A young man graciously welcomes me into a room radiated with TV screens, computers, control panels, and flashing LEDs. A small group of men are concentrating intently on their allotted displays, making life or death adjustments to the controls every few seconds. Everything is drowned in bright artificial light and the hum of insufficient fans.
We are deep within the Etihad, the home of Manchester City Football Club, and their first match to take place whilst social distancing and the COVID-19 pandemic rages on has just kicked off. I’m here to meet Paul Abdullah, the so-called man of ten thousand voices, who is responsible for adding the artificial crowd sounds to football matches now that fans cannot attend the games.
How does it work?
“It’s easy, here I’ve got the feed that goes out on live TV” Paul nods towards a monitor, still shrouded in its protective film. “only it’s not live.. there’s a delay. The delay is for safety – streakers, bad injuries, Mourinho smiling.. that kind of thing. I watch the match, then use the control panel to add the artificial crowd sounds to the feed.”
So what kind of sounds can you add?
“Well here is the main control” Paul points to a large slider running the full length of the control panel, with a small knob at the bottom. “This slider controls the crowd volume, so throughout the match, I sit with my hand on this and slide it up or down based on whether I think the action is good or not. I take into account the importance of the game, rivalries, things like that.”
So what do these buttons do?
“Careful mate! You nearly pushed that, it would go straight out on the live feed! Each one of these buttons has a different crowd sound programmed into it. These on the left side are the standard buttons that apply to all games – I see the action on the screen, I press the button for it. Sorted.”
OK, so what actions do they cover?
“We’ve got all your standard stuff.. this is the kick-off whistle and roar button; these are for goals; this is the V.A.R. chant button, a fan favorite around the world now; this button is for the despair at a goal they’ve cheered for six minutes being ruled out; this is the Luiz button, it’s for the groan as a player they know is going to cost them the game is subbed on. All your regular stuff that’s in most games.”
And the right-hand buttons? They’re match specific?
“Oh yeah, of course.. you can’t have something like I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles ringing out somewhere inappropriate like Neverland. We’ve got recordings of games from all the teams over the last few seasons, and things that are unique to each are then made available on these right buttons.”
So how do you know which button does what for each game?
“I’ve got this manual here, let’s pick one.. Villa – this button is for when Grealish scores; this button is for when Grealish gets an assist; this button is for when someone has the option to pass to Grealish ; this button is for when Grealish gets tackled really hard.. they’ve captured it well, you can really hear the fear of relegation.
Do you want to see another?”
Please, that would be great.
“Right, let’s see… Spurs – this button is for when Harry Kane either comes on or has the ball.. usual chant.. he’s one of our own, Harry Kane, please we beg you don’t leave us;this one is for when Mourinho high-fives a ball boy. All your Spurs classics basically.”
So who decides what sounds to include for each team?
“I dunno, that comes right from the top.. definitely one of the big players: Bet247, Fun69, BetYay – someone like that. I was told that authenticity was a key focus, they didn’t want it to be repetitive and unrelated to the action like FIFA, they say they need the audience to buy into the drama of the game to keep the money coming in.”
After a firm and a heartfelt handshake from Paul, I left the buzzing control room, back into the familiar and refreshing silence of the Etihad.