David Hayes on a programme that missed the mark

Anyone coming to live in the north east soon encounters the distinct football culture of the area. Intense local rivalries divide, but there is also a wider ethic – the product of tradition, geography, and social experience – that bonds clubs and fans. An innovation in local media coverage last year was the (Tyne Tees) Football Show on Thursday nights. In many ways a familiar format – interviews with local heroes, filmed reports, past glories and disasters – it was saved from banality by the element of fan participation, the natural warmth of presenters Roger Tames and Dawn Thewlis, and the quality of the features.

Most of the attention naturally went to the ‘big three’, but every (hour-long) programme focussed on the travails of Hartlepool or the giant-killing of York City as well. A favourite item showed Whitby Town’s visit to Wembley for the FA Vase final, with fascinating film of their reception in the town and an interview with their groundsman of sixty years.

Far from the iconoclasm of Fantasy Football, and hardly a fanzine on the box, yet the makers had obviously thought carefully about representing the full range of the north-east game. The programme closed with a contact address; I received a friendly response to the suggestion of a feature on Berwick Rangers to coincide with the 30th anniversary of their Scottish Cup defeat of Rangers (Berwick’s unusual position leaves them in a media limbo). The Football Show left you no room to breathe amidst the deluge of football fluff.

The second series began in March. First shock: new studio with resident band, a ‘panel’ format instead of the hosts being among the fans, and a huge (Highbury-style) mural behind the audience giving the impression of a cast of thousands. This illusionism was an apt symbol of what followed. Second shock: Nick Owen as presenter, introducing the regular panel: Shelley Webb, Sid Waddell (darts man), Terry Christian, Andy Darling (comedy writer) and John Burridge (clown). And they’re off.

In the first half, I learned that Newcastle (remembering Princess Grace) have to watch for dangerous corners in Monaco; Middlesbrough’s only problem now is to find a Teesside coach driver who knows the way to Wembley; and that David Mellor has stuck it in more times than Sunderland. Shaka Hislop is called ‘The Cat’ because he’s always having kittens; it’s rumoured that Newcastle’s defence is sponsored by a string vest company; and (after film of Malcolm Macdonald in his prime) it was nice to see Supermac when he had a different kind of bottle.

Derek Whyte came on. Webb: “You’ve got a little girl called Chelsea. How did that come about?” Owen: “So why do you do so well in the cups and not in the league?”

Time for Budgie’s 60 seconds with Les Ferdinand: “Who is your favourite Spice Girl? What is your most unappealing personal habit?” Now it’s quiz time: the Italian club which upset the Pope is called Punto Rosso Sexy Shop – true or false? Time for music from house band Paul Smith’s Flat Back Four.

Owen’s smile: “There’s talk of bringing back the terraces. Yep, they want to re-introduce two-up, two-down” (an actual drum-roll). Waddell: “Vinnie Jones was asked to fill in a questionnaire and he knocked seven bells out of the doorman.” Quiz time: Who would run out to ‘Tears of A Clown’? Grobbelaar. Picture round: winners win tickets for Arsenal’s next home game, losers for two games. Owen: “I think foreigners have a different attitude to drink, so while talking about foreigners what do you think of Newcastle’s chances in Europe?”

Enough. You get the picture. To say that this putrid pap, this mind-numbing garbage, is a gross insult to every fan is blindingly obvious. In the wider scheme of things the fact that a modest show with a genuine feeling for the area has been replaced by a marketing junket designed only to sell products that appear during the commercial breaks – far worse things happen every day. In the context of what went before and what TV could offer, its another piece of larceny of the true spirit of the game.

It’s a cast iron certainty that the word Loaded made ears burn in planning this series. Programming by numbers; a panel selected by admen’s categories (Webb for the likely lads, Waddell for the pub bores, Christian for the zany kids); a sound bite formula in which any spontaneity or real feeling is totally extinguished.

The region has shrunk to the big three. A revealing moment came when Owen said, “Let’s remember that the last North East club to reach Wembley was Darlington in the playoffs . . . so, er, let’s remember that.” An insert from an eager researcher? A producer with a conscience? The ‘link’ went nowhere. This was the only mention of any other club in the first two programmes.

Another tiny incident with the patently decent Frank Clark. (Owen: “You played 450 odd games some of them very odd . . . What did you win? And what was Cloughie like to work for?”). Quiz time: who would run out to ‘Farewell My Summer Love’? Clark quietly offered: “Well, a farewell to Bournemouth would be sad . . .” Wrong answer.

I tuned in for the second and last time. Owen announced – I kid you not – a feature on “sex, lies and tabloids with Dean Holdsworth’s stunning wife, Sam”. And it came to pass (“You must have been distraught at the papers? Did you really say that your rottweiler is better looking than that girl?”) Then “at the start of her singing career”, Sam closed the show with ‘You’re So Vain’. Breakfast TV meets Opportunity Knocks.

There are ways to register the fate of football in the 1990s, but a Football Show with the wife of Dean Holdsworth singing (execrably, as if it mattered) a song about Warren Beatty, in front of a panel including Terry Christian and a darts commentator, takes some beating.

A last-minute goal by Paul Pitman won the FA Vase Semi Final in front of 2,000 ecstatic fans. Whitby Town are going to Wembley. A million stories untold.

From WSC 123 May 1997. What was happening this month

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