Sky Sports will be broadcasting more than 40 live football matches from across the Premier League, Championship and Scottish Premiership over the festive period - culminating in Liverpool’s trip to play Manchester City at the Etihad on January 3.
Ahead of this, FootballJOE were invited on a three-day behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into producing their unrivalled live coverage.
Manchester, Saturday December 15
Kick-off at the Etihad Stadium is still three hours away, yet for Jack Hazzard and his team, preparations for today’s Premier League game between Manchester City and Everton are in their final stages.
In a cordoned-off area outside the stadium, no more than 50 yards from the turnstiles in the Colin Bell Stand, a Sky Sports production truck is parked. Inside it are two galleries, with a combined total of close to 100 different screens: some showing the Etihad playing surface from more than ten different camera angles; others showing the studio, where presenter Kelly Cates is running through rehearsal.
For Hazzard, match producer for this broadcast, work for today’s game began as far back as Wednesday night, immediately after City’s Champions League game with Hoffenheim had finished.
“I’ll have an idea of how it will go before midweek,” he explains, “but it will obviously change around Tuesday or Wednesday depending on European games and what might have happened in them. I’ll decide on a running order after that, then discuss timings to see how it will all fit together.”
As he explains the process, Hazzard occasionally breaks away to speak to Cates, who can now be seen applying the final touches to her script on a nearby monitor.
“We work on the script together,” he adds. “I’ll send it over to her on Thursday and she’ll tweak it and adjust it to her own voice and send it back so we can check it’s all factually correct.”
“Kelly’s got it on her iPad now,” he says, nodding in the direction of the screen. “She’ll be adding in questions she wants to ask the pundits.”
Hazzard remains in constant contact with Cates throughout the entirety of the broadcast. He explains that the first hour, where Cates previews the game with three pundits, is more structured, with the rest dictated entirely by what happens during the match.
“During the game, I’ll be in Kelly’s ear and we’ll discuss upcoming talking points for half-time and after the game.
“I’ll speak to the pundits in the studio too, but obviously more to Kelly, who’ll lead the conversation.”
Match commentator Rob Hawthorne has also been preparing for today’s game for most of the week.
Taking up position in the gantry next to Andy Hinchcliffe - the former City and Everton full-back who is on co-commentary duties for the day - a notebook with pages of handwritten statistics and background information on all the players is laid out in front of him.
“There are 36 players involved today, but you’re never sure ahead of a game about some players who may or may not be involved,” says Hawthorne.
“In reality, it’s 50 players you’re preparing for. This can take at least two days before a game to do thoroughly.”
As is the case with those in the studio, Hawthorne and his co-commentator are also in regular contact with match producer Hazzard while the game is in play.
“I hear him talking all the time, whether it’s to us or the pundits and presenter in the studio or another reporter. It’s off-putting at first, but you learn to filter it out.
“I have a button here which allows me to tell him what I want, too. So if I want a picture of [Phil] Foden on the bench or [Pep] Guardiola, I can ask him for that. It’s a two-way operation. He might tell me that he’s got a picture of a fan who’s fallen asleep coming up so I know it’s on the way.”
The game finishes with a 3-1 victory for City. Back in the truck, the atmosphere is very different to the relative calm seen hours before kick-off.
With the studio analysis now in full swing, Hazzard suggests questions to Cates, making her aware of what’s coming next and informing her of possible angles on post-match interviews with Marco Silva, Pep Guardiola and man of the match Gabriel Jesus, who scored two crucial goals.
He balances this with brief exchanges with - among others - Andy Piper, the system producer on replays, who has prepared a montage of Jesus’ best moments in the game. This will form part of the analysis, and so he also gives pointers to the pundits: Joleon Lescott, Alex Scott and Craig Bellamy.
It is easy to admire the sheer amount of preparation that has gone into the broadcast before the game, but this is when the skill of Hazzard and his team truly comes to the fore - in reacting to the key incidents, the pre-match unknowns, and pulling everything together so neatly to shape the programme.
Edinburgh, Sunday December 16
The next morning, Sky are at Easter Road for Hibernian’s Scottish Premiership encounter with reigning champions Celtic. As with the previous day, it’s an early kick-off, and the production vehicles have been in place outside the stadium’s East Stand for over 24 hours.
Inside one of them, producer Mark Pearman goes through plans for today’s coverage, which involves discussions about including social media.
“We do things a little differently to the coverage of the Premier League in that we encourage viewers to engage with us and our pundits via social media, which forms part of the pundits’ talk,” Pearman explains.
