Columnist

Giles Smith on what caught his eye last night

Like everyone else, Chelsea season ticket holder and columnist Giles Smith was a more than interested spectator when the Premier League returned with two matches yesterday, and here he offers his observations of the haircuts, crowd noises and controversy on display...


And we’re back. Or in three days’ time we will be, anyway. Naturally, I took the opportunity to tune in for last night’s ‘Restart curtain-raiser’ between Aston Villa and Sheffield United, just to get a feel for the new conditions and to scout our opponents on Sunday.

I say ‘scout’. In truth, I spent most of the match trying to work out what was going on on top of Jack Grealish’s head, where several hairstyles seemed to be competing for supremacy, with the pony-tail arguably set to nudge it over the cornrow plaits. It didn’t seem to be over, though, so don’t rule out a strong comeback by the plaits in any further skirmishes on Sunday.

A word, too, in this area, for Michael Oliver, stepping out in a post-lockdown look that combined hitherto unseen lushness up top with sideburns the size of cigarette packets to create an image rarely seen in public since the golden days of the 1970s knitting pattern. Ref’s barnets are clearly going to be something to watch as the resumption gathers pace. Except the ones who shave it all off, of course. It’s business as usual for them.

But what about the atmosphere? Hmm. On Sky, for those selecting the ‘with crowd’ option, the part of the spectators was played by a constant low hubbub of canned noise, with the occasional team-appropriate song or chant breaking through the general smear of sound.

Obviously it was highly unrealistic. Reactions to goalmouth incidents and poor tackles were always a fraction behind the beat. And there was no way, after 80 minutes of the kind of football we saw at Villa Park, that a crowd would have been making anything like the amount of noise that Sky were blanket-running at that point. Most of them would have been on their way home by then. They need a button to allow for that.

Still, I was ready to dislike a fake soundtrack on principle - ready, in fact, to feel personally affronted by it and head off permanently to the undubbed feed. But actually, once you got used to it, it wasn’t so bad. At least, it was marginally better than the alternative, which is the shouts of players echoing mournfully and reductively around the empty seating. Nothing says ‘training ground’ more effectively, and that’s not the vibe we need right now, when real issues are at stake.

More generally, it was quite something to see social distancing so scrupulously observed. At the Etihad, in the second game, Pep Guardiola was adrift in a veritable showroom of spare Recaro seats. Management has never looked lonelier. I’m no longer seeing anyone in south London as carefully separated as the back-room staff at these games, or as far apart as the managers from their interviewers.

It felt more than a little odd in the circumstances – out of keeping with the times, in a way. The last time I looked, everybody who wasn’t a footballer was either piling into Primark with the Prime Minister’s blessing or re-staging Woodstock on Tooting Common. It’s hard to resist the sense that football is once again being held to standards of behaviour far in excess of those which are deemed to apply to the rest of society - and, of course, being football, meekly and dutifully meeting those standards.

Ah well. The good news is that blank-faced technology is still capable of gifting us with drama in the absence of other options. Not the usual suspect, though. Who expected to be having a heated conversation about goal-line technology any time soon? Hawk-Eye has obviously spent the break working itself into a fury about the way VAR has had all the bad-boy headlines in 2019-20, and has come out strongly for the Restart in a bid to reverse the trend.

Yes, goal-line technology! The innocent fail-safe among football’s robotic tools. But no more. At Villa Park the ball was carried over the line so emphatically that every single person who wasn’t in the ground could see it. Michael Oliver looked at his watch, but Mickey Mouse’s hand was pointing at the two and his foot was pointing at the eight, so no goal. Meanwhile, from Stockley Park came the sound of silence, as if nobody was allowed to watch football there, either.

If only. I’ve read a number of articles this week suggesting that the three-month absence of Premier League football will only have served to make our hearts grow fonder for it – even for its more testing aspects. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, as Joni Mitchell sang, and, accordingly, we’ll now be welcoming the return even of a world in which Liverpool are just a couple of formalities away from clinching their first ever Premiership title, and their first league championship since the days when coal was delivered by horse and cart.

Well, yes, possibly. However, the suggestion of one leading commentator that even VAR may well find itself greeted like an old friend seemed to be stretching it. Really? In that case, we draw the line, surely. In VAR’s case, we knew exactly what we’d got before it was gone, and we were busy making that knowledge clear in unprecedentedly unified bursts of song from the stands.

In May the best news for a long time was the story suggesting that, when football resumed under the adjusted terms of ‘Project Restart', VAR would not be resuming with it. Alas, it has proved untrue. They seem to have found a way to do social distancing in the bunkers at Stockley Park. But then again, if the PGMOL video jockeys can’t work from home, who can?

So, unfortunately, not even a global pandemic can wipe out VAR. I suppose, looked at one way, it’s a survival story to lift the spirits. At the same time, you can’t help wondering: what will take down VAR? Probably only the fans. And I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but we’re not there.

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