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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

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Shearer FIRST to say Smith Rowe’s goal is fair backstage on Amazon

As Emile Smith Rowe’s easy strike hit the back of the net with David de Gea stricken on the ground in front of his unguarded goal, Old Trafford held its breath.

Thirteen minutes into an enthralling encounter between Manchester United and Arsenal, more than 70,000 supporters inside the stadium turned to each other and their phones for clarity, after the most bizarre and controversial goal of the season, possibly in the Premier League’s history.

For a moment, the bemusement extended to the stadium’s principal television studio wedged between the Stretford End and Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, level with the 18-yard line of the penalty area.

In the cramped space, tucked behind a camera with a platoon of technicians, Sportsmail was watching Alan Shearer, Patrice Evra and Thierry Henry make sense of the circus below, as we went behind the scenes with Amazon Prime Video, who streamed the game live.

For an instant, even the pundits, with 977 Premier League games between them, look stunned into silence like the rest of Old Trafford. But a technician bursts the bubble.

‘What’s going on?’ he shouts as the pictures stream through the monitors and the ball nestles inexplicably in De Gea’s goal, while both sets of players appeal to referee Martin Atkinson.

The former pros immediately spin round and run to the TV screen propped up against the wall in front of a bank of cameras to grab a second look.

Manchester United’s goalkeeper David de Gea was down injured when Arsenal’s Emile Smith-Rowe scored after 13 minutes

As the stadium held its breath, pundits Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry ran to the monitor for a slow motion replay

Smith Rowe scores Arsenal’s controversial opener after just 13 minutes at Old Trafford, with De Gea lying injured on the turf 

Shearer calls it first. ‘That’s a goal,’ declares the former Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle and England striker as a replay reveals that De Gea’s own team-mate, Fred, stood on the keeper’s ankle and left him in a heap on the goal line. ‘They can’t disallow that.’

He’s right. And the others agree, reluctantly in the case of Evra, who made 278 Premier League appearances for United, and one suspects with a little satisfaction for Henry, who scored 175 top-flight goals for Arsenal.

A discussion immediately ensues over fair play, across a table laden with biscuits and delicious lemon pies. If the goal is given with De Gea incapacitated, will Arsenal allow United to score to even things up and gift them a goal?

‘No chance,’ observes Evra, ruefully, as the Arsenal players begin to embrace. ‘Look at how they celebrate.’

Confusion ruled on the pitch where Arsenal players initially did not celebrate and immediately appealed to the referee

Any thought of Arsenal gifting Manchester United a goal faded as the Gunners’ players rejoiced at their good fortune

It was then Manchester United’s turn to appeal to Martin Atkinson, led by midfield duo of Fred and Scott McTominay

Even in these early stages the half-time discussion is beginning to take shape.

But Evra wants to know if a foul has been given. High up in the stand,  match commentator Peter Drury and the former Rangers and Scotland striker Ally McCoist have to sort out the scene in real time.

‘That’s very, very awkward for the referee,’ Drury told an audience expected to top three million streaming on Amazon with many millions more around the world, via the various feeds serving the Premier League’s extensive customer base.

‘Let’s see if Martin Atkinson gets the whistle to his lips,’ says Drury.

The TV studio at Old Trafford is perched above the 18-yeard line of the penalty area in which the bizarre goal was scored

Shearer and Henry had front row seats of the goal and the reaction of the United players as they went on to win the game

Even as he’s saying the words, a super slow motion replay from a camera inside the goal is queued and ready to roll by the match director, sat 180 miles away in a production centre the technicians reassuringly call The Rock.

It answers Evra’s question: Atkinson did not blow his whistle and allowed the play to develop so that VAR could intervene.

‘He has to give the goal,’ Drury’s co-commentator, McCoist, correctly declares without hesitation.

The pundits have established within a few seconds what takes VAR more than three minutes to conclude. And as ever, the viewers at home know a whole lot more than those at the ground.

The game resumes but Shearer and Co remain in animated discussion with production staff, who are sat in one of four broadcast trucks outside the stadium, planning the half-time running order.

Some 135 engineers and production staff were at Old Trafford to stream the game backed up by more than 100 elsewhere

Meanwhile, video analysts studying the feeds of the 25 match cameras around the pitch are finding the best shots to tell the story the ex-pros are now describing.

