Johnny loves presenters more than pundits, and this week he’s been asking you who are your favourites, even though we all knew who the winner would be.
The word presenter is misleading in most football programmes because it implies they’re just there to top and tail the show; merely a bit of frosting on the football cake that is baked by the live action and the pundits. But they are increasingly so much more than that.
Every programme has a presenter, but unless they’re Gary Lineker, they’re often either ignored or underappreciated. They rarely receive reviews for their work, unless they commit a dreadful sexist faux pas and then spend years pretending they’ve been hard done to.
However, they are, in my view, the most important people in our football media world. Without them the whole edifice that is football coverage would collapse. Without them it’d be like those weird ESPN games which just starts without preamble; suddenly there and then suddenly gone. They establish the style and flavour of the show, and gear out attitude to the guests. They are stars but are not allowed to be stars because they are ‘merely’ presenters, and while some ex-players pick up cheques for not doing much, the presenters have to try and make everyone look and feel good. Lord knows that must be hard sometimes.
So what makes a good presenter?
The first thing to say is that I don’t think there are any bad presenters on UK TV and radio. That’s not to say I personally like them all but, as far as I can tell, all of them are very competent and deliver what is required of them by their employers. We certainly can’t say this of every pundit.
However, there are some absolutes. The first of which is presenters need to be likeable, or at least they need to be on our side, not the industry of football’s side. Pundits can get away with just being good at the job, even if we don’t warm to them, but a presenter is our interface with the guests and the action. The best ones are, in some way, our representatives and the best will have an appreciation of current viewpoints that are finding expression amongst fans and will have an everywoman or everyman quality. If you really don’t like them, they become a barrier to the enjoyment of the game or the show.
While their job is to be some shade of neutral and not to express their own views too often, the best work is done by those who are not afraid to raise any issue. To take one recent ongoing example, many fans feel that Wayne Rooney has been in steep decline for some time, and have been driven to distraction by so many of football’s grunt labour being unable to see this or tell it like it so obviously is. The worst presenters just tow the party line “world class, big stats, blah blah” but the best have raised it and had it properly discussed.
Similarly the chippy, paranoid, often woefully under-informed Proper Football Man tendency and their sometimes odd, sometimes factually delusional ramblings frequently go unchallenged by presenters and hosts who, perhaps, don’t want to upset the applecart and make an enemy of someone the station likes or even employs from time to time. But again, the best hosts will find a way to present a counterpoint, or, at times, will simply fearlessly challenge their notions. And that’s to the benefit of us all.
But sometimes, I think we as listeners and viewers don’t appreciate that there are ongoing politics in any media outlet. I’ve been told by a well-placed insider that certain guests have to be treated with kid gloves, because the bosses think they’re box office and so mustn’t be p*ssed off by a presenter pointing out how or suggesting the things they’re saying are stupid. I imagine that’s a hard, stressful line to walk.
The same person said that they work with someone who only gets the gig because “management don’t have to work with him. We all know he’s often really poor, but the management love him. I hate that he’s taking the job of someone who is talented and who would make the show better. But there’s nothing you can do, you’ve just got to swallow it down”.
All of which shows you the passions that flow through the veins of broadcasters. Given that you don’t get a sense of this bitterness in their work, they’re swallowing it down very well.
If a broadcaster wants access to a manager or a player, it’s probably a good idea for the station not to be doing in-depth studies into why they’re not very good. Ironically, of course, that’s exactly what the viewer or listener wants. There’s nothing worse than a blowhard pundit coming out with rubbish unchallenged by the presenter. That used to happen a lot, but much less so now.
However, it is undoubtedly true that all the best presenters are far more intelligent and well-informed than many of their ex-player guests. They see a lot of games every week, they have to pay attention and do research. It must drive them nuts to hear some of the guff the pundits come out with when they themselves have a greater, deeper knowledge. Yet it’s key to any presenter on any programme not to come over as an unbearable smart arse. They’re not supposed to outshine ‘the talent’ because to do so is to make the presence of the talent irrelevant. They are not the star – even though, really, they are. This must surely lead to a lot of tongue-biting.
I recall a recent discussion on 5live when a presenter quite audibly got fed up with the pundit and snapped at him, almost putting him down for some idiotic statement, also possibly annoyed at the dreary architecture of his soul, and I thought then that it hinted at the real pressures of the job. Imagine being on air for hours, always being polite, and never letting slip that you dislike someone, and just never swearing or coming out with something which will cause of Twitterstorm. I tip my hat (metaphysically, I don’t own a hat) to those who do it so well.
