Lazy documentaries

Simon Tyers on how documentaries investigating football’s underworld are flattering to deceive

If making an impression is as much about what you don’t say as what you do, Martin Tyler gave a masterclass after Fernando Torres’ eye-rubbingly bad miss in the Manchester United-Chelsea match on September 18. After an “Oh no!” in the shock of the moment, Tyler couldn’t bring himself to elucidate about what we’d all just seen for a full five seconds. Hardly Pinter length, but by Sky Sports standards it was the sort of delay that would make nervous editors prepare an apology caption. Andy Gray would have shouted all over it. It was quite sweet, really.

On the previous week’s Football League Show Tony Gubba had decided to take the opposite approach. Having already been surprised to find Frédéric Piquionne walking off the pitch having been sent off, Gubba watched the replay and commented he’d “walked into the defender [Greg Halford] and nonchalantly pushed him away”. Actually he’d pushed Halford square in the face, which might have better explained the red card. Users of BBC Sport’s website will be aware of the live matchday feeds that boil every incident down to a name, an action and the occasional distance estimate. Maybe Gubba was working off that as his backup.

By the way, can somebody at BBC Sport make sure Manish Bhasin never refers to the set of that programme as “FLS Towers” again? The phrase suggests something more palatial than a refurbished police reception, while the idea that the studio should be given a special name gives far more credit to the concept than it deserves. Essentially the Football League Show is still packages of goals linked by Steve Claridge describing replays in minute detail with the tone of a man on a heavy course of anti-depressants.

Channel 4’s Dispatches team have been probing football’s shadowy areas lately with underwhelming results. Sir Alex Ferguson must have thought his days of being linked to underhand dealings by documentary makers had gone now he’s back talking to the BBC. But How To Buy A Football Club, broadcast in July, spent too much of its time trying to chase him down on the basis that a Far-East businessman claimed to know him.

Last month’s The Truth About Drugs In Football had a strikingly blunt title, suitable for mid-market newspaper outrage, but ended up similarly confusing itself. Alongside several meaningfully lit shots of football boots placed next to lines of cocaine, the story mostly involved lower-league players led astray by their new-found status, as if football was by natural extension to blame for society’s problems. Beyond that we were left with the frankly unglamorous details of the testing procedures employed by the FA and the World Anti-Doping Agency. Supposedly mysterious supplements and injections were described in lurid terms, only for the programme makers to then cover their backs and reveal that none of it was actively illegal.

The central issue – that there should be more openness from the FA in naming those who have failed tests – couldn’t be reconciled with the sub-wicked whisper suggestions about supposedly big names that had allegedly been caught out. Given the legal restrictions, the “top Premier League footballer” mentioned in the pre-publicity as having had failed a drugs test was never going to be a major star. But producing Garry O’Connor – a man who played seven League games for Birmingham in the last two seasons before being released on a free transfer, and whose £2.7 million move came before the failed test – felt like pulling a three-card trick on the viewer. And that’s before considering that four days prior to the documentary’s transmission O’Connor was in court on a charge of cocaine possession.

What is clear is football’s integrity is fading fast. After watching Marc Tierney collapse in the face of Ivan Klasnic’s nod, Mark Lawrenson said “It’s embarrassing when you see someone throw themself down like that”, before nudging Alan Shearer playfully and sotto voce adding “You would’ve”. What seemed to be standard Match Of The Day-issue semi-mocking golf club bar playfulness turned into something else when Shearer, at a similarly low pitch, replied “Yeah, I would”. Neither Lawrenson nor Gary Lineker seemed to notice that he’d taken the jocularity seriously. Either way, it may well have been the most brutally honest comment made by a regular TV football pundit in years.

From WSC 297 November 2011