Mike Rowbottom

In recent weeks and months the words from the John Lennon song – "All I want is the truth, just give me some truth" – have rung ever more loudly in my head. Politicians, eh?

Meanwhile, we are encountering further routine falsehood following the return of football to our TV screens – the sound of a crowd that isn't there.

Such is the weird mix engineered by the broadcasters that one can hear the individual cries of those on and around the pitch amidst a foam of background noise – an aural ghost of matches past; a poignant visitation from happier, healthier times.

This is at least an understandable lie, concocted for honest commercial reasons. 

Research shows that the sound of the crowd enhances the viewing experience for TV viewers. And to be fair, sound-free options are available.

But it was the foamed version I experienced yesterday evening as I channel-surfed my way to the BBC's screening of the Premier League match between a side that had recently reached an effective point of safety from relegation, Southampton, and a side that had recently failed in its bid to defend the title, Manchester City.

Nobody likes to lose, of course, and City needed to keep their momentum going to finish their season strongly in the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League. 

As for Southampton, well, they had the opportunity to move up from 14th to 13th place.

Previous airings since the Premier League re-started behind closed doors have failed to grip me. 

If this compromised finish to the season has done anything it has confirmed the vital connection between players and crowd, actors and reacters – twin poles without which there is no electricity.

So I was half-hearted about this latest offering, especially as there seemed to be nothing in particular riding on it. 

But once Southampton's forward Che Adams had caught City keeper Ederson off his line in the 16th minute with an instant lobbed drive from 40 yards out that dropped deliciously into the untenanted net, I found myself gripped by one of the oldest narratives in the sporting book.

Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhüttl congratulates his players after their win over Manchester City ©Getty Images
Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhüttl congratulates his players after their win over Manchester City ©Getty Images

Despite the occasional break, Southampton were to all extents and purposes engaged in a rearguard action. Their treasure stowed in the keep, they were under siege by a mighty army. Could they survive?

Shortly after the season resumed, Paul Boechler, an "audio artist" for EA Sports, told the Daily Mail about the details of the background crowd noise that is now being applied as required to football match broadcasts.

"It varies for each club, but in total we're providing over 1,300 assets that equates to roughly 13 hours of audio content," he said.

"From that content, we find the best bites and assets that will be integrated into the broadcast.

"For this project, we migrated it into a unique format for live experiences and dynamic mixing functionality for the broadcasters to apply to specific points during a match based on what's unfolding on the field."

As the match went on, this arcane artifice was counter-pointed by activity that was reassuringly real, energisingly earnest.

Reporting for the The Mirror from a position just behind the Southampton dug-out at the St Mary's Stadium, John Cross remarked on the endless engagement with his players of the home coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, who has led his charges to a very much better place since they lost 9-0 at home to Leicester City last October.

That defeat equalled the heaviest in the Premier League’s history – Ipswich lost by the same score to Manchester United in 1995 – and was the worst home defeat in the competition.

So for all the overlaid foam, what was increasingly discernible in this match was something enduring – the relationship between a manager and his team, and between team-mates who worked unceasingly in a common cause.

A City side that had beaten the champions, Liverpool, 4-0 in its previous match put together its habitual display of mesmerising passing and swiftness of thought and execution. 

For long periods of time, all 11 home players were grouped in or around their own penalty area. An equaliser seemed inevitable, right up until the moment when the referee blew his whistle after playing five minutes of time added on. 

Again and again, Southampton's keeper Alex McCarthy parried or held City efforts that fired in on him from all angles. The indefatigable home centre back Jack Stephens provided an old-fashioned display of heading and blocking of which Jack Charlton would have been proud.

When you saw Southampton's leading scorer this season, Danny Ings, a player who has recovered his career after suffering two serious knee ligament injuries, throwing himself awkwardly into a tackle to prevent a cross in the closing minutes you were desperate for this classic sporting story to have the right ending.

What, really, did Southampton have to lose if they had succumbed? 

No more or less than their pride in doing a job properly, to the best of their ability, for each other, for their coach, for their absent but observing supporters.

As Stephens rose once again in the home defence to head clear, I found myself doing the old thing of nodding my head. Another ghost of games past.

This is what sport can do, and it is a beautiful thing.