24 January ~ Sunday was billed as an historic day for football in the United States when terrestrial television broadcast live its first ever domestic English match, Arsenal versus Manchester United. And how did Fox TV – the channel whose political hacks spend their lives shrieking that Bolshevism is the planet's greatest threat – choose to mark this momentous day? They wheeled out Piers Morgan as a pundit, possibly leaving American viewers wondering why they bothered with the Revolutionary War at all.
Morgan purports to be an Arsenal supporter, and his "26 years as a season ticket holder" were duly touted to prove his hardcore fan credentials. He sat on a panel alongside presenter Rob Stone and former US international Eric Wynalda, overshadowing their attempts to preview the game with his pompous bluster and what may have been an attempt to pass as banter by making a dig at Tottenham's late defeat at Manchester City. After that, things went steadily downhill.
Morgan pointed out that Arsenal's four first-choice full-backs were all injured, and so Manchester United would be attacking the flanks with Nani and Antonio Valencia. That was a pertinent if hardly profound point, except that it was delivered in the bleating tone of an eight-year-old schoolboy getting his excuses in first, with the implication that it would be only fair if United played Dimitar Berbatov and Jonny Evans on the wings instead. Arsenal were duly mauled in the wide defensive positions, but almost held out until half time. Ryan Giggs's cross for Valencia's goal just before the break, though, had the undesired effect of making Morgan almost look like he knew what he was talking about.
It also caused him to break loose at the interval and blame everything on Arsène Wenger. He whined that the 1-0 deficit was all Wenger's fault because he had failed to sign any more full-backs during the transfer window. As they say on the message boards and the phone-in shows, it was time for The Fan to get something off his chest and Have His Say. Never mind the difficulties of browsing the transfer market in a restricted time frame and finding two available world-class full-backs that might have contained United's marauding wide players. Blame Wenger!
This was nothing compared with Morgan's histrionics at the final whistle. Wenger's substitution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, he declared, was the worst substitution he had ever seen. Get that! The teenager had just set up a goal and then off he went for Andrei Arshavin, who failed to track back when Valencia went on a run that set up United's winner. Again, Morgan table-thumpingly declared it was all Wenger's fault, then loudly proclaimed: "I've had enough of this!"
Stone and Wynalda looked at him, slightly worried. Would Morgan stab himself in the chest as a gesture of protest? No such luck. Rip up his season ticket live on US television? That might have been difficult, given that season tickets at the Emirates are small plastic cards, and a cynic might doubt whether Morgan actually owns one anyway. Make a run for the board? Wealthy, overbearing, clueless about football and with the requisite plummy accent, he'd be the perfect fit, but no announcement was made. Stop supporting Arsenal and change his allegiance to the New York Giants? That might have been in the Fox script, but at that point the football coverage came to a close. We are yet to find out what action Piers is preparing to take now that he's had it up to HERE with Arsène Wenger.
Of course no one is fooling themselves that this was anything besides theatre, and that Morgan was briefed beforehand to step up and look like the passionate homer. Gloat if you win, get mad if you lose and don't forget to find a hero or a scapegoat depending on the scenario. It is only a shame (though hardly a surprise) that the opportunity was missed to present football to a wider US public in an intelligent and more balanced fashion.
Still, it's no coincidence that the soulless new Arsenal stadium so closely resembles the giant concrete structures built to house American football teams. The Premier League's long-term corporate model has always been the money-bloated National Football League, and this step onto US territory as a warm-up for Sunday afternoon's NFL championship game between San Francisco and the New York Giants was the logical way forward for both to be seen as partner products rather than rivals fighting over the same turf. In that sense, an arm-waving moron was the perfect front for a sporting nation unceasingly fed on shameless hyperbole and vacuous drivel. Ian Plenderleith