Thursday 29 January ~
Following the announcement that the BBC will continue to show Premier League highlights until the end of the 2013 season, we look back to 2004 when they regained the rights from ITV. In WSC 213 (November 2004) Taylor Parkes assessed the new Match of the Day and winced at what had been done to Football Focus
It was as predictable as the sunrise, as predictable as Des Lynam’s winking sign-off on the other side: Gary Lineker, welcoming a grateful nation back to Match of the Day after a season in hell, actually used that corny old line, “before we were so rudely interrupted”, and I thought, yes, the interruption was rude and inconsequential, but using it as an excuse to celebrate your complacency is really a bit much.
“Some things are better left as they are,” smirked the only man ever to laugh at Rory McGrath’s jokes. Of course, there were changes, some cosmetic and charming (the “cosmic zoom” down into each ground), some forced and fussy (distracting ticker-tape info, the cliche of Lineker’s pre-titles intro, done standing up next to a monitor – you would think he would want to do as little as possible that might remind people of Brass Eye). But this was Match of the Day, now with extra self-congratulatory smugness but reliably the same, a psychological lifeline from the scary present back to a million misty male English childhoods. One can only imagine the bitter laughter from ITV Sport when, during the very first match, with Boro losing by a goal, the screen went black: cut straight to the post-match interview with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, talking spoilers about his equaliser.
The show is the Bobby Robson of sports broadcasting, so sweet and familiar it’s easy to forget just how old-fashioned it is, how creaky and occasionally incompetent. Obligatory BBC glass-and-chrome notwithstanding, the set is lit for a warm friendly feel, coming in from the icy-blue sponsored chill of The Premiership to buttery toast and a crackling fire (stoked by cocky ex-players from big red clubs). Nothing is hard or clear. It’s comfortable in a way that suits the Premiership, but has nothing of the essence of football, or watching football, or the experience of supporting football teams. Did it ever?
The pundits’ roost is of course still ruled by Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson. Hansen’s assessments are based around the stressed recitation of the same nouns, reshuffled (“He’s got everything: strength... pace... power... bags of ability...”), while Lawro forever begs questions such as “How is that haircut supposed to work without the moustache?” and “Was I dreaming, or during the Iraq war did he stick the shaved-off moustache on Hansen and get him to pose as prime minister of Spain?” Though I still remember being on the terraces at Barnet during the Keep Barnet Alive campaign and reading in the programme that ex-Bee Lawrenson had pledged £25 and a signed photo (he was introduced mysteriously by Lineker on MOTD that night as “last of the big spenders”); funny how your view of people can be shaped by the littlest thing.
Seeking to expand the pundit pool, the BBC have carefully considered the qualities required. He must be intelligent and articulate: please welcome Jason McAteer. He must be telegenic, likable, never boring or long-winded: ladies and gentlemen, Peter Schmeichel (sometimes replacing Hansen on a Saturday night, Schmeichs shows a remarkable gift for mimicry, leaning back at an angle and smirking, interrupting everyone). The future may yet see the dream ticket of Pat Nevin, Eric Cantona and Aki Riihilahti, stewarded by Eamon Dunphy forcibly injected with methamphetamine, but perhaps not in my lifetime.
Meanwhile, John Motson is developing his Dalek suffix, making a line of commentary sound more exciting by extending the last syllable and rendering it in a kind of crazed electronic shriek (“Ljung-berrrg!!!”). But tutting at Motty’s excesses is half the fun and, personally, I value Barry Davies’s pomposity, since not only is it hilarious, it is genuine pomposity and thus way better than the alternative: the kind of self-parody-for-students racket in which Motty dabbled at the 1994 World Cup (“All the talk here in America is of Disney’s summer smash – but Jürgen Klinsmann is the Lion King of Germany. He’s a predator... and his territory is the 18-yard box”). Tony Gubba has been roused from suspended animation and shipped economy class back to Norwich, and the last half-hour wouldn’t be the same without him, but the less said about (and by) the deeply unwelcome Jonathan Pearce, the better.
Match of the Day 2 is the chief innovation. A Sunday highlights show is a necessity nowadays and Adrian Chiles is a reasonably shrewd choice as presenter with his “Black Country John Peel” act: being a broadcaster rather than an ex-footballer, he is capable of creating a relaxed atmosphere. But the magazine format is only evidence of TV types’ compulsion to add new ideas to everything (here’s John Bond and Kevin Bond – they’re father and son! Well, fuck me). The purpose of Gordon Strachan’s mini-match report is unclear, given that it’s done in voice-over despite Strachan’s presence in the studio – pre-recording wee, terrier-like Gordon snuffs out his wit and spontaneity and leaves him sounding like he’s doing one of those daytime TV adverts for stairlifts or retractable window awnings (TV people will one day realise that while they were limbering up in local radio, these people were running around cones and doing keepie-up in the rain – they can’t read lines). But the regulation new idea scheduled for the axe after a couple of awkward weeks has to be the lumpy contributions of “humourist” Kevin Day. Seems that someone at the BBC watched Five’s late-night sports coverage and actually thought there was something there they could use.
Much is made of ITV’s congenital lack of class, but at Saturday lunchtime there’s little else to differentiate the BBC’s output. If On The Ball was like being trapped in an office party thrown to celebrate inanity (with the added discomfort of Gabby Logan’s resemblance to her father, without the payback of seeing her ram her studs into Ally McCoist’s groin), Football Focus is like the same dismal affair at a publishing firm that employs four people, one of whom is Ray Stubbs, whose joviality, viewed with a hangover, is wretched. The two shows’ meat is equally fetid: someone is interviewed on a training pitch and says the lads are all well up for the trip to Southampton; someone is interviewed in a dark room and says he won’t stop thumping people because it’s part of his game. Focus my arse.
The BBC may not treat its viewers with the same outright contempt, but like ITV see their football audience as middle-aged, Sunday-lunchtime drinkers, interested in those flash car adverts that punctuated The Premiership, no longer getting to away games (why else put Football Focus on after midday?), who support British clubs in Europe and have only just shaved off their moustaches. We’re not just supposed to chuckle along with the guys under bright lights in differently coloured ties and £200 shirts, we’re expected to aspire to their relaxed self-confidence and smoked-glass lifestyles: sipping port with Kenny Dalglish, golfing in Portugal with Peter Reid. What price now the space-freak gaucheness and cheap formality of Jimmy Hill’s satanic reign? Perhaps there was something to be said for the Blue Peter approach all along.