Under its deal with the Premier League, Amazon Prime Video covers all 10 games in two mad, midweek match rounds each season in December. And last night was one of their best performances, so far.

A five-goal thriller, a big penalty shout, a goal that will one day feature on a Question of Sport and the arrival of United’s new boss, Ralf Rangnick, gave the Amazon team a challenge, but also a great opportunity to showcase their capabilities. And they took it.

It is a mind-boggling operation, which begins in earnest six hours before the game kicks off, when the 135 technical and production staff, who are working onsite, receive their final orders.

Manchester United’s interim manager Ralf Rangnick (R) watched his new side play Arsenal, with Amazon Prime Video ensuring three cameras could be trained  on the directors’ box to be sure to capture an image of the man of the moment

With news breaking that German coach, Rangnick, had been granted a work permit to take over at Old Trafford from caretaker boss, Michael Carrick.

At a production call at around 2.30pm, the producer, Christian Potter, makes it clear he is desperate for images of the new man arriving at the stadium.

‘Find Ralf Rangnick,’ Christian Potter orders his teams as he wraps up the meeting.

United had been tight-lipped about when and where Rangnick might appear, other than to confirm he would watch from the directors’ box later that night, so two cameras are sent out around the ground on Rangnick Watch to catch his arrival.

And three are in position to spot him in the posh seats once the match kicks off.

Two hours later Potter has the pictures that will open the show at 7.30pm. They are not great, Rangnick is obscured as he gets out of his car, ‘but it’s the news value’, Potter rightly declares and they will do.

Commentator Ally McCoist has proved the darling of Amazon Prime Video Premier League coverage and Peter Drury (R) spends eight hours prepping for a Premier League fixture

At this point there is no sign of ‘The Talent’, which is the ubiquitous title for the pundits in the broadcast industry. The former players do not arrive until 4pm for an evening Premier League game, with the exception of the unlikely star, McCoist.

The Glaswegian is famous among the production staff for his last-minute arrivals. But he has proved to be the darling of Amazon’s coverage so far, with the viewers, pundits and staff.

McCoist doesn’t have an agent. The production team have his mobile number and he deals with them directly, even while changing the tyre on his car at the side of the road on one occasion.

‘He should be prescribed on the NHS, he’s brilliant,’ says an admiring production staffer, stood outside the talent trailer awaiting the Scot’s arrival at a fashionably late 5.30pm.

Amazon Prime Video’s presenter, Simon Thomas, prepares for the  TV broadcast at Old Trafford in the ‘talent trailer’

Ex-players and old friends Thierry Henry and Patrice Evra enjoyed their usual lively debate on the white leather sofas

‘Aye,’ laughs McCoist, when he welcomes Sportsmail into the trailer, known as a Vroom with A View, a few minutes later. ‘But what for? That is the question….’

McCoist, who scored 355 goals for Rangers in a 22-year career is a bundle of energy, good humour and simply loves the game, which explains his popularity. A roar went up from Evra, Henry and Shearer when he burst into the ‘Vroom’.

‘I love it, man,’ says McCoist as he sits chatting on the white, leather sofa inside. ‘What is there not to love?’

But what does he put his popularity down to? ‘I think people realise that I realise that I am the luckiest man alive,’ he says. A few minutes with ‘Coisty’ and you really do feel better.

The talent trailer, called a Vroom with a View, includes a sofa, swivel chairs, make-up room and toilets so the pundits can prepare at football stadiums before their broadcasts across the country. Pre match briefings are done in the vehicle

Despite his stellar career and celebrity status in football, McCoist is well-grounded. As he arrives at Old Trafford a friend who has just done a 10-hour shift at a car plant texts him to ask sarcastically, ‘You out to work, then?’

‘It is amazing’, admits McCoist, laughing. ‘People may be saying ‘he is a jammy b******’, but at least he knows he is a jammy b******’… What is there not to enjoy?’

McCoist’s enthusiasm is infectious, as he prepares to head up to the gantry to join Drury.

‘It’s the best seat in the house, you see everything,’ says McCoist, who admits he feels the pressure prior to kick off.

However, he is super-sharp in commentary, calling the goal and a later penalty when Martin Odegaard brought down Fred in the penalty area after 70 minutes, even though Atkinson waved play-on.

Shearer has been broadcasting for 15 years since he retired from football and has established himself as a leading pundit

Cristiano Ronaldo’s spot kick won the game 3-2 for United.

