Sheffield United struggle with 'new normal' in football but not as much as Hawk-Eye
Earlier in the morning, three gunmetal grey and silver coaches snaked out of the car park at Bramall Lane and began ferrying the folk on board towards the motorway.
Their destination was Birmingham. The passengers - Sheffield United’s players, management and coaches who, just under two hours later, arrived at Aston Villa for the first Premier League contest of the Covid-19 era.
Ninety six days had passed since the decision was taken to suspend the fixture calendar. The balls are still round and the pitches still green. But when United disembarked - swabbed, sanitised and temperature checked - they discovered pretty much everything else had changed.
Rather than preparing in the changing rooms below the cavernous main stand, Chris Wilder and his team were directed towards the media suite in order to comply with social distancing rules. Pre-match hugs were kept to a minimum and as squad members preferred to swap fist bumps. United did enter a huddle 30 seconds or so before kick-off, though. Some old habits, even in the middle of a health crisis, are going to be difficult to break.
Football, post coronavirus, proved to be a strange experience. And a slightly debilitating one too. Certainly for United who, as the action unfolded in front of four largely empty stands, initially struggled to achieve the same levels of intensity which had seen them climb to seventh in the table, and onto the cusp of the Champions League qualification positions, before sport entered lockdown.
Fighting for survival at the other end of the rankings, Villa appeared to find the silence liberating instead. Indeed, until a hugely controversial moment during the dying embers of the opening period, they had fashioned the greater chances. Or half chances to be exact.
“There wasn’t too much quality out there,” United’s midfielder Oliver Norwood said. “It was a pretty strange to be honest, with no crowd being inside the ground, but we’re going to have to get used to that.”
The incident which enraged United came just before the interval. Orjan Nyland, selected to keep goal for Villa ahead of Pepe Reina and Jed Steer, clearly carried the ball into the back of his own net after collecting an Oliver Norwood centre. As Billy Sharp wheeled away in celebration and McBurnie punched the air, it suddenly became apparent that play had restarted and the score remained deadlocked. The inquest was still continuing as the two sides towards the tunnel. By the time they emerged again, for a second half which developed in much the same vein as the first, it had been confirmed a serious technological flaw had cost United dear.
“I couldn’t see but all the lads were telling me it was in,” Norwood said. “So I was asking the ref why it hadn’t been given and he told me his watch or whatever it is they use hadn’t buzzed.
“The reaction of everyone out there told you everything you needed to know.
“It wasn’t given. It should have been. To be honest, I can’t quite believe it but we’ve just got to take it on the chin.”
On the face of it, given the circumstances surrounding the contest and the long break in competition, United would usually have been satisfied with the point which moves them to within four of fourth-placed Chelsea with nine games remaining. Villa, desperate to preserve their top-flight status following a challenging start to the campaign, were always likely to prove tenacious and highly motivated opposition. Indeed, Wilder had warned beforehand that, despite looking routine on paper, this assignment would actually prove to be one of his squad’s trickiest of the season.
Already he had factored the absence of Jack O’Connell and John Fleck into his calculations ahead of kick-off - electing not to tell the media the duo had been injured during training - he reckoned without what Hawkeye, the architects of the system designed to judge if balls have crossed the goal line, later acknowledged was a terrible error.
“During the first-half of the Aston Villa versus Sheffield United match at Villa Park, there was a goal line incident where the ball was carried over the line by the Aston Villa goalkeeper,” a statement, issued by the company, acknowledged afterwards. “The match officials did not receive a signal to the watch nor the earpiece as per ‘Goal Decision System’ protocol. The seven cameras located in the stands around the goal area were significantly occluded by the goalkeeper, defender and goalpost. This level of occlusion has never been seen before in over 9,000 matches that the Hawkeye goal line technology system has been in operation.”
“The system was tested and proved functional prior to the start of the match in accordance with the IFAB Laws of the Game and confirmed as working by the match officials,” the statement added. “The system has remained functional throughout. Hawkeye apologises unreservedly to the Premier League, Sheffield United and everyone affected by this incident.”
A resigned smile crept across Norwood’s face when he was informed of the admission. He revealed he had accepted an apology from referee Michael Oliver - “Fair play to him, it wasn’t his fault” - but seemed less inclined to accept one from the company boffins.
“There’s not much I can probably say without getting into trouble,” he said. “All the money in the game, you’d think that wouldn’t happen. You wouldn’t think technology would be robbing us of three points.
“To be honest, I didn’t think we were great and we didn’t produce our usual quality. But if we’d have gone on front at that point, I think it might have been different.”
With Jack Robinson replacing O’Connell and Sander Berge and John Lundstram tasked with chaperoning Norwood, United made a bright start with Billy Sharp’s driving runs testing Villa’s resolve. But, once that petered out, it was the hosts who fashioned the better openings as Keinan Davis forced a smart save from Dean Henderson before heading over from close range.
Norwood’s set-piece should have broken the deadlock but, with Oliver and his officials being sold a dummy, it remained intact instead. Henderson embellished his reputation by denying Davis again and then John McGinn. But United, despite introducing David McGoldrick, Luke Freeman and Kys Mousset during the closing stages, were unable to ensure justice was served.
“There’s so much we’ve got to get used to but we’ve got to get used to it pretty quick,” Norwood said. “Everything was strange, even before we got here having to do our pre-match in Leicester because there was no hotel open.
“What we have to make sure, though, is that we get to grips with it. Because we’re in a great position, we’ve given ourselves an opportunity and we want to really kick-on.”