The football media hits and misses of 2020…
It has been a year like no other and yet through it all, the whole of football’s giant media monster somehow managed to keep going. It was testing to say the least as air time and paper acreage had to be filled with something vaguely football related but for 100 days there was no football to talk about. And even when there was, it wasn’t ‘real’ football but a sugar-free, watery imitation. Project Restart was welcomed as much if not more by the media than by football fans because at last there was something to talk and write about and soon enough, many began to pretend everything was normal, even though it wasn’t.
In these testing circumstances there were some star performers…
In a year full of misery and depression, Micah’s overwhelming outbursts of mirth must surely be made available on the NHS as an antidepressant. His wheezing uncontrollable laughing is an absolute tonic.
Wearing a much smaller person’s clothes, at times his shirts seemed to be more truss than tailoring. Unusually working for both the BBC and Sky Sports, and just about every other media outlet in the western world and beyond, whether his insight into the game matched his entertainment value is a subjective call that viewers and listeners will argue about. Some may think he needs to limit the amount of time he begins a sentence with ‘when I played for Man City…” but there was no doubt he brought the joy in 2020 when the joy was badly needed. And bless him for that
When you need a co-comm to bring some A-game, you get Don Hutch in. Blessed with a really quick brain he is able to tell us what is happening, why it is happening and what the other side needs to do to counteract it, all in one big gulp of air. He seems to have an incredible knowledge of football from across Europe, as well as domestically. As I have stopped using paywall football, I don’t see him when he’s on The Goal Show on BT Sport but I know he’ll be great. I only hear him on BBC 5live where he is not used enough. However, he worked the West Ham v Brighton game on Sunday and once again, he was effortlessly informative.
One of the most distinctive, clever, thoughtful and original writers working in the press, his easy artfulness and intelligent insight only highlights the writerly limitations of the rest of us. His appearances on The Guardian’s Football Weekly are also always worth tuning in for.
Although he’s been orbiting the broadcast football planet for a while now, 2020 seemed to bring him to greater prominence with regular appearances on 5live’s Monday Night Club, the Totally Football Show, Set Piece Menu podcast and of course, writing always interesting, often left-field pieces in the New York Times about things no-one else writes about. His Friday email is well worth signing up for. I remember writing an end of year piece in 2004 in which I suggested that TV and radio media should only employ people who know stuff even if they hadn’t played football professionally and not ex-players who know feck all and struggle even to articulate their ignorance. I see his omnipresence as a win for that idea. It is much more interesting listening to people who are articulate and intelligent than listening to people who are not. It’s a simple notion, but for years, producers didn’t seem to grasp its importance.
While his media work is always entertaining (and his book published the year, very good) this year, inspired by his own, now late, father’s suffering, he stepped up his campaign to get football to take the destructive effects of heading the ball seriously in causing later in life Alzheimers. The PFA has dragged its feet over this for a long time but finally this year it started to take it seriously.
No longer excluded from commentating, commenting, writing and presenting football played by men by virtue of their gender, 2020 felt like the year when women talking football at long last became normalised. People such as Karen Carney, Alex Scott, Sue Smith and many more became a regular presence. The few times Emma Hayes has worked on 5live have been notable by their excellence. Also a tip of the hat to Vicky Sparks whose commentary gigs thankfully didn’t become A Big Thing, but were nonetheless quietly important. Despite noises off by the usual sexists – who are increasingly being rendered impotent simply by being ignored – it has been a welcome and long overdue revolution
Last year, the FA said that the BBC Red Button’s peak WSL viewing figures were averaging 285,000, which is higher than BT Sport and Sky Sports audiences for some men’s football games.
It will be on free-to-air even more next year when Women’s Super League matches are set to be broadcast live regularly on BBC One and BBC Two with the Football Association understood to be close to agreeing a shared TV rights deal with the BBC and Sky Sports. At last young girls can be inspired by seeing women play the sport and it won’t seem odd or unusual. This is a positive thing for the whole of society.
The fight to overcome appalling sexist discrimination is not yet won, but history is only going one way. The irony is that to see live men’s football, youngsters will have to hope their parents can afford to pay for it. And why should they? This sporting economic apartheid is destructive and pernicious for our kids and for our society, the economic philosophy behind it, one of the core drivers of social exclusion. No positive outcomes derive from that. The People’s Game should be for the people, not just for the people who can afford to pay.
You’re Better Than That
Quite easily the best football quiz in any medium. It was invented by Ali Bruce-Ball on 5live during the first lockdown. Named after his co-conspirator Chris Sutton’s catchphrase, and evolving out of his previous creation, Sutton Death, it manages to be both tense, funny and really difficult.
It’s been growing year on year but 2020 saw podcasts step up and fill in the gap left by actual football. There are now far too many podcasts to listen to, so the listenership jam must be being spread very thin across all the output. My personal highlights were the Totally Football Euro team discussing every Champions League tournament, early in lockdown and Set Piece Menu SPM 171: The Football Conversation (Part 1 – Fans v Fans) and SPM 172: The Football Conversation (Part 2 – Fans v The Media). Others such as Football Weekly with Max and Barry, 5live’s Football Daily and BBC Scotland’s Off The Ball have become part of the warp and weft of everyday life. For those of us who have always known radio was a superior medium to television, the all-conquering aural media of the podcast revolution feels like another big win.
