Before we get going with handing out the gongs, it’s worth saying that it has been a brilliant year for football broadcast media. The standard at all levels has never been higher and the breadth of coverage never wider. All those years of campaigning for better football TV and radio has finally paid off, perhaps because today’s producers grew up, like us, groaning at the say-what-you-see, unthinking football guff that used to dominate the airwaves. Nowadays there’s something for everyone as football media thankfully moves away from being narrow and conservative, to being more diverse and progressive.
I firmly believe that in order to get the most out of football on the radio and television, you have to free yourself from the notion that the pundit or commentator who says what you believe is the best one. In football and life in general, all too often, confirmation of existing views is equated to intelligence, while disagreement means ignorance.
Anyway, here are my awards. They’re obviously not definitive, and I’m sure I’ve excluded some notable performers, but this is a genuine way of saying thank you to all these people who make our football lives joyful.
Best presenter – Kelly Cates
Absolutely nobody has been more of a pleasure to listen to this year. Has that special ability to put people at ease and encourage them to talk, like she’s your intelligent and funny friend. Full of football knowledge at all levels of the game (confirmed to me by an insider on the 5 Football League Show show) and delivers it with warmth and a chuckling good-nature which makes a tricky job sound, not only easy, but tremendous fun.
Always seems very relaxed and is both empathetic and interogative. More than capable of delivering an iron fist in the velvet glove when necessary, which sometimes catches the alpha male world of Proper Football Men off guard. She’s had so many high points this season, especially on the radio, but the two-hour special she presented on the Hillsborough verdict was a work of great broadcast art in its balance of empathy, erudition and emotion. And in the course of that, her gentle, probing interview with her dad was simply one of the most touching pieces of radio you’ll ever hear. Basically, just brilliant from first to last.
Joint Runners-up: Mark Chapman/ James Richardson. Can’t separate Chappers and AC Jimbo. Though very different, both are superb at what they do. Mark’s all encompassing ubiquity shouldn’t blind us to his talent. Blokeish but not conservatively so, his winding up of Steve Claridge on the Monday Night Club is always a pleasure and Sunday’s are uplifted by James’s easy, yet intelligent presentation on the European Football Show. He is a peerless football sophisticate.
Highly commended: Matt Smith, Lynsey Hipgrave, Gary Lineker
Best commentator – John Murray
Haydon Bridge’s finest, he’s reached the top of the tree by blending unstinting articulacy with high-pitched emotion. Not just a commentator, he’s now often referred ot as ‘Football Correspondent.’ Seems genuinely excited to be wherever he is. Has a wonderful positivity to what he does and seems entirely without cynicism, except in regard to value of social media. Wonderfully un-technological to the point where on Wednesday night, he thought the pre-game musical performers were hitting a laptop with a stick, seemingly unaware of electronic rhythm pads. An analogue man in a digital world is always comforting. Behind the mic he’s the perfect combination of research, energy and passion. Always a joy to listen to.
Runner-up: Ian Dennis. Has a rare grit and intensity to his gig. Bluff and straight-talking, his 5live commentary on the Liverpool v Dortmund game was a thing of visceral, thrilling excellence which will live long in the memory. It was probably the best single commentary of the entire season.
Highly commended: Darren Fletcher, Conor McNamarra, Alan Green
Best co-comm – David Pleat
Frankly, no-one can educate you about football like Pleaty. He’s an incredible encyclopaedia and knows the history of any given player; where he started, who coached him, what positions he’s played and how much he cost. And it’s all done off the top of his head. Plus, for as long as I can recall, he always says hello to the listener, which is just lovely manners. There’s simply no-one else like him. Absolutely peerless. His inability to correctly pronounce names just makes him even more endearing and adds welcome idiosyncrasy to proceedings. Even thinking about him while writing this has made me smile and I’m willing to bet you have too. Priceless.
Runner-up: Pat Nevin. Witty, intelligent, funny and insightful. Brings some sensible, some intelligence and some self-awareness to his gig. Also liable to make welcome reference to early 80s indie music. His experience on the pitch and in the boardroom is invaluable. Unlike so many, can hold his own in polite, educated society, outside of a football context.
