In his new series, Johnny is considering the State of the Football Nation on TV and radio, celebrating the great and the good, and politely making a passive-aggressive guttural noise in his throat at the rubbish. This week it’s the place where the tumbleweed blows and somewhere in the distance, a faint, mournful echo can be heard. “He’s almost hit that too well,” says the voice of Andy Townsend, floating in the wind. That’ll be ITV, then.
They don’t have a lot between international tournaments, but what there is is all 100% free, in return for showing us dreadful adverts for stuff almost no-one needs, ads which everyone surely mutes anyway. As I was researching this, I realised that the football is literally the only thing I have watched on ITV in quite possibly a whole year, and perhaps even longer. The thought that the clock of existence is counting down one’s own mortality as you waste life watching Celebrity Juice is too awful to bear. Such TV must ruin your quality of life and mind.
Their big gig is the England Euro and World Cup Qualifiers and friendlies, along with highlights of all of the other international games. They will be doing the tournaments too. The rest is comprised of highlights shows covering the Champions League, Europa League and Bundesliga, and they also show four FA Youth Cup games and the final on ITV4.
For a once great football broadcaster, this is thin gruel and set to get thinner still, as they only have the European highlights rights until 2018, as BT Sport continue their takeover of football on the telly.
The glory days of On the Ball, Saint and Greavsie, Sunday afternoon Football League highlights and big Champions League nights are now a distant memory. Somewhere in our collective consciousness, there’s a half-heard distant echo of Big Ron saying “he’s given him the reducer” back when all seemed right with the world, back when we all had more hair and hoped the future wouldn’t be dictated by stupid, bigoted, narrow-minded old people.
They currently employ two of the best presenters in the business in Jacqui Oatley and Mark Pougatch.
The former brings a rather sharp-minded, diamond-blue-eyed, sparrowhawk-ish quality to the gig. However, even in 2017 when a football show is hosted by a woman, alongside some male ex-pros of a certain age, you sit there with a knot of stress in your gut, fearing the worst. The ex-pro probably does too, as he worries he can’t do lady banter and has only a vague idea what you can and can’t say these days.
The unthinking, default second-rating of female opinion is endemic in football and indeed in society, as anyone who has seen Rachel Brown-Finnis on BT Sport’s Saturday afternoon show Score may have also witnessed.
But as a very experienced broadcaster who has an MBE for services to broadcasting and diversity in sport, and who has been subjected to years of “just a bit of banter”/casual sexism over the years, Jacqui is well able to deal with it, as she well proved again this week. But…y’know…still this? Really?
Pougatch, or Poogers to give him his slightly unpleasant moniker, sounding, as it does, like a digestive condition brought on by eating undercooked chicken, is always the grown-up in the room. He’s got a degree in Politics y’know? And he’s married to Lady Victoria Scott, the younger daughter of the 5th Earl of Eldon, which sounds like it should make him about 14th in line to the throne and that he should own the whole of Oxfordshire. King Poogers was brought in to replace Adrian Chiles after his four-year tenure was ended, to the tears of few, and he has kept everything ticking along at a solid 8 out of 10 since, even while under the mighty laser-like glare of Roy Keane. Wears undemonstrative clothes and has specialised in being a facilitator rather than a star.
When it comes to commentators, there is only one Clive, Clive and that’s Clive, Clive. A man who has tremendous taste in 60s and 70s blues rock, I might add. Clive is an icon of…well…something. He seems to have been around forever, going back to the days of World of Sport and before that on Radio City in Liverpool. Now 62, he’s an ITV institution having been the main commentator for 20 years now. Yes, he may have idiosyncrasies that some find hard to digest but, for me, Clive, we’ll miss him when he’s gone. Just look how much we missed Andy Townsend being in and around our weekly football telly lives.
ITV is also home to an unheralded hero in Gabriel Clarke, who has been on their books since doing reporting for Saint and Greavsie in 1991. He is always pitchside, doing a piece to camera, backstage interviewing a manager, or making a short interview film. Like a faithful family dog, he’s always there, but goes largely unnoticed. Went through a phase of having tremendous long hair which gave him the appearance of man who played keyboards in a 1970s progressive rock band. His dad is Alan Clarke, the film director who made Scum. ‘Ave a bang on that.
