Focus pocus

Football Focus was once Cameron Carter's highlight of the week, but not anymore

I used to look forward to Football Focus. Probably because it used to be good. Ten years ago, during its golden Arthurian period, you got crumply old Bob Wilson with a pen in his jacket pocket (which sometimes crept into his hand during those traumatic live link-ups with experienced managers), lots of football clips and a special focus on Crewe Alexandra at the end. Now, you get last weekend’s goals you’ve already seen on Match of the Day with a satiny Britpop underlay. It’s not right, and deep down everyone knows it.

The rot set in when Bob left to work for ITV, presumably to provide a better standard of living for his family. A troop of people related to football, let us say, only by marriage – Ray Stubbs, Steve Ryder and the like – duly attempted to fill the gap, but were clearly only filling in while the BBC looked for a replacement with Bob Wilson’s classic combination of authority and inoffensiveness. Finally they gave up and decided that what the kids wanted was a football DJ playing only the very latest stuff and so Gary Lineker has appeared on our screens ever since, squeaking away like a rusty fieldmouse.

It was quickly apparent what Grandstand had let us all in for. After a feature on the Liverpool team making a charity record in his first season in charge, Lineker undid a button on his pox-doctor’s clerk’s jacket and quipped, “I don’t think Blur and Oasis have got anything to worry about.” He probably thought this got him in with the kids. Well it didn’t; we young people don’t respect that kind of blatant currying of favour from people with stinking great streaks of grey in their hair, as a matter of fact, much preferring our football authority figures to remain conservative, remote and, therefore, dignified.

And anyway, there were people over 30 watching who rather like Mantovani and who fail to appreciate such lightning forays into the borderlands of youth-oriented humour. Chief among Bob Wilson’s most alluring qualities, and I’m sure his wife would agree with me, was his obvious and profound ignorance of young people, their music and their lifestyle. A phrase like the one the man-child Lineker used that Saturday would be about as likely to pass Bob’s lips as “Come on, let’s trash the place”, because he was and is a simple man who perhaps naively believed that football talk is what the viewers specifically want to hear when they tune in to a football magazine.

Now that we have Lineker with his Italian waiter cruise-ship charm, the material is extremely thin, like cheap toilet-roll your finger goes through, making you vow to buy the second-cheapest next time. A large percentage of each programme over the last two seasons has been taken up by a strenuous, in-depth Lineker interview with a current player in their beautifully appointed house in the suburbs. The footballing action was as limited as the questions:

“Tell me, Jürgen/Bryan/Dennis, how does the English game differ from the one back home?”

“Was this a very difficult time for you?”

“Looking back now, do you regret your involvement in organized crime?”

After this patience-exploring period, Gary might pipe a slight joke if he was feeling confident, and then on we went to last Saturday’s goals with guitar. As if this was not enough to convince the viewer that everything was better in the old days, there would generally then take place a folding of the hands for a serious chat with Mark Bloody Lawrenson about a player in the headlines, during which Gary would say “that’s the nature of the man” as if he had hit on something final.

One hankers for Bob and the old days. You didn’t have to look at Bob’s jackets like you do Lineker’s. They weren’t meant to be looked at. They just Were. There was no gloss, no service-industry hokum, everything was purely functional. If the producers of Grandstand had ever approached Bob with the idea of managers’ heads appearing in the middle of revolving footballs you can be sure that he would have told them gently but firmly to go back to lunch and he’d see them tomorrow.

The footballing public in Bob’s day were given what they wanted – lots of clips. The top games of the day were lovingly previewed with action from the corresponding fixture the previous season, or maybe a few seasons before. There was a bit of context for you, a thread of care and preparation ran through the show. “The last time these two clubs met…” When did you ever hear Lineker introduce a piece of football action with those words. I’ll tell you. You never did. Bob was always doing it, and that is why we loved him in a no-touching, share-a-bottle-of-whiskey-with-him-when-we’re-older kind of way.

Also, just as he came to the end of his enticing introduction to the clip, Bob would crinkle his eyes into some kind of smile and leave you with completely good karma until the excerpt was over. It is true that Lineker has begun to try this himself recently, but as this makes him resemble a wine bar Lothario coming on to the girls near closing-time one cannot take it as sincere.

Another extra you got with the old Football Focus was the ‘Focus On The Unfashionable Northern Club’ bit. There’d be a dragging overhead shot of some disused dock or railyard accompanied by a Gubba figure droning an introduction they had written up in the library after a brief visit to the Geography section: “For nigh on four centuries the port of Hull has been famous for its shipbuilding, but today with the shipyards standing idle as they have done for the past twenty years, it is football that is providing the main talking-point in the pubs and offices of this historic northern city…”

Then there would be a very old guy on a leather sofa remembering things extremely slowly, interspersed with a few grainy old football clips of the club’s past glories. Solid info-tainment for all the family, and they never seemed to run out of ‘Unfashionable Northern Clubs’, either. The new boys can’t be bothered with all that. Oh I know they can’t use Nationwide League action nowadays, but they hardly ever use old material anymore in any context, not even when they were covering the FA Cup. It is almost as if the production team sacked two archivists to pay for the salary of one new set designer. Glitz and polish, you see, the modern disease. Never mind the quality – feel the service. As for Lineker, he won’t shake your hand until you’ve been in make-up.

One last thing. In a recent edition, Garth Crooks’ earnest little report was dressed up as an episode of The Holiday Programme by the boys in Titles & Effects. I was watching with a chap who had been living abroad for five years and I caught him staring in disbelief at the gyrating television screen in rather the same way people used to stare in disbelief at a man with no abdomen in a Victorian travelling circus. What could I say to him? That this post-modern grotesque was what his fondly remembered Football Focus had become? With its execrable, irrelevant theme tune and dreary live interviews with managers where the studio guest gets to ask a question and make a joke? In the end I didn’t say anything, silence seemed the most appropriate response. Until now.

The way it’s going at the moment, Football Focus will be presented a couple of seasons from now by Darren Day from inside a mocked-up ref’s whistle to a background of heavy drum ’n’ bass, with maybe the odd clip from last Saturday’s big game included somewhere for nostalgia lovers among the deconstructional topical debate. This is a sad state of affairs because missing Football Focus (or Top of the Pops, incidentally) used to mean the whole week was a failure. Those days are gone. One recent Saturday I missed Football Focus because I was out in the kitchen testing myself on the exact ingredients of Alpen.

From WSC 129 November 1997. What was happening this month