Highly commended: Chris Waddle, Chris Sutton, Kevin Kilbane, Stan Collymore.
Best pundit – Graeme Souness
You don’t have to agree with Souey to appreciate his art. By art, I mean, his ability to cast a withering, narrow-eyed look of frustration and disgust. This year his critique of Arsenal players has been nothing less than magnificent, at times verging on accusing them of emasculating the game by wearing pink frilly panties. He seems to take Olivier Giroud’s existence almost as personal insult to his maleness.
He’s always strong on attitude, belief and the psychology of the game. Like no other ex-player he gives you a sense of what it’s like to play in a big game. His iron will and his fierceness are fires that still clearly burn within. Rarely smiles, so when he does, it feels like a gift.
When he says someone is ‘a proper player’ and mimes a forearm smash, that is quintessential Souey. And for a dude of his age, he still looks great. I grew up watching him at Ayresome Park leaning over players he’d just badly hurt, shouting at them for spilling their blood on to his nice clean boots. Things haven’t changed much. Thank god.
Runners up: Chris Sutton/Jamie Carragher – I can’t separate these two. Long a favourite in Scottish TV land, Sutton has come to the fore more this year on 5live as co-comm and pundit, where his harrumphing is just wonderful. You can almost hear him casting a bitter sneer or disparaging glare when someone says something he disagrees with. His degree of cynicism and general intolerance of any fannying around by anyone in any walk of life, let alone in football, makes him quite unique. Just like when he was a player, he can really annoy people and, perhaps perversely, I love that too. You never get the feeling he’s holding back or just trying to say the right thing. A wonderful Norfolk tick has him finishing sentences rhetorically and without a ‘t’ e.g. “isn’ there?” or, “hasn’ it?” Is also thoroughly amusing and self-deprecating when necessary.
Carra has filled Gary Neville’s primo Sky position really well and he’s upped his crisp articulation of the game and yet has lost none of his robin’s egg blue-eyed passion. I also like the Budweiser goals ad he does with Jamie and Ed. Good idea that.
Highly commended: Jermaine Jenas, Owen Hargreaves, Danny Murphy
Best newcomer – Danny Higginbotham
Well deserved in getting a lot of work these days. Articulate, sharp-eyed and doesn’t default to football’s over-used lexicon of expressions. Brings energy and enthusiasm. Definitely on an upward curve.
Runner-up: Charlie Adam. Speaks and looks like he’s not a mere 30 years old, but rather that he played in the 70s. At best on the radio when talking about the politics of the modern united nations dressing rooms. Needs to improve on tactical dissection but is a welcome new voice.
Best Journalist on the TV & Radio – Henry Winter
So distinct in his both his tone and his linguistic mannerisms, he has an almost otherworldly quality about him. His instinct to use an arcane reference, (e.g Red Adair, Devon Loch) which only someone over the age of 45 would appreciate, endears him. Also, in comparison to some, he clearly knows a massive amount about football at all levels. Even though his habit of pluralizing player names can grate, as can that slightly supercilious, privately-educated manner, but even so, I find I always have to listen to him and, more than that, trust his viewpoint as being at least well-thought out. Hearing him arguing with Shaun Custis is never not entertaining. Mind, those Times ads made your toes curl. Ouch.
Runner-up: Rory Smith. A regular on 5Live he brings a pleasing bluntness to proceedings and has none of the sulphurous air that some of the older journos seem clouded in. Intelligent without being elitist or self-regarding, he’s aware of football-speak, the PFM cabal and that a lot of people in football are stone cold idiots, all of which makes him a top performer. Sometimes feel like he’s biting his tongue at some of the more reactionary opinion spumes emanating from others.
Highly commended: Alyson Rudd, Amy Lawrence, Sam Wallace, Barry Glendenning.