“We manage that side of things in here, selecting the best questions for the guys in the studio.”
There will be a special guest in the studio today. Along with presenter Hayley McQueen and regular pundits, Kris Commons and Kris Boyd, Aston Villa’s John McGinn is in town, returning to Easter Road for the first time since his summer move from Hibs - something Sky have not publicised.
“He’s a young man who doesn’t have much experience of this kind of work. We’re delighted to have him with us today but were mindful of keeping it quiet so as not to generate too much attention for him,” says Pearman.
“We weren’t sure if it would be possible at first but I started sending out a few feelers to see if we could get him when it was confirmed we’d be showing the game six weeks ago.”
On the other side of the stadium, Commons and Boyd welcome McGinn to the cramped studio, perched in the corner between the ground’s West and Famous Five stands.
McQueen has finished her rehearsal and is closely examining the team sheets, handed out to Sky 15 minutes before they are announced to the public.
“In terms of preparation for a game like this, we’re very lucky to have such a great team working on it,” she explains.
“We’ve got a stats guy who will put a pack together and send that to me midweek. From there I’ll speak to our producer and we’ll see if there are any stand-out stats that we can highlight for the game ahead.”
With limited studio time to fill before kick-off, it can be challenging fitting everything in.
“There’s half an hour to work with before the game, four people in the studio and three of them with opinions,” says McQueen.
“My work beforehand is about finding ways to link potential talking points and helping the pundits get their points about the game across.”
As was the case in Manchester the previous day, it’s clear that despite the preparation that goes into the pre-game aspect of the broadcast, half-time and full-time pose the greatest challenge for those involved - particularly if the match has been uneventful.
“From my point of view, if there’s goals and sending-offs, that speaks for itself and becomes your analysis,” McQueen adds.
“That’s easy. The difficulty is when you’re reaching the end of a game and it’s still nil-nil. It’s at that stage you have to pick up on some of the little things that you’d have probably ignored had it been a goal fest.
“It’s unpredictable, it keeps you on the edge of your seat and it’s why I love doing the live games.”
Derby, Monday December 17
Monday’s Sky Sports live football comes from the Championship, as Derby County host Nottingham Forest in the East Midlands derby.
An hour before kick-off, Danny Higginbotham - on co-commentary duty for the night - takes his place in the Pride Park gantry.
“As a co-commentator, there’s a problem if the main commentator is speaking 50 per cent and I’m speaking 50 cent,” he says. “I’m there to give insight, to tell the supporters at home something they might not already know.”
Higginbotham is eager to point out the extensive research compiled by Daniel Mann, tonight’s lead commentator, but has also come well prepared.
Along with assembling his own notes about the players set to be involved in the game, he’s also spoken to the managers of both teams.
“I think it’s my responsibility to be as prepared as I possibly can be. This will probably mean that I only use 40 per cent of the the things I research about the game, but I’d rather it be that way.
“I always try to speak to local journalists about a game such as this one and, without fail, the managers of the two clubs involved.
“I’ll speak to [Frank] Lampard and [Aitor] Karanka, but it’s important that I build trust with them so they know I’ll paint their club in a good light. With that trust, I’ll get information that will be interesting to people watching at home.”
Prior to doing co-commentary on television with Sky, Higginbotham also worked on radio broadcasts - an experience he found to be very different.
“It’s two separate skill sets, really. Less is more in television because, obviously, there are pictures there.
“The beauty with it, though, is how much control you get. The directors are fantastic here and know what I want to talk about but I can also contact them during a game and ask for a replay of a specific incident or look at it from a different camera angle.
“If I want to use some of the things I’ve found out from a manager before the game, I can ask for a close-up of him or one of his players.
“The team at Sky are excellent and it works really well.”
Over a thrilling three days, producers, commentators, co-commentators, presenters and pundits have all given up a few minutes of their time to be interviewed. But in truth, they make up a small percentage of those involved in a Sky Sports match-day broadcast.
Typically, as many as 120 people are working on site during a single televised Premier League game, many of which have been positioned days beforehand to ensure everything is in place.
The scale of the operation is immense. Not just in terms of personnel, but also equipment: be it the 20-plus cameras required for Premier League fixtures or the 6.8 kilometres of cables assembled for the average EFL game.
For the best part of three decades, most football fans have become accustomed to Sky Sports’ coverage of live football.
This glimpse behind the scenes revealed the sheer amount of work and meticulous planning that goes into each game, and the skill involved in tying all the moving parts together to produce the polished final programme enjoyed by millions around the UK.