JONATHAN SHALLARD REPORTING —– After 100 days the English Premier League, the world’s most popular domestic tournament, is back in both stadia and television screens.
The first match – Aston Villa escaping with a 0-0 draw against Sheffield United thanks to a failure of both goal-line technology and VAR – was of far less significance outside of the two clubs than its very staging.
At one stage, as the UK struggled to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the prospect of any live football before the autumn appeared remote. But financial pressure, impatience for signs of normality and the positive example of the Bundesliga encouraged activation of Project Restart.
All essential precautions were in place. Villa Park was sectioned into coloured zones and the players arrived with social distancing, individual temperature checks and two dressing rooms each. One was the lounge area usually reserved for journalists.
Another ‘new normal’ was both teams making separate entrances onto the pitch before a one-minute silence for victims of the pandemic.
Also not normal was that, on a further whistle from referee Michael Oliver, both teams and match officials ‘took a knee’ in tribute to George Floyd, the black American who died under police arrest in Minneapolis.
The players wore “Black Lives Matter” instead of their names on the back of shirts which were also adorned on the chest with a heart-shaped tribute symbol to the National Health Service.
Of course no fans were among the 300 people in the stadium. The empty lower tier seating was masked by Villa flags except behind the Holte End goal. There, poignantly, was one yellow steward’s jacket in tribute to the father of Villa manager Dean Smith. Ron Smith had been a Villa steward before falling victim to coronavirus three weeks ago..
United had played in the last top-flight match in the month of June: that was back in 1947 when their victory over Stoke City handed the title to Liverpool.
They might have taken the lead just before halftime when Villa keeper Orjan Nyland, under pressure, carried the ball over his own goal-line.
Unhappily for Blades goal-line technology was faulty and did not signal. VAR official Paul Tierney was also at fault in not overruling Oliver’s decision to wave play on. That was the nearest anyone came to a goal. Hawkeye later apologised for the system failure while the referees company described the situation as “unique.”
The Premier League was back – complete with a VAR controversy.