Gavin Barber feels the need to warn us all about The Football League Show, before it's too late
Manish Bhasin, Steve Claridge and Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes are on a mission. Their mission is to convince you, the viewer, that the Football League is really, really great. They're going about this with an evangelical zeal, offering up praise, worship and persuasion through the weekly ritual of the Football League Show.
It's not just the FLS's late-night timeslot that gives it the air of something being done for the benefit of a slightly strange religious sect. It's the unnecessarily cavernous studio from which it's broadcast – oddly echoey, as though all non-believers have been banished – the large scrolling red text offering not-very-subliminal reminders of the programme's content and, most of all, the unflagging and slightly unnerving eagerness of everyone involved.
Take, for example, Manish Bhasin, our host and MC. Manish can be earnest about anything. In his lexicon there is no such word as "meh". He can invest the phrase "Hereford United, meanwhile, faced a tricky visit to Cheltenham" with the sort of gravitas that broadcasters usually reserve for state funerals or announcements of impending war. If you're a Match of the Day viewer you'll have seen Manish popping up to interrupt a reluctant Gary Lineker with a decisively upbeat trail for the forthcoming show. "Plenty of action in the Football League tonight, Gary," Manish will chirp, playing the idealistic young music teacher to Lineker's world-weary English don, "including a seven-goal thriller at London Road!" Lineker will barely offer a grunt in response. Manish is undaunted. He has a higher purpose.
Manish's counterpart across the FLS desk, Steve Claridge, may be the nearest the cult has to a charismatic leader, but he is not a man of moral absolutes. Absolutely everything in Steve's world has a relative context. Grant Holt will always score goals "at this level". Clark Carlisle is one of the most reliable stoppers "at this level". Paul Ince has a proven track record "at this level". I would hate to take a long journey in a lift with Steve. His strata-based narrative – I once counted 12 separate uses of "at this level" in a single edition of the FLS – would surely become unbearable in a confined space.
Neither is Steve (641 career appearances, 195 goals: a caption repeated with such dogmatic regularity that regular viewers must surely have committed it to memory by now) a man for forced jollity. "Successive hat-tricks for Bournemouth's Josh McQuoid!" beams Manish. "Did you ever manage that in your playing days Steve?" An icy stare is cast across the desk before a curt "no" comes in response. The message is clear: Steve is not here to mess about with "banter". This is about The League (pause for due reverence).
The FLS's interface with its followers comes in the shape of Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes. Many FLS viewers would probably admit to having a slight crush on Lizzie. This is not about lust: it's the allure of Lizzie's absurdly sincere enthusiasm when she says: "We want to hear YOUR views!" "Gosh," thinks typical FLS viewer, Sean from Ipswich, alone on his sofa, slightly drunk and maudlin after a day spent watching another dismal display at Portman Road, "the foxy woman in the leather trousers really wants to know what I think about Roy Keane."
So he picks up his Blackberry and fires 160 characters in Lizzie's direction. A few minutes later and Lizzie is intoning the words "Sean from Ipswich says – stick with Roy Keane! He's the man to turn things around!" with loud posh-totty conviction. Lizzie has to spend most of the show perched on the corner of a desk, separated from Steve and Manish by a large perspex screen, lest her terrifying levels of cheeriness should cause them to lose the run of themselves.
A stack of goals, a few red cards, some goalkeeping howlers and the inevitable "Who's Efe Sodje playing for now then?" moment later, and we're at the end of our weekly observance. As ever, one is left with the niggling suspicion that somewhere in among all this we are all being given coded instructions in preparation for the moment when all FLS viewers will, on some universally understood signal, rise as one to descend upon Television Centre, kick over the tables in the MOTD studio and crown Steve Claridge as the One True Leader.
League tables, like virtual tablets of stone, appear from nowhere and float in mid-air while Manish interprets the runes for us. A strange, hybrid, almost monastic chant closes the show and Lizzie is finally allowed to approach the desk for communion with the elders. The Football League Show: they want your texts and they want your emails, but most of all, they want your soul.
From WSC 287 January 2011