28 April ~ In 1992 Sky TV and the Premier League were "supposed to be about bold new ideas, starting afresh, carrying football forward into the 21st century". In WSC 68 Andy Lyons analysed a week of television in this brave new world, including Andy Gray's "hesitant chalk technique", like "a games master filling in for an absent form teacher"
Variety shows used to be a regular feature of Saturday evenings, a couple of hours before Match of The Day. There would be a crooner in a tuxedo, a novelty animal act, an impressionist who always did Frank Spencer and, every week, a troupe of high-kicking dancers, miming very badly. You might think it would be nice to see this sort of thing again if only for kitsch reasons. In fact, you'd have more fun trying to rip your own head off. This realisation has yet to strike BSkyB's sports department. Their Monday night broadcasts includes half-time 'entertainment' in the form of cursory performances from a washed-up pop group and a dance routine from the Sky Strikers.
As they jink across the pitch, cold fear rises in the stomach and an awful truth becomes apparent. Seaside Special, like Freddie Kruger, will never die. (The weather has come to the rescue once, though. In pouring rain at the Dell, when the Sky Strikers were administering the last rites to some dirge, the sound system expired with a weary burp and we were switched back to a startled presenter.) BSkyB and the Premier League are supposed to be about bold new ideas, starting afresh, carrying football forward into the 21st century.
They've spent bundles on advance publicity and yet here we are back in the mid-1970s, with formation dancing and a huge plastic football slowly deflating as it wobbles around the centre circle. This is the starkest example of a reliance on tired old formulas evident elsewhere in their coverage. It's a great pity, too, because in other ways they are trying to be different, not least in the sheer volume of air time given over to simply talking about football.
Super Sunday is the pivotal programme, a five-hour broadcast with a live game in the middle preceded by highlights of Saturday's action, followed by post-match analysis and 'Talkback', a viewer's phone-in. The game about to be shown is previewed in exhaustive detail as though it was the FA Cup final.
In other words, the studio pundits' leisurely trot through some favourite cliches ('Anfield is a theatre of football where the fans don't half give you some stick but they're witty with it'; 'this is a big game for both teams because no one wants to get off to a bad start'; 'reputations count for nothing when you're out there on the park') is periodically interrupted by weather reports, shots of the fans arriving and enquiries into the state of the pitch.
Statistics are brandished by the bucketful, we're shown the bookies odds and an entirely meaningless current League table ('Arsenal are not out of it by a long way.'). There are even intriguing hints of up and down movements within the rigidly hierarchical world of showbiz. (A caption tells us that Liverpool's "Famous Celebrity Fans" are Cilla Black, Jimmy Tarbuck and Stan Boardman. What has happened to Frankie Vaughan? Exactly how famous is Stan Boardman?)
Two hours pass by extremely slowly, but the slog is partially redeemed by a very good idea indeed: a pre-match chat with the referee. Here is someone deeply involved in the game yet light years removed from the world of the football pro with its laddishness and surly insularity. The refs seem like normal middle-aged men (managers by contrast are often simply older lads – for proof listen to Bobby Gould or even Don Howe) and if they don't say much that's actually interesting at least it's said in complete sentences and the right tense.
During the match commentary a digital display ticks away in the corner of the screen so we know how long has passed with out either side looking remotely like scoring (the first half of Liverpool v Arsenal was a killer) and by fiddling with the remote control it's possible to wipe out the commentary leaving just the crowd noise, sure to be an eerie experience if we're shown Wimbledon at home to Oldham or Norwich.
As commentators go, Martin Tyler is better than most and at least avoids the principal sins of his profession, being neither excessively parochial (Brian Moore) or irretrievably mad (John Motson). The main summariser, Andy Gray, quit his post at Aston Villa to become a full-time Sky presenter, which is a pity because it means I can't advise him not to give up his day job.
Actually, he is redeemed by appearing to hugely enjoy even the dullest of matches. Words like 'commitment' and 'great' are growled with enormous feeling. Unsurprisingly, he gets very, very excited about headers.
Andy has his own midweek programme called The Bootroom, in which he and presenter Richard Keys discuss tactical conundrums arising from the previous week's matches. It's the most convincing argument for buying a satellite dish.
Andy and Richard are seated at a table on which there is a Subbuteo pitch and a set of draughts. They are surrounded by racks of boots. Team scarves hang on the wall behind them, some traffic cones are stacked in a corner. Andy selects a topic, say zonal defending, and moves the draughts around to illustrate his theme. Amazed and mesmerised, you understand every word. He moves on to point number two. Suddenly, you can't remember anything about the first point. Perhaps players, too, can only retain one piece of tactical information in their minds at anyone time. That would explain a lot.
Occasionally he expands on a topic by writing on a blackboard, using a hesitant chalk technique that recalls a games master filling in for an absent form teacher. His handwriting is a bit shaky and has already caused a misunderstanding. To let us know what subject will follow the advertising break, Andy writes a word on the screen using an electronic marker. During a recent programme we were poised to consider 'Sluts'. It turned out to be Spurs.
A good television programme ought to prompt questions. The Bootroom provokes loads. Why are they using cheap plastic draughts? Why do they need the little Subbuteo goals? Is it in case Andy gets the urge to elbow past a couple of draughts and slam one in the net? What manner of fiendish tactical ploy can only be described with the aid of traffic cones? Why are Andy and Richard always caught in the middle of a conversation when we return after a break? Do they start a pretend chat in the middle of a sentence? Does the Anfield bootroom still exist or has Graeme Souness demolished it?
The main problem confronting Sky Soccer Weekend and The Footballers' Football Show is the simple fact that there is precious little to discuss when the season is less than a month old. In any case, players are notoriously averse to saying anything remotely interesting. Among the maverick few who might be prepared to give vent to cogent, sharply-expressed views, only Brian Clough ever gets invited to speak and most of his energy is wasted on self-parody these days.
The presenters try their best, hoping to nudge a guest into agreeing that, yes, two defeats in a row does spell club-in-crisis or that X's early season goal-scoring form must mean Dixie Dean's record is in serious jeopardy, but all to no avail. (It's difficult to take the presenters seriously when they're wearing blazers adorned with the BSkyB logo. It may be an attempt to evoke the suavity and dynamism of some American sports broadcasting but the sight of British men in blazers simply recalls smarming redcoats at grim holiday camps or one of those pre-War comedies set in a public school where the boys looked older than the teachers.)
Like The Match, everything is done at a frenetic pace. This suggests an anxiety about the the viewers' attention span that is surely misplaced: a large proportion of the audience must have bought satellite dishes specifically to watch the Premier League and won't be inclined to switch over to BBC2 if an item runs over five minutes or a presenter uses a word containing more than three syllables.
Of course, the lack of self-assurance can be partly excused by their having invested so much money in the Premier League . They simply can't afford for it to be anything other than a raging success and unlike the BBC they don't have the confidence, gained by decades of experience in producing football programmes. Perhaps BSkyB should be considering a transfer bid of their own. He won't come cheap but Des Lynam might just turn out to be a better value buy than Terry Phelan.