Aston Villa vs Sheffield United: Michael Oliver’s faulty watch adds welcome twist of drama to subdued Premier League return
VILLA PARK — You heard the one about the faulty Hawkeye, the absent VAR and the referee’s watch finally beeping during half-time to confirm as legitimate a goal he disallowed in the 41st minute?
This is what we have missed. Not the toing and froing on the pitch, but the argy bargy off it. With all the focus on getting the human elements right in order to reboot the game it was the machines that took their eyes off the bloody ball.
Sheffield United should have been celebrating three points, instead they were left shaking heads three times over, firstly at the failure of Hawkeye to confirm Oliver Norwood had in fact scored direct from a free-kick, secondly at the ineptitude of the officials to confirm that fact via VAR when viewers at home could clearly see the outcome, thirdly when, according to Sky, referee Michael Oliver informed Sheffield manager Chris Wilder that his phone did indeed buzz while he was having his half-time cuppa.
It could not have been more a goal had Aston Villa keeper Orjan Nyland drop-kicked the ball into his own net. Bumped by his team-mate Keinan Davis, Nyland could not keep the ball the right side of the line despite taking it cleanly.
Weirdly, what developed into quite the kerfuffle on Twitter and in the Sky TV studios, passed without sustained heat on the pitch save for a few outraged screams from Sheffield players.
The kind of episode that makes football the seething cauldron it is was passed off with a command from Oliver to get on with it. He simply pointed to his watch to indicate that notification was not forthcoming and on they went.
A ghost goal was perhaps fitting for an occasion coloured by an eerie emptiness. Villa had commissioned new drapes for the occasion, or rather huge banners draped across the lower seating areas projecting a sense of this grand old club’s scale and pride in it.
Above the new stuff was pinned the more traditional football topiary of old flags of St George bearing Villa slogans, “Super Jack”, “Shaw’s On Tour”, “AVFC Kidderminster”, that kind of thing.
We, the media, all 25 of us, were scattered about the main stand. Thankfully the internet was working so we could communicate via Zoom. Some things, however, were exactly the same, like queues on the M6.
This was obviously not the usual football traffic feeding into rush hour but a consequence of the tap turned on by nature making a lake of England’s asphalt arteries.
The public address system did its best to deceive with a synthetic atmosphere born of a pumping playlist. And then we broke into Villa’s ring walk anthem, “Hi Ho Silver Lining” alerting us to the impending kick-off.
Under normal circumstances the accompaniment of the Holte End provides one of English football’s great backdrops. None of that here. Sheffield took the field first in accordance with social distancing protocols and then hung about awkwardly while the trumpets fired up for Villa.
In their excitement managers Dean Smith and Wilder forgot themselves, shook hands and hugged. Some members of the backroom teams traded elbow bumps. Well, they were outside and had been tested.
A minute’s silence for victims of Covid-19 brought the players to order, followed by both teams taking the knee around the centre circle in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, both tributes briefly putting into perspective how lucky we were to be immersed once more in high end fun and games.
In terms of the Premier League audit both teams needed the points. Since they last met here in the Championship a year ago, Villa’s experience has been the inverse of Sheffield’s. Only Norwich are keeping Villa off the foot of the table while Sheffield are lording it at the other end with ambitions of European football for the first time.
Without the emotional engagement of a crowd to affect the action the dynamic tension usually strung across the game was absent.
As we have learned from the Bundesliga the sterility of the stage removes the advantage that typically accrues to the home side. Without that powerful, unseen yoke that drives a team forward the game is reduced to a technical exercise.
The players run about with the same purpose but minus, it seems, that visceral element derived from the urging of 50,000 impassioned voices.
It is in this connection, in the emotional response of the supporters to what they are seeing and feeling, that all excitement is rooted. Though you lot at home were caressed by the piped festival of fake noise, there was nothing in the stadium beyond the general din of raised voices and thudded passes, into which the match rather disappears.
Neither team was able to rise above the new conditions. Perhaps this is how it is going to be. Lifting the nation’s spirits? That must be a reference to anticipation and reflection. The bit in the middle, the actual contest, does not compel the eye as it did.
The rum thought occurs that this was always the case. That for the most part our impressions are warped by the enhanced atmosphere created by a full stadium. What a grim notion.
At least for those at home, the bizarre technology fail was a peg on which to deliberate for a few minutes while waiting for the action to start at the Etihad.More on the Premier League