But let’s end this section on Lee Dixon who, let’s not dress this up, is wasted in not being employed to talk about league or European football. He is a peerless performer and fully-fledged member of the grown-up talent. Having to cram his insight into a few minutes before the next ad break during England games is an insult to his abilities. He desperately needs a move to BT Sport or the BBC.
RECENT HITS AND MISSES
Well, getting the two biggest international tournaments is a huge hit and keeps them in the game.
Their German highlights are presented by someone who is a bit of a cult football TV hero: Isabella Muller-Reinhardt. She’s quite, quite tremendous – especially if you watch her on German telly.
It’s easy to imagine her as a Cold War nihilist, wearing black leather trousers, smoking a pack of f6, listening to Tangerine Dream in Berlin, 1975, whilst drinking schnapps and plotting the overthrow of the state, an AK47 hidden in the loft, a dirk in her sock, ready for revolution.
But why are ITV still playing Bittersweet Symphony before and after England games? OK, we get it. We got it years ago. Time for something new, surely.
I’ve always felt they never appreciated the talent they had, especially in the Chiles era which saw the excellent Matt Smith pushed into late timeslots on obscure channels. He’s gone on to bigger and better things, thankfully, but the fact he was always overlooked in favour of big money names didn’t reflect well on the channel’s executives.
Being selective about who you invite to talk about non-English international football would help their output. Some pundits’ knowledge of the game almost anywhere else is painfully thin and they fall back on cliches almost immediately, in lieu of actual knowledge.
Indeed, their pundits are often misses, I’m afraid. They go from the sublime in Dixon to, well, Glenn Hoddle. His England work this week was an especially threadbare word tapestry. And employing Paul Ince must only be done if everyone else who has even heard of the word ‘football’ is unavailable, as his combination of silly boyishness with nervous, twitchy paranoia, all wrapped up in leg squeezer-geezerishness makes the viewer feel as uncomfortable as Paul himself looks.
And while we’re talking uncomfortable, bordering on shifty, I shall say only two words: ‘Ryan’ and ‘Giggs’. I never knew a man who could make the word ‘exciting’ sound so very boring.
Roy Keane is always a compulsive watch and, given he could get a gig on any network, it’s interesting that he chooses ITV. But as Ian Wright is a regular on BBC1, 2, 5live and BT Sport, there seems little new to be gained by asking him onto ITV too unless the bookers are simply craven to the decisions of others.
LOVED OR LOATHED
There’s much sad, old love for what ITV used to be, for the much missed Brian Moore, for the big European nights, even for Andy T whose well-worn expressions became a kind of sucky blanket to hang onto as the dark night wrapped its fingers around us. But there is much less affection for what they’ve become. Their Bundesliga highlights show and Isabella Muller-Reinhardt have a small but dedicated following. But oh, Glenn. I had to actually ask for positive comments about him, because the tide of negativity was reaching tsunami-level proportions and I don’t like it when everything is 100% bad; it seems unfair and bullyish. So I included all the nice things said about him, and excluded many, many, many dozens of the rest.
‘ITV inferior in every way to the BBC. Everything seems rushed because of ads.’
‘She (Isabella Muller-Reinhardt) has grown on me a lot, very idiosyncratic English and intonation is so endearing.’
‘(Bundesliga highlights) The only bit of Euro football TV coverage that the dastardly BT Sport haven’t hoovered up.’
‘Think they’ve improved their major tournament work a lot but their regular stuff hurt by 1 too many ad breaks in half time.’
‘Weirdly, I thought during the England match that Tyldesley had improved a bit.’
‘They have a special “magic” that turns any decent Beeb presenter into rubbish. Adrian Chiles, Des Lynam, er…that’s it.’
‘Of all the footie on TV options, ITV are by far the worst.’