So who are your favourites?
I think our favourites are always good at the job, but they have a special other quality which chimes with our individual psyche. It can be anything; their laugh, their smile, their accent, the timbre of their voice, their outlook on life, their wit and charm or just their ability to wear a nice top.
Before we get to who you voted for, I’ll give you my favourites.
In no particular order they are: Kelly Cates, Mark Chapman, James Richardson, Lynsey Hipgrave, Matt Smith and Jeff Stelling. Why? Because all of them are warm, welcoming, knowledgeable, smart and funny. All are also totally largely taken for granted and never get any press kudos, but nevertheless they are the sun in our football sky and it would be a dark, cold place without them. As I sit down with the first vodka of the evening, to hear or see any of these is to know you’re in a good place and all will be well.
They each have a relaxed, natural quality to their work which makes you feel you are seeing the real person, and not some media construct. You feel like they’re talking to you in their natural voice, though I’m guessing with a lot less swear words (sadly). Though it’s an illusion, it feels like they’re all friends who you’re pleased to have in your home. There’s no faking that. And it’s absolutely essential to make your audience feel that way if you’re going to do the job right, I think.
In an industry which attracts big egos that are in inverse proportion to size of talent, that we have so many broadcasters of stellar ability is a credit both to those who employ them, as well as to the presenters themselves.
And here’s a suggestion for all producers: We need a weekly football discussion show which ONLY features presenters and commentators. Why? Because they’re the most knowledgeable people to ask about the week’s football, and they’re trained communicators. Almost all our favourite football telly & radio people are not ex-players, they are broadcasters. And in truth they are the real talent, not the ex-pros or managers. So why not give them a format where they can show us their football chops?
So who are your favourites?
There were 22 names suggested on Twitter. No votes for Richard Keys, which was a bit of a stitch up. One person wanted to know what had happened to the excellent Mark Bolton who used to be on Sky. Hello Mark! We liked you a lot. Please come back and see us sometime.
Bubbling under this top 5, the superb Graham Hunter got strong support, as did the excellent Jacqui Oatley and our old boss, Danny Kelly.
There was even a vote for our own Winty as host of the long-defunct but revolutionary Podball: A podcast we used to do before anyone listened to podcasts and on which I admitted to wanting to have sex with Fabio Cannavaro (just sex, no cuddling, Fab, alright?)
Here’s who you love…
5. Matt Smith. “I love Matt…Would put him on everything.”
4. Kelly Cates. “Always gets my attention on the radio. Clear, calm and concise and can be pretty funny.”
3. Jeff Stelling. “In a league of his own. What other presenter has done a full on rant against Southerners slagging Boro off?”
2=Gary Lineker . “Effortlessly blends good insight and genuine passion with the main business of thoughtful questioning.”
2=Mark Chapman. “Confident, comfortable and able to spot a pundit talking complete nonsense.”
And the winner is….well, anyone familiar with this column might have guessed this. Polling nearly 3 times more votes than anyone else…
- James Richardson.
“Someone you could talk football with for years and loves a massive gelato, if Channel 4 was telling the truth.”
“Knowledgeable with a nice dry wit.”
“The right mix of knowledge, humour and being on the same wavelength as his audience and panellists. Peerless.”
“Huge range of knowledge of different random subjects, to add to excellence of footy chat.”
“Dry, laconic wit with a frame of reference way beyond EPL or football for that matter.”
“Always easy on the ear and completely authoritative.”
The people who follow me on Twitter love ACJimbo, but here’s the interesting thing, to use an old school musical analogy: If the mainstream telly presenter is Roxy Music, Jimbo is very much Eno’s solo albums. In other words, whilst in our world, he’s commonplace high art, to the regular, pub, Match of the Day and Saturday night on the nest crowd, he’s virtually unknown. Ask most football fans who he is and only a small minority will know. Amazing how someone so highly regarded can still be a niche. Perhaps that’s what we also like. He’s Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy to the mainstream’s Manifesto.
The defining thing about his work, to me, is that he’s simply very knowledgeable. Sometimes football media seems conducted by and for the intellectually incurious. It’s not that Jimbo is some high-brow aesthete, just that he knows stuff. The sense that he doesn’t take it all too seriously pervades, and somehow, perhaps ironically, that gives the work more gravitas. It certainly makes watching or listening to the shows he does an absolute pleasure.
Thanks for all your contributions, next week it’s the turn of commentators. Tell me, who do you love? @johnnythenic.