Each pundit receives an extensive stats pack in the days leading up to the match they are covering and McCoist loves to dig deep and pull out the most obscure nuggets to unleash upon his co-commentators.

McCoist puts Mo Salah of Liverpool in his top three players in the Premier League

‘I love the silly ones,’ he admits. ‘They encourage me to come up with the stupid ones.’

While hard work, McCoist enjoys the intensity of the midweek match round. He commentated on Liverpool’s 4-1 win at Everton on Wednesday, prior to Arsenal’s showdown with United. And he simply enjoys other people’s success.

‘Mo Salah, man, dear me…’ is his response when asked to name the best player in the Premier League. ‘He got seventh in the Ballon d’Or… at least four places too low. You could argue seven places, too low.’

But he can’t stop there.

‘Or, Bernardo Silva… He is a fantastic player. His vision is phenomenal,’ adds McCoist. ‘Henderson was magnificent the other night…’

He could and would go on, but he has a bigger audience to address and it is time to go to the gantry and meet up with his co-commentator Drury.

Meanwhile, fed and watered (from a menu of chicken Kiev, lamb hotpot, sea bass or vegetarian ‘meatballs’ and hot chocolate sponge and custard) the studio guests of Shearer, Henry, and United favourite, Evra, are picking a path though the gathering crowds to the pitch, in time for rehearsals and the start of the show at 7.30pm.

They are under the careful guidance of the floor-manager, Leo O’Neill, who looks a little like an airline pilot wearing huge headphones with a microphone curling around in front of his mouth.

O’Neill’s job is to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right time and he admits it can be like ‘herding cats’.

‘People see their heroes and they want a photo,’ says the freelance veteran organiser who is on speed dial at Number 10 and the Palace, as well as Amazon, Sky and BT Sport.

O’Neill is just back from floor-managing 150 world leaders at the COP26 environmental summit and the national remembrance event at the Cenotaph. But he has also helped deliver TV coverage for the weddings of Princes Harry and William and the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh.

O’Neill is too diplomatic to disclose who is hardest to manage, but he does admit football is a different situation to affairs of state, which usually have a military presence that ensures a degree of order.

Old Trafford favourite Evra is popular with supporters, many of whom want a selfie making it difficult to reach the pitch

Amazon and their partners have 135 staff onsite for a live match plus more than 100 elsewhere to stream the game live

‘Don’t touch anything…’ engineers somehow decipher the miles of wiring to bring us live sport from the Premier League

‘Getting Patrice through at Old Trafford is the challenge,’ reflects O’Neill, who likes how the former players engage with the supporters. ‘When they were playing, they did not get chance and supporters want to talk to them.’

Pitch side, Evra interacts enthusiastically with the fans who are in the stadium early. Waving to supporters in between clips and posing for selfies.

The former United favourite is in his element. In between the photos and rehearsals, he is giving the Red Devils’ reserve goalkeeper Tom Heaton a big thumbs up and hugging coach, Darren Fletcher.

Meanwhile, the Arsenal players flock towards Henry after their warm up for a motivational speech.

Arsenal staff and players headed for Thierry Henry following their warm-up at Old Trafford for words of encouragement

TV crews line the pitch ahead of kick off, with Amazon Prime Video in place two hours before the game to rehearse

‘Grrrrrr…’ Henry roars at them, holding up both fists, amid words of encouragement.

Evra and Henry have known each other since childhood and their friendly rivalry is famed in the industry. ‘They bicker about football all the time,’ says one Amazon staff member.

‘I am the adjudicator,’ jokes Shearer, who is strategically positioned between the two of them before the pre-match discussion.

Shearer has been a pundit since 2006, and has grown into the role so that he is now a leading figure. The England legend was one of the first TV pundits to analyse United’s slide under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, when the team slumped to a 4-2 defeat at Leicester.

‘When I first came in, I did not want to criticise, but now I am more analytical,’ reflects the Amazon Prime Video pundit.

Presenter Simon Thomas has to hold the broadcast together and bring the best out of pundits

‘I don’t think anyone has a problem if you are critical as long as you are accurate,’ he says. ‘I never had a problem with pundits. You know yourself if you have had a bad game. No one ever had to tell me.’

