Football Focus: behind the scenes

Cameron Carter explores the absurdity of behind-the-scenes football coverage on television and shares his views on ITV's World Cup coverage

Football Focus’s obsession with going behind the scenes is becoming a little tiresome, like a small child substituting “poo” for every noun over the period of a year. When ITV were forced to focus on the Football League, they had Matt Smith prowling around terraces, boot rooms, the referee’s toilet – all to give the impression that ITV preferred to cover these divisions actually because this was roots football, not that phoney Premier League nonsense where you can only get to within 30 feet of the players if you have four wristbands and a very recent CRB check. 

The BBC obviously liked the Matt Smith style, because talking about Ipswich’s winless February from behind a spiked roller is undeniably edgy, and consequently sent their Focus team into dressing rooms as often as possible last season to have discussions they could quite easily have had in the studio, only with a couple of extra comments on the modernity of the bath tiles. For the first Football Focus of this season, Dan Walker went behind the scenes once again, this time drifting through the looking glass to “surprise” Alan Shearer and Alan Hansen while they made notes for that evening’s Match of the Day – possibly one of them had just googled “Blackpool FC” – and to give Shearer a birthday cake.

How much further can they take this creaking concept? Perhaps later in the season Walker will conspiratorially beckon a camera into John Motson’s pre-match shower, or wave an endoscope up through Avram Grant’s anus and rectum just to get his colon’s reaction to West Ham’s away form.

This kind of thing never happened on Manish Bhasin’s watch. In exile on the BBC’s late-night League Cup Show with a dot-matrix message running behind him of the programme’s name, he and Leroy Rosenior looked like they were broadcasting from a very comfortable bus-stop. He tries to smile these days, Manish, but it only emerges as the brave twitch of someone who has been jabbed very quickly with a sewing needle. Then, when he finishes a link into the next game, just for the two seconds before the camera leaves him, his dark eyes betray a sadness that no man, no woman can remove.

Where is his Premier League? Where is his Football Focus? Who did he displease in the production team? He has a mug before him on these out-of-hours stints but there is no steam coming from it, no real hot drink in there. This mug is purely a prop to convince us that Manish is comfortable and happy here and really would hang around after the last Tube discussing the League Cup first round with journeymen ex-footballers even if he had a choice.

There is a strict and inglorious hierarchy to the interviewees who appear on list programmes, demonstrated by World Cup’s Most Shocking Blunders, 2010 (BBC3, most evenings, August-October). Specifically, there are the people instantly recognised as colleagues of famous people – David Schneider, Kevin Day – then there are those we are forced to assume are semi-professional comedians, a stratum below this are giggling examples of arrested development who might easily be children’s TV presenters, and then finally there are individuals whose reason for being in front of a camera is so opaque that the non-explanation “Broadcaster” is sheepishly flashed beneath them during their first and fifth contributions.

David Seaman must have hoped his post-football television career would amount to more than straight man to Richard Bacon. David even manages to fluff this job, though, his delivery of repartee suggesting that his lines were shot word by word in close-up, possibly using stop-motion animation, hours after Bacon had clocked off.

ITV’s coverage of England’s first match after the World Cup took an uppity tone with the participants, as if this was an elaborately arranged public apology. “A night for the players to sing the national anthem”, Clive Tyldesley intoned in his Disappointed Headmaster voice. The next shot panned across a mute Wayne Rooney and Adam Johnson before reaching Theo Walcott just barely mouthing the words like a short shopping list he ought to have written down. The producer quickly switched for maximum shaming effect to the most heart-clutching, boiled-eyed bawlers in the crowd.

Later Tyldesley and Andy Townsend complained that Capello hadn’t celebrated the England goals. The whole event, despite the victory, appeared set up as a trial by combat to judge whether the England team actually want to win games. After the match, a clearly primed Gabriel Clarke questioned the manager about his lack of glee at his team scoring. An Englishman complaining to an Italian about his show of reserve, it is almost as if the world’s gone mad.

From WSC 284 October 2010