Books of the Year
While my book ‘Can We Have Our Football Back? How the Premier League Is Ruining Football And What We Can Do About It’ was long-listed for Football Book of the Year in The Telegraph Sports Book Awards, other great books were also published…
The Farther Corner, by Harry Pearson – An encore to brilliant The Far Corner which will moisten the eye of anyone who loves local football and The North.
Extra Time: 50 Further Delights of Modern Football, by Daniel Gray – Football’s most poetic writer delivery more wee pearls of football romance
1312: Among the Ultras: A Journey with the World’s Most Extreme Fans, by James Piotr Montague – Reads more like a tense thriller. This gives us entry into a world that is as dangerous and astonishing as any Mafia tale.
Snapshot: Scenes and Stories from the Heartlands of Scottish Football, by Alan McCredie, Ally Palmer, Daniel Gray – A lavishly illustrated book for those who know the soul of football lies in community. There is a bleak grandeur here that warms the heart like a smooth single malt.
Interview of the Year
5live’s Friday Social is always worth our time, but recently Darren Fletcher and Jermaine Jenas brought us an absolutely fascinating interview with Graham Potter. Their longer, relaxed format allows guests to stretch out and talk about things in more depth and this really paid off with GP. The absolute opposite to the old-school cliches about English managers, he came across not just as erudite and thoughtful, but a genuinely innovative coach who had thought deeply about the game. One of those chats which, as a listener, you come away from and feel like another colour has been added to your own personal rainbow.
It’s easy to take Gary for granted as MOTD host because his style is exactly that: easy. But in a turbulent year, we all needed some reliable cornerstones in our life: Familiar, well-worn bookmarks that could be relied on to be as they were before all the madness happened. And Gary is that. He frets his broadcasting chords with a light touch. Which only serves to understate just how good he’s got at the job. The fact he winds up people with the Union Jack in their Twitter bio, is merely icing on the cake.
Always a tremendous broadcaster who combines informality with professionalism, it is a tribute to his abilities that you would never know he suffered a heartbreaking loss this year. After a break, he returned to make our football lives more enjoyable than they are without him.
But it wasn’t all laughter in tight shirts in 2020. Oh no…
Sky Sports surprised everyone with the defenstration of 75% of Soccer Saturday, presumably in an attempt to revamp what they felt had become a stale show which looked tired and out of date. I don’t have Sky, but people in the industry tell me that it has not improved and that a long walk on a short pier is being considered for it, perhaps not least because the Paddy Power adverts featuring the three previous incumbents have been more entertaining than the programme itself. In its day it was revolutionary. That day is no longer now.
Still addicted to a toxic relationship with football that sees players as reality TV celebrities; that aggrandises and scandalises almost everything they do; details mundanities as though they are important; stirs in a generous helping of crusty old sexism; and frequently wraps the whole lot up with a sulphurous air of racism. Horrible and poisonous, it is shocking that there is a market for this utter dreck. But there is. It only exists because people buy it and click on it. Thus, those that do are, as ever, to blame for it polluting our lives and for making life for everyone worse than it need be.
Match reports in newspapers
I’m sure some people still read them online when published after a game ends, but at 10am the following morning? No. It is not worth cutting down trees just to facilitate this old-fashioned, out-dated concept. I’m as in favour of analog media as anyone, but let us not pretend it is still 1957. The newspaper industry seems slow to change, sports reporting perhaps slower than most. From the post-presser ‘huddle’ to all the other out-moded ways of working that still pervade the industry, added to the enormous self-regard some have for their profession, mixed in with a cast iron denial complex about their pernicious effect, not just on many footballers, but on its place in facilitating an idiocracy and you’ve got a really, really odd industry that is largely irrelevant to the real needs.
Mr Tyldesley was demoted as England commentator by ITV to general puzzlement. This wasn’t to decry Sam Matterface especially, but somehow, an England game without Clive didn’t really feel like an England game. The sense of loss was palpable.
Talksport’s lack of podcasts
I’ve not heard any reason as to why the radio station does not make each show available as a podcast but it is obviously not beyond them and wouldn’t cost much, so there must be one. After all, their listening figures would increase. They must realise that many of us can’t listen live but would like to listen. Yes we can ‘listen again’ but it comes in 30 minute chunks and with newsbreaks etc and requires up to six reboots for a three-hour show. It really isn’t satisfactory. All we want is to have every show made into a podcast and hoovered up by Acast or similar. Perhaps the management see the station as a ‘live-only’ gig or think their listeners are not podcast people. Even if you only make the Trans-Europe Express (now with Danny Kelly joyously reinstalled as mein host) available, please, for the love of God do it. It now actually seems really weird that they don’t.
The amount broadcasters charged for PPV games not already part of their broadcast packages. It caused outrage and they were told to feck off. Incredibly they had the brass neck to come back and ask if a tenner was OK, only to be told to feck off again. Rumours that one of these PPV games attracted less than 1000 viewers meant they had to give in and make them available at no additional cost, giving some to the BBC. That they excused this on the basis that the profit would go to the clubs when the clubs had just spent £1.2billion on transfers just showed how out of touch those in charge are and how little they understand their punter’s lives. In turn it showed us the power we all have as football media consumers. In 2021, let’s bloody well use it wisely.