Perhaps the toughest job of all, however, is that of the presenter, who has hold it all together whatever the situation throws up and help ‘the talent’ to do their stuff.

‘For the presenter it is not being noticed, and you want to get the most out of the pundits that is the most important thing,’ says Simon Thomas, Amazon Prime Video’s Premier League presenter.

‘I am a ring master. No one wants to watch a presenter.’

While Thomas is cool and slick on screen, there is a huge amount of work that lies behind that unruffled appearance. And it is a rare skill to manage your own pressure, while taking it away from others.

On the pitch at Old Trafford, amid the chants and the PA announcements he is bent over his tablet polishing and rehearsing his script, relentlessly. He is constantly adding and rewriting and speaking the phrases out loud, practising names and pronunciations, while perched on a steel camera case in the freezing cold.

And the weather is a permanent consideration for outdoor broadcast.

Thomas is concerned for Shearer. The Geordie’s favourite gilet has ended up in the wash and the temperature is only a little above freezing.

But that conversation is quickly curtailed once Shearer reminds all parties that he is from Newcastle, and usual rules don’t apply.

McCoist is pleased he has remembered his hand warmers. 

Everyone has done better than the former Liverpool and Stoke centre forward Peter Crouch, who once spent all of pre-match boasting about a heated gilet, which he then discovered he had forgot to plug in as he took up his on-field media duties.

For Thomas, he’s relying on thermals under his smart blue trousers.

‘But I can’t sit in the studio like that, it’ll be too hot,’ he muses. ‘At kick off we will have to de-layer and that takes time. The worst thing is someone scores and you haven’t seen it.’

Fortunately, Thomas is ‘delayered’ and safely in his seat before one of the most talked about goals in Premier League history hits the back of the net.

PREMIER LEAGUE LEADS THE WORLD IN BROADCAST If you are a broadcast engineer and you are not working during the Amazon match rounds in the Premier League, it may be time to look for another job.

Amazon Prime Video covers all ten midweek games in two match rounds in December. They come thick and fast so technical and production teams are rarely off-duty.

‘It is a lot of engineers to find,’ admits Chrissie Collins, who runs the technical operation for Telegenics, a partner of Amazon and other broadcasters.

The ‘Spider Pilot’ who operates the camera suspended above the pitch from scaffolding high on the stands above the stadium is the only person in the country who can do the job. If he’s not available they have to call a fella in Germany.

Hundreds of screens are banked on the walls of four broadcast trucks which attend major matches in the Premier League

His 12-strong team arrived on Monday to start the preparations. The rest of the 123 techies arrived on Wednesday after they had covered Newcastle’s 0-0 draw with Norwich at St James’ Park on Tuesday night.

The Premier League is a world leader in broadcast facilities. At Old Trafford, 45 possible camera positions are already hard wired, so the technicians ‘simply’ plug in.

For this game 25 cameras are covering the match three are in the studio and there are three more for other purposes, like finding Ralf Rangnick, and the ‘Bat Camera’, a drone that flies above the stadium.

Many have a specific purpose, so one camera is permanently trained on the dug out and production staff near the pitch alert the director to activity in that area so he can obtain images quickly.

While the match pictures are mixed and managed from a facility called The Rock in High Wycombe, everything outside of game itself is delivered onsite, including video analysis to illustrate the points made by pundits.

At 3pm, every camera and its operator are tested and sound synced to the images. The camera operators practice zooming in on a groundsman – the only thing moving on the pitch – as he marks out the lines in bold white sweeps.

Pundits, like Thierry Henry, are the faces of  Premier League football coverage, but hundreds of people deliver the pictures we see

There are four trucks with around 100 screens in each. Director Gruff Davies is stationed in front of one bank of monitors and an alarming array of buttons and sliders. ‘You get a buzz off it,’ he admits, while confiding this is the biggest match of his career.

He is admirably cool, but then most of the team have broadcast World Cups and England’s ill-fated Euro 2020 final performance.

At The Rock, another 25 production staff are in constant communication, while Amazon has an army of technicians monitoring the feed, picture quality and latency across all devices and to all internet service providers.

After an 11 am start, the technical and production teams are wrapping up at midnight and out in the rain hunting Ubers as they return to their city centre hotels. The mood is good, a thrilling match has been streamed and broadcast almost perfectly, nothing missed, everything analysed.

Next stop West Ham Saturday lunchtime. And it all starts again.

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