Belfast Telegraph

Sky's tasty dish ... and we're very much not talking about me here

By Billy Weir

They came, we saw, and they most definitely conquered, as Sky dropped in on Solitude for Monday night's red-letter day for the local game.

While it may not have had the pomp of the previous live offering from the satellite broadcaster, when Manchester United took on Chelsea at Old Trafford, this parochial clash of red and blue in north Belfast certainly left everyone satisfied with a tasty dish served up in style.

And while you all tuned in to see the finished article, muggins here was given exclusive behind the scenes access to see how it was all made possible.

Cliftonville's ground is not Old Trafford, it's certainly old I'll grant you, but strangely it was the perfect setting for the first live game, with an atmosphere that Sir Alex would relish each week.

It's not a glamorous business, the majority of Sky's huge team confined to two massive trucks situated in the waterworks site behind Solitude, much to the bemusement of a number of dog walkers unaccustomed to such distractions on their nightly stroll with Rover.

As I clambered gazelle-like into the back of the truck I didn't really know what to expect. Suddenly my rants about Richard Keys and co. were maybe about to come back to haunt me.

"Mr. Weir, we've been expecting you," Richard would utter menacingly as he stroked his arms.

You can only imagine my relief then as I walked in to be met by a branch of Curry's. There were more TVs than at Mardi Gras, all showing pictures from every corner, nook and cranny of the ground.

The sight of Davy Jeffrey staring back at you from about 20 screens is disconcerting, and not one of them widescreen, and my fears that Sky would fall into the diddly-di, Oirish trap looked like coming true as we cut to a montage about the Troubles.

This was a temporary blip and thankfully lasted just long enough to persuade the rest of the UK that some degree of normality does exist here, the local currency is not potatoes and we don't all carry a pig under our arm.

I did start to worry though when the director for the evening was revealed as a Mr. G. Best. Taking things a little far, but Grant used more energy in two hours than George did in his heyday.

While he was Captain Kirk at the controls, his Mr Spock, albeit with non-pointy lugs, was Mark Scott, the producer.

It is up to him to decide on the editorial content of the programme, issuing instructions and making suggestions to the commentary team of Rob Hawthorne and Gerry Armstrong.

He also locks horns with presenter for the night, Rob Wotton, able assisted by Alan McDonald, to put together plans for before the game, half-time links and after match analysis and reaction.

Grant's job, apart from swinging his arms around in a Tasmanian Devil-type manner, is to bellow instructions to the cameramen and from his bank of TV screens plump for the picture that you see in your living room.

Behind the front-line troops an eager army of helpers, from stats man, graphic artists who provide captions at the snap of a finger, and in various other cubbyholes in the truck, vision mixers, a plethora of VT and sound experts, and, perhaps, the most important of all, Lorna, whose stopwatch was even more vital than Davy Malcolm's out on the pitch and kept everyone in check.

But the women who has the biggest burden on her shoulders is production manager Chrissie Scott, who spends the night with one hand on her walkie-talkie and the other with fingers crossed.

"It's a case waiting to see if we fall off air or not," she laughed nervously and rather prophetically as it turned out with a minor crisis during the half-time interval.

A blown light suddenly developed into no power and it was action stations for Chrissie, but, in the stuff of films, it returned just as the adverts were finishing.

It was a narrow squeak and while all you were oblivious to the frantic activity behind the scenes there was a palpable relief as normal service was resumed.

Chrissie is the first of the Sky team to arrive, carrying out a recce to see what the ground has in the way of facilities and if they don't have it, then they're packed in with the luggage, as was the case with two floodlights brought to Belfast to shine a little more light on proceedings.

"From day one when the match is announced we carry out an initial survey to see the facilities are good enough," she added.

"When we came to Cliftonville we realised the lights weren't going to be good enough to televise it. Although you can play the game, the cameras won't pick it up and you won't get nice pictures at home.

"You then have to work-out the camera positions, erect scaffolding, look at the logistics of parking the trucks, and while we would ideally like to be in the ground, the waterworks has been good and the council has been very forthcoming.

" Then you look at cable routes, and access to the ground because is something goes wrong you have to get there quickly, rather than walking 10 minutes around the ground.

"Then it's looking at where the satellites are and once we're here we can do the game."

The lack of power rather than the lack of goals was Mark Scott's main concern during the interval and there was relief on his face as things progressed during the second-half.

Clearly there is an opening for a boy scout, the adage of 'be prepared' a mantra that Sky would certainly adopt.

" It adds a little more excitement and is one of those things that can happen and sometimes he does," he said, with a sigh of relief.

" Things have gone relatively smoothly. When you go to a new ground, it's a new location and new people at the other end, but they've been very accommodating."

Suddenly the quiet was shattered by Glenn Ferguson's opener, and Mark beaverishly jotted down the time of the goal and fed through stats to the commentary box.

"It has been really good fun for me doing this programme," he said, as the Blues' cheers began to subside.

"You do so many programmes where it's Manchester United or Chelsea and you tend to get into a familiar pattern and it's hard to keep it fresh.

"You've got to go away, learn it, study it and find out what it's about, who the people are that matter and it's like making a programme from scratch with a blank sheet of paper.

"You've got to learn your facts on this one. Anyone could turn up at Arsenal and do a match, and probably get away it, because you can't not be knowledgeable about it.

"But a game like this, if we get it wrong, then people from Northern Ireland will say 'you don't know what you're talking about.'"

I think we'd all agree that this was mission accomplished, and even the power blip couldn't pull the plug on this one.

Belfast Telegraph


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