This was a strange month. After Sky's build-up to the second leg of Arsenal's Champions League tie against AC Milan seemed to assume a comeback was inevitable, Rob Hawthorne reckoned Massimiliano Allegri would "put his faith in his team holding onto what they have", as if he might have considered letting Arsenal score as many goals as they fancied instead. There was Harry Redknapp on Match of the Day after the league defeat at Everton letting his chirpy pragmatist mask slip by framing every statement as a question – "What can you do? We battered them second half?" – while considering any query about the game as a personal affront. Interviewer Guy Mowbray nearly burst out laughing, which seemed an appropriate reaction.
Just as there must statistically be teatime programmes on the BBC that do not feature Alex Jones or John Barrowman, so we must assume that there are gay footballers out there somewhere in the universe. In Britain's Gay Footballers (BBC3, January 30), Amal Fashanu, niece of Justin, daughter of John, quested for a gay man among the 4,000 professional players registered in the UK.
One could make a list of the things Gary Lineker is really good at – goalscoring, smiling stoically through undignified photo opportunities, keeping Mark Lawrenson awake and being a popular subject of pub conversations that begin "a mate of mine's friend works for a paper and he reckons…" You would not necessarily put lightning-fast improvisation skills high in the list.
Some job descriptions change so gradually, the subject barely notices they are being exploited. This phenomenon, known in business circles as "task curving", explains why the ashen-faced train manager punching your ticket is also the voice telling you "carriage haitch will not platform at Dawlish" and the figure humping boxes of Carlsberg onto the buffet car at Exeter. Channel 5 make the most of their staff in the same way.
Whisper it, for fear of TV columnists suddenly finding themselves surplus to requirements in these financially straitened times, but viewers of highlights shows don't really care about what happens for much of each programme. As long as the action is plentiful and well edited – and the bits in between don't inspire mass acts of seppuku – you can by and large get away with it.
Some day, all programmes will be made this way. 20 Football Transfers That Shocked The World (ITV4, October 18) was a list programme that raised several questions. Was Manchester City's acquisition of Steve Daley the worst business of the 1970s? How did Brazil's World Cup-winning captain Socrates come to play for Garforth Town? Has Fabio Capello nothing better to do than add his comments on a list programme? Surely if he were at a loose end between qualifiers, the FA could give him an experimental side project, such as trying to kill white mice simply by scowling at them from a technical area.
If making an impression is as much about what you don't say as what you do, Martin Tyler gave a masterclass after Fernando Torres' eye-rubbingly bad miss in the Manchester United-Chelsea match on September 18. After an "Oh no!" in the shock of the moment, Tyler couldn't bring himself to elucidate about what we'd all just seen for a full five seconds. Hardly Pinter length, but by Sky Sports standards it was the sort of delay that would make nervous editors prepare an apology caption. Andy Gray would have shouted all over it. It was quite sweet, really.
Consensus is a hard thing to come by. How, for instance, can we begin to arrive at agreement on the true source of the riots around England when the Football Focus team cannot even decide how many teams make up the Big Four? It used to be easier when it was just Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. They were our Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons. There was no ambiguity at this time, no indecision. But the Premier League, like the world outside, has become a more complex place.
At the start of Football Focus on August 13 the concept of a "top six" was given its first airing, presumably constructed by BBC imagineers from the previous top four plus Manchester City and Spurs, while later in the same programme Eric Cantona was asked how he thought the "top five might finish". There was still time before the end for Patrick Vieira to question how Wolves would do this season against the "top four or five".
This matter had not been cleared up by the following Saturday, when Rafa Benítez considered how Everton would compete with the "top six". It seems unfair that Everton have to face up to two more top clubs – that is, four more top games – than Wolves this season. One solution, albeit in an already crowded fixture list, is a pre-season mini-league featuring the nominal Big Six, to decide which teams are entitled to be formally named as the Big Four.
Otherwise, the worst case scenario here is that the Big Four expands incrementally, as more overseas investors buy into Premier League Sleeping Giants, until we have a ‘"Big 11" by the end of the decade. At the point that numbers in the elite pool are greater than those outside it, we should all go down to the sea and wait for the world to be cleansed with fire.
For those of us awaiting the annual glory that is Lineker's Marvellous Line, there was a credit-crunch, own-brand disappointment this year. Generally, before the theme music of the first Match of the Day of the new season, Gary stands before us in a glossy black shirt and, with dancing eyes, unleashes an adrenalin shot in the form of a carefully sculpted sentence prepared for him by a team of resting novelists.
Barry Davies started the big curtain-raiser soundbite trend with his Rupert Brooke desecration: "Stands the clock at ten-to-three/and is there football still to see?" Since then, twinkly Des Lynam, followed in turn by the lad Lineker, made a point of letting us know that they, like ordinary people everywhere, were simply treading water all summer until a thrilling new football season began.
This time, however, Gary was seated, not standing, and his eyes before he vocalised spoke of a terrible new maturity, learned possibly from accidental exposure to non-sports-based world news on his satellite television. All he said was "It's been an awfully long summer" before introducing his sidekicks and the games as if it were any old Saturday. The absence of knowingly familiar expectancy-building in this welcome was somehow more disheartening than all the other cuts so far imposed on the UK's population since the general election. It is surely but a short step from excising unnecessary opening-day vivaciousness in our flagship terrestrial football programme to banning all forms of dance, theatre and social dieting as unpatriotic fripperies.
Dan Walker's mania for dragging the Football Focus cameras around dressing rooms continues apace. On the opening morning of the season, to demonstrate possession of the Access All Areas wristbands, he swanned into the Brighton dressing room where he was rewarded with the sight of 13 Brighton players seated around the bench studiously reading the match programme. You might think the point of going backstage is to show a fly-on-the-wall slice of life, to give your viewership a rare glimpse of the daily lives of the men they only otherwise get to see on the pitch, on television or, very rarely, in the flesh, flushed with refreshment and demanding that the manager of the country club sets up the karaoke.
But no, Dan stole behind the scenes to discover a carefully stage-managed tableau of young men with heads bowed wonderingly over a difficult text, not dissimilar in composition to Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. It was a lovely image, but surely with Robbie Savage in the same room, there would more naturally be towel-flicking and banter containing sexual swear words? A bit of advice, young Walker – if you are going to barge in on somebody, make sure they are unprepared.
From WSC 296 October 2011
Now that every ultimately meaningless mid-table game shown live on Sky gets at least three quarters of an hour of build-up, it’s odd to feel nostalgic about old FA Cup final broadcasting marathons. Yet if it hadn’t happened already, this was the year when the Cup final became self-referential.
United (BBC2, April 24) was a dramatisation of the Man Utd story from Bobby Charlton’s breakthrough into the first team to the frantic rebuilding after the Munich air crash.