‘I like their matches, they don’t try and squeeze too much in, show the game and a bit of analysis – treat you like an adult.’
‘I have to say, with Pougatch’s arrival they do seem to have turned a corner, studio/pundit wise.’
‘I don’t know if it was them or just because it was free to air but I really miss their Champions League coverage, even Andy Townsend.’
‘I find their Champions League highlights programmes impressive. Mark Pougatch is a superb presenter, he has genuine gravitas.’
‘Their biggest impact on the media seems to be providing Roy Keane with a platform for humorous barbs.’
‘(The Bundesliga highlights) feels like Football Italia but with a tall German woman and less cakes. Surprisingly good for ITV.’
‘Minimal, jingoistic nonsense. Tried pally approach with Chiles. Pougatch is wasted there.’
‘Always thought that their football coverage, particularly England, is what the Daily Mail in television form would look like.’
‘Run by people who think the Cup Final is a warm up act for Britain’s Got Talent. It is run by people who think Bittersweet Symphony is cool, edgy and appeals to affluent young people.’
‘Ian Wright and Glenn Hoddle make me watch it with the sound muted. Just find them annoying personally.’
‘I think his (Hoddle’s) problem is similar to his failings as a manager, outstanding player but sh*t communicator.’
‘Their continued employment of Hoddle is baffling.’
‘With every opinion Glenn Hoddle imparts, I can feel my own brain cells sympathy-dying at such relentlessly ludicrous nonsense.’
‘Hoddle is like a scientology version of a commentator. Words come out that sound sage like but are actually bollocks.’
‘(Hoddle) he’s awful, can’t string a coherent sentence together. Regularly trails off mid-way. Yet lauded a genius by PFM punditocracy.’
‘I used to think he (Hoddle) had an alternative way of seeing things, but watching him now is just awful. Very clichéd, very predictable.’
‘(Hoddle is ) great if you view him as footy pundit satire.’
‘Presenters good, Clive reliable, but then they make Glenn Hoddle their main summariser.’
‘My mum thinks Hoddle is great as he has a soothing voice.’
‘I like Hoddle when he’s doing the studio analysis role.’
‘In the studio he has said a few interesting things and you can see he does genuinely love the game, but can be hit or miss.’
‘Their coverage of Euro 2012 was better than BBC and their repeated poaching of Beeb presenters has finally worked with Pougers.’
‘(Bundesliga highlights) Great show. (Isabella Muller-Reinhardt) has the most perfect German accent. Love how she pronounces the team names…’
‘ITV football without Andy Townsend, not for me Clive.’
WHAT CAN THEY DO BETTER?
In some ways, they’re doing all they can with limited resources. They usually do a very a good tournament, Hoddle camel toes aside. But the rest of it very much feels like everyone is trying to make the best of a bad job. Even the Verve’s music seems to cast a tired, dated, the-glory-days-are-gone-melancholia on proceedings.
OK, so they’ve not been able to win many rights for much football, but they should at least try to make sure what they do broadcast is crisp, fresh and innovative. So not employing the same old faces would be an obvious fix to make. Also, though they’re far from uniquely guilty in this, try not to employ any of the cabal of slightly weird middle-aged-football-boy-men in the studio. They seem to live in a strange world that the viewer doesn’t recognise.
It obvious to anyone who watches a lot of football on TV who, by and large, the best pundits are, so just give one of them a call to sit beside Lee Dixon for live games. I suggest Danny Higginbotham. There’s simply no need to keep dragging the same old names out when they’re mumbling their way through the gig, drawing on out-of-date experiences, unable to articulate themselves in a way which is either informative or entertaining. If ITV managers think comment such as “England just need to find the right ball” is worth paying any money for, they are surely deluded, as this is the sort of banal nonsense literally anyone could say. Better you have no co-comm than that. Clive is perfectly capable of filling the silence.
They are lucky to have two excellent presenters, one great pundit, another eccentric one and a legendary commentator, but the feeling that the company is supporting their best talent poorly won’t go away until an overhaul in management thinking takes place.