You end up feeling sorry for the presenter. By the end of every football phone-in, I just want to hold the hand of the caged beast, as he has had a combination of heavy fatalism and non-punchlined anecdote poured into his ear for hour after hour.
The only thing that changes in the series of complaints is the club name. If Sunderland lose 1-0 to Everton one Saturday afternoon, a string of Sunderland fans bemoans the club’s lack of spending and the prospect of relegation. If Everton lose narrowly to Spurs a week later, the switchboard is jammed with the same material in a slightly different accent.
What the presenters are waiting for, like Ernest Shackleton scanning the Antarctic for a tree to piss against, is the Interesting Call. Some, like Danny Baker and Danny Kelly, are positively hysterical in their quest. Recently this pair asked for examples of football games improvised at workplaces from work materials. You could sense the childlike Christmas Eve excitement at the pub table when this idea was hatched, and in the studio too there seemed to be a lot of fidgeting and hand-rubbing at the start.
The result was three weeks of blokes phoning in with a five-minute sermon in stumbling monotone on how they used metal pie cases as footballs in the refrigerator room when the warehouse supervisor was at Development Training. Not a laugh in sight, despite the pleading, rising interjections of the hosts. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a wax effigy in the Two Dannys’ little studio representing the British public, absolutely abloom with sharpened cocktail sticks.
As for Wrighty and Brighty, Alan Brazil and the rest, here we have modern examples of the Jimmy Greaves syndrome. Namely, a character on the pitch is not the same thing as a character in the studio. In fact, a character on the pitch is most often an adult-sized infant in need of a good solid stretch of therapy. Furthermore, in this busy world of ours (I seldom have time to wash my arms these days), do any of us really have time to listen to a string of hacked-off Real Fans vilifying the referee or the club’s youth system from somewhere on the M4? (Bearing in mind that most listeners are male and sincerely cannot concentrate on two things at once.)
Talking of Real Fans, they’re the life-blood of the game and all that but, unfortunately, also the most tedious people in the world when on their pet subject. The only two times I’ve disliked being an Arsenal fan are when Nicolas Anelka stylessly got a second goal in the Cup final against Newcastle – spoiling the scoreline – and when a taxi driver Gooner once talked me through the whole first, reserve and youth teams (injuries and all) from EC1 to Kilburn.
And another thing. Fans are preoccupied with getting their money’s worth from highly paid players. Time after time, they demand more heart from them, more loyalty, or just whine – “Why can’t David Ginola, on £35,000 a week, just sign a few autographs for my boys?” The answer is they’re only on that money until they’re 32 and if they get injured in a 50-50 challenge with Roy Keane their lucrative career is in jeopardy, and anyway they’d never heard of Middlesbrough before the bid came in. And they might catch something from your boys.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the type of calls you’ll hear on the straight phone-ins: 75 per cent dull, dreary, drearily dull; ten per cent old codgers being fair-minded; ten per cent picking up on something the presenter said three weeks ago in a heart-rendingly transparent bid to stir things up a bit; four per cent crass (I had to turn the thing off when “An Ode To John Gregory And Doug Ellis” was introduced on 6.06’s Rantline); and one per cent interesting or funny.
You could save yourself eight hours of drudgery a week by reading the back page of the Sun in one minute. And, as one media source divulged to me: “All the callers are deeply repressed individuals who want to wear a dress and secretly love Man Utd.” Listen to a phone-in now and see if you don’t agree. Cameron Carter
The rise of talk radio has led to what some would regard as a supersaturation of phone-ins. Add to this the proliferation of email and text messaging, they say, and you have a vulgar excess of backchat, ranting and Premiership prattle polluting the sportswaves. Talk’s become more than cheap – it’s become worthless. Your average phone-in show is a travesty of a proper debating forum, generating heat rather than light. Right?
So why do I listen to them? (OK, not James Whale.) Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little heat. Much as I prefer the daft hysteria of a Motson to the dry, dully superior tones of a Davies, so there’s a frisson to Radio 5’s 6.06, still burning with the sustained afterglow of a 4pm Sunday clash, a crackling pleasure in the grainy tones of some Villa fan fulminating down the wire at John Gregory’s chronic under-achievement – no doubt to be repeated in the same tones for his successor.
There’s the guilty fascination of a car crash as some poor sod’s courage evaporates on the airwaves and he muffs his lines, or when Alan Green’s blood pressure rises as he asks Derek from Southampton to “turn... down... your... radio” or brusquely cuts off John from Dunstable when he accuses him of being a closet Liverpool fan. Indeed, how long can it be before the first literal phone-in car crash as Jason from Coventry, bellowing indignantly into his mobile on a busy M40, takes his eye off the road and... hello? Hello?
Those who exist at a rarified stratum of footballing discourse despair of phone-in par- ticipants, much as certain socialists secretly despair of the actual working classes and hanker for a better, nobler proletariat to defend. Phone-ins reflect fans as they are – not paragons of WSC correctness but not morons either. For every Estuary-accented Man Utd triumphalist, there’s a sceptic telling them to stop whingeing about away seat allocations when their own are so parsimonious. For every disgruntled Liverpool fan moaning how they need to buy nine new players, there’s a counterblast about “spoiled Scouse glory hunters”.
There are complaints about the big club bias and, certainly, Alan Green’s view that Man City and Wolves “belong” in the Premiership raises hackles. Such complaints, how-ever, often come from left-field fans uncomfortable with the non-egalitarian nature of the sport they love. They try to import indie/ pop values to football, regarding the Orients and Yorks of this world as equivalent to Belle And Sebastian and White Stripes, more deserving of our attention than the Robbie Williams-style Man Utds. But unlike music, football is genuinely meritocratic. If you’re crap, you end up in the lower leagues. For some, there is virtue in confining discussion to matters Second and Third Division, as if that is where football of “real integrity” is played. For most, however, the hot talking points occur at football’s quality end.
That said, phone-ins do offer the opportunity for discussion of the more peripheral and whimsical aspects of football, specifically in Dannys Baker and Kelly’s Saturday morning show, which cheerfully veers off the beaten track, discussing medicine balls, what a miserable bastard Bobby Moore was and soliciting the views of beyond-depressed Stockport fans. Interestingly, however, their caller-to-banter ratio suggests they’re either excessively full of themselves or maybe that here is a phone-in show running ahead of, rather than lagging behind, public demand.
An example of a truly worthwhile phone-in followed the Cardiff v Leeds Cup tie. While Sky’s coverage sanitised it and news bulletins gave only cursory mention to the trouble, a deluge of calls to 6.06 provided lucid, frontline testimony – the ineffectual stewards, the hurled bottles of urine, the chants of “Istanbul”, the fear and violence. There was an era when no such forum existed for the venting of such views, when fans were regarded as a noisy yet mute rabble, their perspective ignored, when news media could happily trot out a blandly “official” or distantly bigoted line on terrace events. Phone-in shows are one guarantee against a return to that dark media era and, even if for that reason alone, should be treasured. David Stubbs
From WSC 181 March 2002. What was happening this month