Follow the leader

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Simon Tyers isn't too impressed with the coverage copycats

As usual, it’s Sky’s fault. Not for everything, of course, but as soon as they come up with a new way of approaching football coverage it gets copied by the terrestrial channels using a heavily smudged blueprint. They bring us Andy Gray and his computers, eventually we get the Tactics Truck. They invent the top-corner screen display, Five run with one that seems at times to take up a quarter of the screen.

They even launch sports reporting by good-looking women – yes, chief executive Vic Wakeling has cited this as an advance in sports broadcasting – and the rest of us shudder at the memory of ITV’s On The Ball hiring Lisa Rogers to interview Ipswich players as if they were boy-band members.

With the advent of interactive digital TV, the next in line for a blurry photocopy was bound to be the Soccer Saturday concept of people telling you throughout a Saturday afternoon what’s going on in games that we are not allowed to see just yet (unlike Norwegians). Jeff Stelling returned for the start of the Coca-Cola League season in usual form, that is to say giving due attention to every goal by “the good doctor” Kenny Deuchar of Gretna and referring to Peter Taylor’s interviewer Alan McInally as “a man not as popular on Humberside, or anywhere else for that matter”.

ITV reportedly made a large but rebuffed offer for him to become their main presenter in the summer, with Matt Smith currently their only available frontman while Gabby Logan is on maternity leave and Andy Townsend presumably never to be trusted again after spending a season fronting Yorkshire Soccer Night yet never learning how to pronounce the region’s name properly.

The idea has been copied before, of course. The Goal Rush on ITV was quietly put out of its misery after a season and a half of rabbit-in-headlights stares and showing the goals from the early kick-off, plus post-match interviews, at just after 4.40pm, when you would think there would be more pressing matters for a fast-moving latest scores service.

The inherent problem with the BBC version, Score, is that it’s only available via the interactive options during Grandstand, when many might find it easier just to turn over to Sky Sports News. For a service that prides itself on keeping up to the minute, there’s something fundamentally flawed in the idea of having the studio pundits watching a game but also having a reporter at the ground, meaning that after they’ve explained what’s just happened, Gavin Peacock or Nigel Winterburn have to go through it again and rarely in broader detail. Ray Stubbs is a hearty, likeable man, still preferable to his hesitant Football Focus replacement Manish Bhasin, but lacks the immediate knowledge and flair of his Sky opponent. Even this season’s adoption of a Fall track as Score’s theme tune seems forced.

All that said, Sky’s pundits do tend to be given a lot of leeway by the press, who throw brickbats only at the horribly monotone Lee Dixon or Peter Schmeichel, who hasn’t yet appeared on the now-tieless Match of the Day this season and wasn’t mentioned in the pre-season press release either.

Sky Sports have thus far adopted a rotation system for commentaries, Alan Parry getting Chelsea v Arsenal, after last season’s debacle where Martin Tyler was downgraded without warning about halfway through the season as Ian Darke returned from specialising in boxing to make a mess of at least one enormous live game. Andy Gray is cemented in the 4pm Super Sunday slot but fans of teams involved in live games not in that slot now cower in fear that they may be subjected to a David Platt co-commentary, or, if they play on Saturday, have their game watched in the studio by Matt Le Tissier and analysed later on Football First by John Gregory.

And is it just our conspiratorial nature, or is there any relevance in the fact that the Sky live game graphics, which used to be grey and yellow, are now Barclaycard blue and white for the Premiership and Coca-Cola red and white for the Championship?

One final thought: in the spell between being sacked by Millwall and joining Gillingham, Steve Claridge, previously an iconoclastic Radio Five Live pundit for a few years, made four TV appearances on three channels in a week and in that time referred to “legitimising myself” after the circumstances of his leaving The Den four times. He sounded like he had just learnt this new word and wanted to try it out, and knowing Claridge he probably had.

From WSC 224 October 2005. What was happening this month