ESPN replaces Setanta

With Setanta gone, ESPN has immediately stepped into the gap. Cameron Carter reports

It is confusing to start to grieve for a lost channel only to find that its replacement fills the gap completely. No sooner had Setanta politely dropped off the twig than ESPN took its place, offering a Premier League match on Saturday, an Italian game on Sunday and European Cage Fighting and Bundesliga Review filling most hours in between.

It is hard to avoid the latter programme on ESPN and it is even harder to make sense of in temporal terms. We are shown highlights of a game that happened some days ago, almost as if it were happening for the first time right now. The commentators employ the simple past – “Then Stuttgart brought on their final substitute” – subtly slip into the time-bending past-progressive tense – “Bayern were coming forward in waves now” – and then, at the goalscoring event, pitch squeakily into the present – “Van Buyten makes it 2-1!”

There are two possibilities here: the commentators have been asked to mess with our minds to the extent that we forget the difference between past, present and future, so that when we turn off the television we go to make our sandwiches for school tomorrow to take with us on the space bus. Or else the programme employs people with very poor memories who are continually surprised by something that they have witnessed several times before. Either way, the attempt to add retrospective excitement does add a little bit more spice than the usual Premier League highlights voiceovers, which are annotated with a detachedness bordering on sardonic or the Serie A highlights on ESPN, which are wittily shown in slow-motion and fast-forward to a Euro-rock soundtrack.

In case anyone was worried about him, Ray Stubbs has washed up on ESPN’s weekend roundup programme, Between The Lines. Partnered by Rebecca Lowe, with contributors Joe Royle, Tim Sherwood and the Mirror’s Ollie Holt, Ray reassuringly revealed he has not lost the ability to tell a joke as if he wants a fight with it. After one break he seemed to break away from his guy ropes completely, reintroducing the panel as “Tim of Sherwood, Ollie’s a Merry Man and there’s Little Joe” – an attempt at party-starting that had his guests comfort-touching their car keys.

He tried another quip later – still trying to secrete the anger from his soul – about Jose Mourinho and David Beckham being invited onto the programme, but not having responded yet. Despite Ray’s jovial grimace, one cannot help wondering if his guests at the time were wounded by the comparison, the implication being that they were all ESPN could afford. You get the impression a lot of dinner parties end abruptly at the Stubbs house, with Ray’s “What? I was only joking!” partly drowned by the slamming of the door.

On October 24, Football Focus held a sort of secular mourning ceremony for Liverpool FC, after the club had lost two games in a row and their whole future had consequently been thrown into doubt. Alan Hansen was tipped out of bed early to get up to Anfield to give his prognosis. There is a tendency in TV circles to leap upon a first sign of weakness and feed hungrily on it for weeks. Steve Rider introduced ITV’s England v Belarus coverage with the question: “Wembley will be wondering – are England good enough?” Because, after beating Croatia 5-1, defeat to Ukraine when already qualified apparently means England are not now serious World Cup contenders and the nation can relax once more after that awkward, fleeting display of confidence.

If Rafa Benítez does feel himself under pressure, he can take consolation that he has at least seen some glory. After Fulham had just beaten Hull 2-0, Roy Hodgson gave a heartbreaking summary of a manager’s life outside the top four: “You have a glimpse of joy and then the next disappointment’s just around the corner.” It was hard to have to leave him there, alone in the interview area, as the camera switched back to the ESPN studio. One wanted to go to him and kneel with him and snottily weep for the folly of man’s pursuit of happiness.

A couple of football neologisms to end with. During ITV’s Champions League coverage, Andy Townsend introduced the phrasal verb “to towel it”, as in “Atlético Madrid towelled it in the second half”, to describe a team resigned to their fate. Jim Rosenthal later pinpointed Liverpool’s weakness in Europe as “that old ghost in the cupboard, zonal marking”. However, Matt Holland, describing Phil Brown’s options in the transfer market on ESPN, wins the award for Most Inconsequential Contribution To A Debate with: “He’s got January coming up, but that’s a long way off.” It’s that old ghost in the cupboard, Matt, meaningless timefilling.

From WSC 274 December 2009