Football: Missed a goal? Play it again

Alex Hayes test drives Sky's new interactive football vehicle
THIS AFTERNOON'S live televised Premiership match between Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury will be a double first. It will be the most significant match of the new season so far and will also see the launch of Sky Sports Active.

The novel service is Britain's first interactive sports channel, giving viewers the chance to be their own producers. From the comfort of their armchair, fans will be able to direct their own game by switching camera angles, calling up match statistics or viewing action replays and highlights at any time during coverage.

Can it work? An exclusive taste of what will be served up today, during Southampton's 4-2 home win over Newcastle last Sunday, provided some of the answers.

The operating system is straightforward enough. Subscribers will view the service through the specially created Sky Sports Extra channel, while all the features will be accessed by the standard Sky Digital remote control. Pressing a red button launches the interactive mode, after which an on- screen menu offers four options. Whenever one of the options is entered, the live picture is reduced to the top left corner of the screen, thus allowing fans to survey the action while playing around with the interactive buttons.

The "stats" are a wonderful up-to-the-minute guide as to who is in the starting line-up, who is on the bench or who is injured. It allows the audience to scour squads for information on players. It certainly settles arguments. Want to know when Dwight Yorke signed for Manchester United and for how much? It is all there.

Another interesting feature is the "replay", which scrolls back 30 seconds from the moment the button is pressed, so the devotee can review an incident immediately, rather than have to wait for the programme director to replay the footage.

Last Monday night's game between Aston Villa and West Ham illustrated the value of "highlights". Two goals were scored in the first 10 minutes, so anybody who was slightly delayed in getting home from work would have missed the early action. Highlights allow couch potatoes, in a matter of seconds, to be up to speed with the progress of a match.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the operation is the "angle" facility. From today, an extra camera view from behind one of the goals will be available. Not only does this provide a better vantage point for corners and penalties, it also offers a clearer idea of how defences operate (or in Newcastle's case, how they fail).

Sky Sports Active gives viewers the opportunity to watch football matches as they see fit. Armchair fans will have something like the freedom of the stadium supporter. With extra features to come, such as access to four camera angles from January, the technological possibilities are endless.

Those who argue this is just a gimmick are right. But be warned, it is seriously addictive.