Surprise package

Setanta’s Conference coverage has been surprisingly refreshing – more so than the station’s attempts to reinvent the wheel when it comes to sports news and the Premier League, believes Josh Widdicombe

If ITV Digital taught us one thing, it is that lower-league football is less popular with television audiences than a knitted monkey. So, like a team about to sign Nigel Quashie, you might think that someone should have warned Setanta of the mistakes of the past before they splashed out on 79 games from the Blue Square Premier (aka the Conference) to supplement their Premier League coverage.

But while ITV Digital threw money at the only football they could get their hands on – seemingly based on the proviso that football fans aren’t fussy, they’ll watch any old shit – Setanta have simply snapped up the Conference to make up the numbers on their two sport channels. With little doubt that their priorities lie elsewhere, it is a nice surprise to find that their Conference coverage is actually more interesting than their big-name Macca ’n’ Ferdi Premier League stuff, or indeed their rolling news channel, which is just Sky Sports News in brown.

Television coverage of minority or lower-league sport is at its worst when broadcasters aren’t honest with themselves. On the BBC’s recent coverage of the indoor bowls, I’m sure I heard them compare Alex Marshall’s fifth world title to the achievements of Michael Schumacher and Roger Federer. Thankfully this “who do you think you are kidding?” technique is one only occasionally used during Setanta’s largely realistic Conference coverage. But on the occasions that it does crop up, it still grates.

After sitting through 90 minutes of goalless tedium between Farsley Celtic and Stevenage Borough I didn’t want, or need, to be convinced of the drama I’d just witnessed through the customary montage of crunching tackles and pained faces set to anthemic indie music. I could also have lived without Paul Parker’s pre-match analysis. Showing how the Torquay back line have a tendency to push up and could be liable to the threaded through ball is all well and good. But when this is followed by 90 minutes of up-and-under football from Histon the exercise all seems rather futile.

It doesn’t take John Beck to tell you that to get on in lower-league football you need to play to your strengths; it is the same when televising it. Sky Sports’ second most watched sport is darts (no, really). Why? Because it doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Setanta’s Conference coverage succeeds when it heeds this lesson. For all the allure of the Premier League, you would have to be living in a media blackout not to realise that however good the football may be, the accompanying circus has become little more than a depersonalised celebration of wealth. For all the coverage of the players, all we really know is that they like expensive watches and are just keeping focused on the next game.

Setanta can genuinely boast the much heralded tag of “unrivalled access” and their coverage is all the better for it. We can watch the half-time team talks in the dressing rooms; we get interviews with the managers from the dug-out as the game goes on before them; half-time punditry is provided by a manager who has turned up on a scouting mission and has been coerced into saying a few words. We are part of the event and the event is a football match.

This isn’t just exciting and interesting, but it solves perhaps Setanta’s biggest problem, why in God’s name should the average viewer care about Altrincham v Woking? In the Premier League, we are provided with all the storylines we need to keep us hooked and dutifully tuning in to the next “episode”. Through saturated media coverage we build up our likes and dislikes of every club, team, manager and player. There is rarely a game that lacks some form of emotional investment, be it a hatred of Thaksin Shinawatra’s human-rights record or a fondness for Roy Keane’s short ties.

Shorn of this wider shared narrative, Setanta have to form your prejudices for you, telling you the stories. Before Torquay take on Histon, we get to spend a day in the life of Torquay midfielder Chris Hargreaves and his family. Not only do we get to know more about the teams, but we are shown again that we are watching a very different game to the Premier League. In the week that tabloids scream of Ashley Cole’s indiscretions with Aimee, 22, Hargreaves tells us his life consists of “chores around the house, taking the kids to school, making the tea, getting shouted at by my wife” (I imagine only one of these has happened chez Cole recently). While the football may lack the quality of the Premier, there is a lot to be said for the chance to feel included again.

From WSC 253 March 2008