Fletcher and McManaman among 'Fab Five' in Lisbon for BT Sport

Commentators Darren Fletcher and Steve McManaman are among the ‘Fab Five’ in Lisbon for BT Sport for the Champions League final… the rest – including Gary Lineker – will be 990 MILES away in Stratford!

  • The pandemic has shredded the football season and scattered its remains 
  • At last season’s Champions League final in Madrid, BT Sport had 150 staff there 
  • This time round, in the new world after the Covid-19 outbreak, they have five 
  • Everyone else will have their own makeshift desk set-ups, monitors and mixers

Just before 8pm on Sunday night, Gary Lineker will look down the camera lens and hand over to the commentary team in Lisbon. That will be just about the only thing that’s normal about the Champions League final.

At long last Europe’s most prestigious fixture gets under way. Just 85 days later than scheduled, in a city 2,000 miles away from the original venue and in front of a spectator crowd of nil. Same as the number of handshakes.

The coronavirus pandemic has not only shredded the football season and scattered its remains across the summer, but it has also redefined what we long believed to be ordinary life.

Gary Lineker handing over commentary team in Lisbon will be the only normal thing on Sunday

BT Sport’s coverage of the Champions League ends with the final between PSG and Bayern

Yet, in many ways, football’s return has been the one beacon of escapism in these Unprecedented Times. The illusion of normality, brought to you by cardboard cut outs and fake crowd noise.

The Champions League final is the biggest match in club football. In this country, the responsibility of making the experience appear and, more importantly, feel as normal as possible to those watching from their sofas falls into the hands of BT Sport.

Fitting, perhaps, that they should see out season after being the ones that showed football’s return with their coverage of the Bundesliga. Yet how do you showcase normality when your very own way of doing so is as different as ever?

At last season’s Champions League final in Madrid, when Liverpool defeated Tottenham, BT had 150 staff in the city as they broadcast direct from the heart of Spain. They were all there: Lineker, the pundits, the commentators, the analysts, the directors, the producers, the lot.

This time around, in the new world, they have five. Des Kelly, the pitch side reporter and interviewer; Darren Fletcher, the commentator; Steve McManaman, the co-commentator; as well as a production manager and a sound engineer. 

At the 2019 Champions League final, when Liverpool defeated Tottenham, BT had 150 staff

Or, as one executive producer at BT has christened them, the ‘Fab Five’. Six if you include a cameraman who films around the city. Fans, of course, are free to come up with their own adjectives.

The rest are, well, all over the place.

The director will make sure the show runs to plan from a makeshift gallery inside a truck in the loading bay of BT studios at Stratford, some 990 miles away, having previously done it from her dining room in an Essex village. David Moss, the executive producer, will keep tabs on it all from his spare bedroom in Cheshunt. 

Those stats that run so effortlessly off Lineker’s tongue? They will be fed to him by an operative in Hertfordshire. Those fancy graphics? Done by someone in their home in East London. The senior production manager, they’re in Brixton. Another assistant producer is in Telford. The editors, who put together all the interviews and packages, had been at home but a small team will now be back in the studio for the final.

The engineering support team, the army of tech whizzes who keep an eye on the feeds coming from UEFA’s host broadcast into the television, the web, the BT app, YouTube, would usually be based at BT Tower in Fitzrovia. Now, they are sprinkled across living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms from Edinburgh to Cornwall and Belfast.

Steve McManaman is one of a lucky group of five to see the 2020 final in Lisbon in the flesh

Darren Fletcher will also be on commentating duties in the Portuguese capital for the game

Everyone with their own makeshift desk set-ups, with an arrangement of monitors and mixers. All able to share screens and communicate with each other.

The diaspora is not quite as drastic as it was at the return of the Bundesliga when almost every single member of the team worked from home bar a couple in the studio in Stratford. For the first game, Dortmund against Schalke, Paul Dempsey commentated on the match from his loft in Dublin while McManaman was on co-comms from his home in Manchester.

Even on the last day of the Premier League season, Gemma Knight was directing from her dining room. ‘Afterwards, I took my headset off and went into my living room and played with my son,’ she says. ‘I thought “This is insane”.’ Because Knight lives ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and suffers regular power cuts, she paid £40 to hire a generator to stick in her front garden for the final day.

Now, much of the team is now back at Stratford. Yet even that, as Moss says, is ‘not as we knew it’. The whole building has been redesigned so that one show is now conducted across three galleries instead of one. Four if you count the truck in the car park. The show now takes up the whole building and more.

Where there were previously 20 people in a room, there is now a maximum of four, always two metres apart. That’s tough when you have production, editors and an engineering team of around 40 people scurrying about. No more than eight will be on the studio floor: Lineker, the pundits, such as Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves, the floor manager and the camera operators.

For Borussia Dortmund against Schalke, Paul Dempsey commentated from his loft in Dublin

Even so, the routine is still kept as familiar as possible. Everyone will dial in at 1.30pm, all the connections and facilities will be checked. Make sure the internet is working. Lineker, described as a ‘creature of habit’, arrives around 3.30pm to get settled. He’ll make his notes, go through his links. Ferdinand will get there about an hour later, and work through the clips he wants to use to make his pre-match analysis on the touchscreen. Then it’s rehearsal from 5pm until they go live at 7pm.

Out in Lisbon, meanwhile, it’s more different than ever. ‘When we arrived, the city did not feel like a Champions League venue,’ says Kelly. ‘Places like Madrid or Kiev were heaving, people everywhere. It is not like that. When you are at a game, it still feels important, it is just all around that the energy is lacking.’

Inside the ground, it’s all very much at arm’s length. Even once you are inside the stadium, through the numerous checks and temperature tests. Kelly’s interviews are done at a distance. When he’s not on screen during them, he conducts them in a mask. 

During the game, they sit where they are told. For the semi-final between Bayern Munich and Barcelona, Kelly was plonked up on the seventh level. In the rush to get down to his pitch side interview place in time, he missed Bayern’s last two goals.

On Sunday it will feel different again. ‘At the end of a final, I would be doing interviews on the pitch as they players celebrate, in the centre circle, towards the fans. Not now. There isn’t the sense of being at the heart of the story. We are still covering it but at arm’s length because that is how the world is at the moment.’

Jake Humphrey says the host’s job is to deliver the emotion to the audience watching

It will be Lineker’s familiar face that greets viewers on Sunday night, holding it all together. On Friday night, it was Jake Humphrey in the chair, as Sevilla triumphed over Inter Milan to win the Europa League. That much is normal, at least.

The difficulty, says Humphrey, is not only in juggling the nine different voices in his earpiece, making sure everything runs to the second, keeping conversation flowing with pundits, some of whom have been beamed in via Zoom and reply on a delay, using the skills from your former life as a CBBC presenter to be ready to react to unpredictable news or unexpected technical issues, and having to take your own make-up off after the show, but being able to feel the magnitude of the occasion when there are only three of you in a studio in Stratford and unable to, as he puts it, ‘to smell the grass and hear the crowds’.

‘People get obsessed with football being about 4-4-2 and substitutions,’ says Humphrey. ‘It’s not, it’s about emotion. Our job is to deliver that emotion to the audience. If we are not able to plug into that emotion, then the audience won’t. That is the hardest and most challenging thing.’

We’re not back to normal just yet. That much is clear. But if all goes to plan on Sunday night, we might at least be able to pretend for a few hours that it’s not far off.

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