Back in 2016 Google gave a grant of €300,000 to the Daily Telegraph newspaper as part of a project looking at how football match reporting could be automated.
The following year I attended a session in DCU led by Padraig McKeown which highlighted this development and looked into a future of sports reporting where it was a data specialist rather than a football specialist overseeing live blogging, for a start.
“He shoots, the goalie makes a great save,” is a phrase that can be digitised into numbers and if it can be digitised then artificial intelligence can read a game from the visuals and produce the text and graphic faster than any human pair of hands on a keyboard.
This is relevant this morning because travel restrictions brought about by Covid meant that only Paul Rowan from the Times and Sunday Times was the only Irish football journalist who travelled to Sofia to report live from Stephen Kenny’s first game in charge of the Republic of Ireland.
For our other main pack of football journalists, the equation of travelling to an empty stadium, even to a country where the 14-day rolling infection rate is only two thirds that of our own, but then doing 14 days of self-isolation on return and missing the Finland game and multiple SSE Airtricity Games, added up to watching it live with Rob Hawthorne and Mick McCarthy on Sky Sports.
So instead of the tumbleweed atmosphere of the stadium, they experienced the game through the eyes of the fans and listened to Mick McCarthy blithely say that he had said playing Conor Hourihane a year ago at left-back was an experiment when it was just to get game minutes into him. “I said that but it was never an experiment,” he said in the opening minutes.
And in this mornings papers, there are full match reports and everything we need to get a real flavour of the night.
“It brought him to the twilight zone of an empty stadium and the haunted acoustic of two sides searching for fluency in the fog of pre-season,” wrote Vincent Hogan in the Independent.
Back page lead
“In the first half the number of passes attempted and completed were in or around the overall 90 minute tally for Martin O’Neill’s Nations League bow two years ago,” said his colleague Dan McDonnell who filed his 30 paragraphs across the back page lead and two internal pages, as well as the player ratings, but was still able to wake up this morning at home and fresh from a good nights sleep at home.
The photography that we rely on to illustrate events after the event was still provided by Sportsfile but with a local byeline of Alex Nicodim rather than Stephen McCarthy.
There is irony in the fact that Dan McDonnell’s inside coverage is wrapped around a half-page ad for Sky Sports football subscription.
The post-match press conference was still done with Stephen Kenny and Shane Duffy and was made available in an audio file to media within 90 minutes of the game-ending.
They didn’t get to ask the questions in the way they might have phrased them but how many ways can that or needs that be done.
Normally these trips away with the team are where the bonds are formed between media and managers and players. Those shared lift rides in the hotel, the nod and a ‘howaya’ over breakfast are what build the trust that enables the insight we all want to discover from media.
Yet in a more rarefied world for footballers and managers, they too are becoming more of a historic remembrance than present-day normality.
It will be easier and more traditional for the media in the coming days for the Finland game but in Slovakia next month, for the biggest game in our football landscape for a fair long while it will again most likely be a choice between the certainty of Bratislava or the prospect of Belfast.
The pandemic has been the harbinger of many changes in the way we live.
We are not yet at the point where machines have taken over the writing of the match reports but last night and this morning have shown that an electronic presence does not mean a lesser outcome for the fans digesting what was a promising start to the new era.