Overseas specialist – Tim Vickery, Rafa Honigstein & Gab Marcotti
If you can’t enjoy this trifecta of sophisticated footballing brains, then you don’t like football. My only complaint is they’re not used to cast observations on English football often enough. All of them feel like your cleverer older brother and you’d better sit up and listen when they’re on, because you will learn something.
Best Football Show – 5live Monday Night Club
The winner because when push comes to shove, I quite simply enjoy radio more than TV. The Monday Night Club has a revolving cast of characters who, when it works best, paint from the full rainbow palette of football attitude. Be it the squeaky hysteria of Steve Claridge, the good-natured rationalising of Jermanine Jenas, the annoyed panting of Chris Sutton, or the louche passion of Ali McCoist, it’s all held together, usually by Mark Chapman, who, inbetween loud guffaws and winding up Claridge, acts of a radio ringmaster of the first water. Tremendous fun. The mix of weekend analysis, anecdote, upcoming game assessment, serious issue discussions, quiz questions and social media bits is consistently the perfect way to get a new week started.
Runner-up: BT Sport European Football Show. Peerless intelligent football entertainment, performed by people who know what they’re talking about. The masters degree in brain surgery, compared to Soccer Saturday’s CSE Grade 4 in woodwork, it combines actual insight into the European leagues with having a laugh. Perfect to watch with the first couple of drinks of a Sunday night session. We’re lucky to have it in our lives.
Highly recommended: Danny Kelly on Talksport, MOTD 1 & 2.
Welcome return – Andy Townsend
Popping up on 5live a lot this season has shown us all just what a good sort he is. Like a guitarist freed from the restrictions of the three-minute pop song, he’s been allowed to stretch out and improvise and, in doing so, has come into his own. If anything, he’s returned too well, Clive.
Most improved – Alan Shearer
There was a time when Shearer sat there with a big sh*t-eating grin, said ‘he’ll be disappointed with that” and proceeded to trouser a huge amount of money for the pleasure. But times have changed. For whatever reason, be they self-motivated or producer-led, he’s dropped many of the cliches and has gained, what once seemed well beyond him: gravitas. Especially so when talking about the mess at Newcastle United. It’s taken a lot time, but eventually Wor Al has begun to deliver the goods.
Most extraordinarily cunning linguist – Paul Merson
Communicates well, but in an almost child-like way, which doesn’t adhere to normal sentence construction. Uses repetition repeatedly Jeff, repeatedly, I mean repeatedly and doesn’t even seem to realise Jeff, it’s like he doesn’t realise…honest, I’m not being funny, it’s like he doesn’t even realise. Has an occasional outburst which threatens to require calming medication. And it’s all accompanied with rolling eyes and an expression that suggests a recent collision with a bus. It all leaves the viewer slack-jawed in astonishment. The football equivalent of an abstract impressionist painter in a world of representational art, Merse is never not entertaining.
Legend award – Mark Lawrenson
Lawro has been around the media for the best part of 25 years. Like Shearer, for too many years he appeared to get away without doing much work, unless you count saying “they’ll be fine” as work. But also like the Geordie, this year has been his best yet. Radio co-comms on big European games such as Liverpool’s Europa Cup Final have been detailed, excellent entertainment. He was on superb sharp-eyed form for the Europa Cup Final. You forget that he was one of the primo defenders of his generation and knows as much about the game as anyone. All the terrible jokes used to grate, but now seem heritage, as opposed to old-fashioned. Our football lives would be missing a bright colour without his half pundit, half musical hall act.
PFM of the year – Richard Keys
His Twitter account alone is a PFM lifestyle bible, or perhaps more accurately, an over-thumbed 1988 copy of Playboy magazine with some of the pages stuck together.
On Twitter, I asked you for your favourite presenter and pundit. The results were as follows:
Best Presenter: James Richardson
Best Pundit: Jamie Carragher
So that’s it. These (and others) are the people who create the warp and weft of our football media world and, frankly, I think we’re exceptionally well served. I even started to find Michael Owen entertaining once. Must be some strong medicine I’m on.