and when Hawthorn chose to check in with him but his stand-out moment came at half-time, after Orjan Nyland had carried the ball over his line only for HawkEye to somehow not alert referee Michael Oliver.
It was Redknapp who first revealed, during the interval, that Oliver’s watch finally buzzed at half-time to tell him the ball had gone over. ‘What if that costs them a top four place?’ he asked. A camera was on Wilder as he interrogated the officials but it was one of the few times we couldn’t hear what he was saying. You could easily guess, though.
Fans seemed to be split on the artificial crowd noise that embellished a subdued second half. One Villa supporter compared it to ‘watching a game of FIFA’ but it seemed to grow on plenty of other viewers.
Sky’s artificial crowd noise wasn’t for everyone – one fan compared it to watching a video game
Another supporter said it was weird to hear the noise but others said they enjoyed hearing it
Sky Sports reporter Geoff Shreeves said it was ‘all a bit strange’ to be at the Etihad stadium
‘This background noise is making this not to bad to watch,’ said one Twitter user, while another said: ‘Really weird watching #AVFC – crowd soundtrack but no crowd!’
It was a strange aesthetic and at times, the commentary didn’t quite mirror the pretend atmosphere.
Normally, you can hear Neville raise his voice to excitedly speak over the crowd and dissect a key moment. But in the early exchanges of City v Arsenal, he described Bernd Leno tipping Kevin De Bruyne’s free-kick over the bar with a meandering tone and a lack of urgency that jarred against the excitable crowd noise that, of course, he couldn’t hear.
It will likely improve as he adjusts though – Carragher was the same in his roving reporter role. It is, understandably, a work in progress. It stands out less when the crowd noise is off.
But as Martin Tyler said amid howls of derision from De Bruyne over a misplaced pass: ‘You will hear things you won’t normally hear with 40-50,000 people in a stadium.’ It does add a layer of intrigue.
Villa and United finished goalless, with the goal that never was by far the major talking point. Mr Davison would be forgiven for feeling relieved at having to socially distance from Wilder for the post-match interview.
With no authentic fan noise, it was hard for commentators’ tone to mirror certain phases of play without having to raise their voice over thousands of excited supporters
It felt a lot less exhilarating when Raheem Sterling got the first goal since football’s restart
Over at The Etihad, Geoff Shreeves admitted it felt ‘a bit strange’ to be at an empty stadium, trying to entice a chat out of Pep Guardiola – the City boss has never been a huge fan of pre-match interviews.
Carragher had Redknapp’s roving role for this one – something we can clearly expect from Sky’s coverage throughout this behind-closed-doors era but he did not have the same opportunity Redknapp got to probe something as significant as a HawkEye failure.
‘Is Carragher still wondering around the ground or have we forgotten about him?’ Neville quipped in the second half. For once, you couldn’t be sure if he was mocking his colleague or asking a genuine question.
Eventually, the first goal of football’s return came when Raheem Sterling took advantage of David Luiz’s error but a goal with no fan noise, fake or otherwise, felt a lot less exhilarating.
A polite pitter-patter of applause went along with City cheers but if you weren’t watching the immediate scene, it sounded more like Rory Burns had turned the ball off his hips for four on day one of the Test at Lord’s.
It was the same when Luiz was sent off. There was no crowd outrage or jeering to send him down the tunnel and the players were surprisingly quiet. ‘Oh, he’s seen red,’ Neville said.
David Luiz pictured making an ignominious exit after being sent off for Arsenal against City
A criticism of football without fans is that it will make games feel like a training match but City were already excellent at doing that against 10 men. They showed no mercy to Arsenal, winning 3-0.
But overall, Sky’s return was unquestionably successful.
They demonstrated innovation in the new roving reporter role and reaped the rewards with Redknapp on HawkEye.
For the most part it felt like business as usual which, in a time as trying as the present, is the best form of escapism that football can provide. It will be intriguing to see how their rivals as BT Sport have adapted when they broadcast their first match in an empty venue on Saturday.
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