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A knee taken for something bigger than the game, and a decision taken that could have big consequences for the season. That was the story of the first Premier League game back. So much we’ve missed and, in every sense, so much more.
You couldn’t have any greater indication that, well, we’re over the line than a decision controversy over whether the ball went over the line.
For Hawkeye not to be working for Oliver Norwood’s free-kick is quite the story to ignite Project Restart. The reason may yet provoke an even bigger drama.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
The result – which brought a mostly dull 0-0 – could have huge consequences for the season. It could well keep Aston Villa up. It could prevent Sheffield United getting into Europa League, or maybe even the Champions League.
And yet as seismic as that moment may be, as much of a landmark as this entire first match back was, its most lasting influence was something that went way beyond the game. That was the immensely powerful image of all 22 players and referee Michael Oliver taking a knee for ‘Black Lives Matter’.
The fact this was even happening emphasised football, and the world, are in a new era.
The goal-line technology failure only further fostered the sense of something different, as did the way we were reassured at half-time that it was now working.
Scant consolation to Chris Wilder and Sheffield United.
It was impossible not to feel they’d lost some of their previous momentum, and that maybe another way this match could be indicative of what’s to come.
Similar could be said for Jack Grealish, who had of course been one of the most prominent names during the break, for reasons he wouldn’t have desired. He didn’t sparkle in the way he’d have desired here.
Villa, for their part, had actually been the better team up until then. They could even argue that they had their own refereeing controversy, and should have had a penalty for a foul on Anwar El-Ghazi.
There had been a bit more life about Dean Smith’s side up to then, which had produced more openings, and that claim in the first place.
Sheffield United were fairly static in response, but that ensured it someway followed it was the stationary ball of a set-piece that sparked them, the game and the whole returning Premier League.
On 41 minutes, Kortney Hause was penalised for a push on Billy Sharp. Norwood stepped up to curl it in, for what should have been a fairly easy claim, only for Orjan Nyland to fumble it a bit and carry it backwards.
How far backwards was the big question.
It seemed Nyland carried right back over the line, before almost guiltily pushing it back as far as the post. The presence of a few Villa players around the goalkeeper only further obscured the view, and complicated the situation.
All that mattered at that moment was that Oliver’s watch didn’t buzz. There were some reports it did so later. There were a lot of jokes that someone had forgotten to turn it on.
There were also many calls that VAR should have overruled it, and brought a proper look at the moment, but you can completely understand the officials trusting the goal-line technology and going with that.
In normal circumstances, you would say there was confusion all around the ground, except there were of course empty seats all around the ground.
It did at least distract from the prior debate about the crowd noise broadcast on TV. Up to the free-kick, that had been the greatest source of discussion related to the football. You could only imagine what the response would have been had that happened in front of a packed stadium, in what was a genuinely meaningful fixture.
There was an emotion beyond anger in those stands, mind. There was a sadness, and poignancy, as one of the seats had a steward’s jacket. That was in commemoration of Smith’s father, who tragically died of Coronavirus during the break.
It was itself a sad reminder of the more serious wider situation, of why this game was being played in the curious circumstances it was.
And yet still some things don’t change.
In other ways, this match was all too normal. It was a drab enough 0-0 draw, of the type you might have predicted for a game between two sides who were in the Championship last season.
One is hoping not to return there. The other is hoping to go onto the next level, and Europe.
This first match back could have a lasting effect on both by the end, as they could well go to the line.