The Football League play-offs return this week, but what do you know of their history since they started delighting us in 1987?
For us, the telling paragraph in the Daily Mail news of Colin Murray's MOTD2 axing in favour of Mark Chapman was this:
'It is understood that the Ulsterman had also irritated a number of BBC football pundits by the way he criticised players. Chapman will be expected to ask Hansen and Co more questions rather than giving his own opinions as Murray preferred to do in his irreverent presenter's role.'
Whatever you think about Colin Murray, this cannot be good news for the overall direction of the BBC's football coverage. The vaguely studenty banter that was Murray's MOTD2 go-to method isn't to everybody's taste, it's true. But we personally find him a decent presenter, especially when covering the lighter side. He has been perhaps less good on the meat and drink of the role - framing the flashpoint incidents between the big teams that get the juices pumping for the mainstream, big club fans. By which we mean 'moronic outrage junkies'. With more and more of the biggest games on Sundays, that may have worked against him. But all in all, we found his vaguely outsidery, smart alec younger brother shtick tolerable.
And even if we had found it intolerable, at least it is a bit different from the norm. Mark Chapman comes over as an amiable cove and we wish him well, but we imagine the BBC bosses hope he will be a Ben Shephard type who is going to keep the real stars of the show, i.e. the older generation of ex-players, happy with regular bottom-lickery. This would be all well and good if said ex-players actually had anything special to offer. If it really is true that the BBC's big-name pundits were irritated by Colin Murray being insufficiently reverent to their views on the games, and that this has been a factor in his departure, that is a poor show by the BBC.
It certainly seems very believable that the likes of Alan Shearer would find the views of a non-professional footballer contemptible and irrelevant. The BBC, however, should have told him to suck it up. Despite what Shearer et al seem to think, sitting there on that sofa they are not actually playing football. They are talking about football. These are two separate, albeit sometimes related, activities. If Shearer played football as well as he talked about football, he would be lucky to get a game in the Conference. Murray might not have been the Lionel Messi of football presenting, but he has an identifiable personality, the gift of the gab, an unusual voice, views of his own. If the ego of the BBC pundits is so out of control that they cannot tolerate anything other than, "I abase myself before your wisdom, O great one" questioning from a presenter, then the execs should be telling them to wind their neck in.
One last thought, some of these ex-pros are getting very ex. Hansen retired in 1991, 22 years ago. Mark Lawrenson left the big time in 1988, when Thatcher was in power and grunge hadn't even happened. That's a sodding long time ago. Whatever football was like back then, it's not like it anymore. So how much does being an ex-pro from a different era count towards understanding the modern footballer more than say, an intelligent 25-year-old fan brought up in modern popular culture? Not much we'd say. The 55-year-old ex pro's 'special' dressing room knowledge, if that is why they're employed, is simply out-dated.
Wednesday night's football provided a great opportunity for some discussion and opinion where having played the game was irrelevant. Assuming that professional players are not regularly practising kicking ball boys or how to deal with a time-wasting ball boy, then pretty much anyone's view is as valid as Glenn Hoddle's on this. It was an instance where really you'd just like to see a presenter with a trenchant view. Instead, the BBC had Trendy Vicar Manish intoning sorrowfully, "two wrongs don't make a right" on the highlights show. An opportunity missed we feel.
This morning Pat Nevin helped put the record straight on Radio 4's Today programme. When interviewed by the always Partridge-esque Garry Richardson, the wee Scotsman said Hazard should have the red card rescinded; that the ball boy was wholly to blame and Hazard had merely tried to get him to release the ball. And all this from a self-proclaimed 'lefty Guardian reader'. Nevin also said he was disappointed that BBC footage on TV had been edited to show Hazard in a bad light. It must have been listening to all those Jesus And Mary Chain albums that gives Nevin his edge.
Richardson was aghast and suggested Nevin was only saying this because he used to play for Chelsea, which was little short of an insult. Nevin rejected this vehemently. Richardson, clearly hoping for some Daily Mail style anti-footballer harrumphing, was stunned into near-silence. It was the sound of reactionary faux horror being shown up as the plastic emotion it so often is.
So on this occasion, the ex-pro was the hero for kicking the presenter. We doubt this is much comfort to Colin Murray though.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
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