Did BBC or ITV topple 5 live in World Cup week two?

Date published: Friday 29th June 2018 12:08

It’s week two of the insane-o-rama World Cup and Johnny has been watching and listening to the TV and radio to try and assess who’s done a good job and who’s just done.


Sometimes broadcasters need to drum up stories and pass them off as interesting news, even when we all know it’s nothing of the sort. But this past week there’s been plenty of prime, Grade A football meat to feast upon. So how have BBC, ITV, 5 live and talkSPORT done this week?

Let’s talk about the stars first. Pablo Zabaleta has been especially great on the BBC telly team at a time when it really needed perking up. His voice is delicious in its timbre: something sonically akin to Heinz tomato soup on a chilly day. Charm is a funny business really, but he just projects a relaxed, intelligent, good vibe and is one of those people who somehow, in someway, pulls everyone together. During the Portugal v Iran game, he was like a disapproving father, saying how much he hated all the playacting. He was modest and funny too.

Didier Drogba has had a similar inclusive effect on the team at a time when, occasionally and understandably, things have flagged a little. This has been especially true during the broadcasts I’ve seen hosted by Gary Lineker. Everything has been super smooth and slick. Absolutely nothing wrong with it at all, but it’s all been a bit medium-paced bowling on a wicket which is taking spin, if you know what I mean.

Normally bright-eyed types like Jermaine Jenas have sat a little glumly and sometimes, there’s been a lack of genuine chemistry between the worker bees. That’s not to say it’s not been good, only that something has held it back from being even better.

However, it’s been less serious when Mark Chapman has been in the MOTD chair, as he seems to quite naturally uncork the footballing Prosecco at the sports bar of life. A good example of this was when he was hosting with Phil Neville on the team. I like Phil as he has a rather gauche, innocent, abroad way about him that is rare in this cynical modern world. He was next to Didier and Pablo and a chat about Yerba Mate (a traditional tea popular in South America) ensued. Pablo offered Didier a sip and he found it very acceptable. The dread rose in Phil’s eyes knowing he was going to have to take a drink as well. Now bear in mind this stuff had been drunk for centuries and is available in all health food shops in UK. Phil flinched and asked “is it a fashion thing?” like it was hippie crack or something, before taking a sip and declaring it disgusting. (It isn’t, it’s just like a herby green tea).

Anyway, it made me laugh because he wore the expression my mother used to wear when asked to taste food that were what she called “foreign muck”. This included pasta, about which she said: “It’s just like a sort of boiled bread, that stuff. Horrible.”

Zab went on to say that he’d offered Stuart Pearce a drink of it once at West Ham and he had forcefully rejected its efficacy. “That was a bit scary,” he said, with a grin and no little understatement.

The BBC has been running excellent interviews between Gabby Logan and England players which have been quietly revealing – not so much in facts learned but in illustrating the relaxed mood. There seems none of the uptight, just-trying-to-say-the-right-thing tendency of the past.

On ITV it’s also been a bit patchy this week. Jacqui and Pougers are both as professional as ever, but it does sometimes seem a bit hard work dragging the good stuff out of the team. I think Patrice Evra has gone home now and I doubt he’ll be asked back, all things considered. Wrighty looks like he’s spent a small fortune on nice shirts. Maybe it’s mid-tournament fatigue but like on BBC TV, there’s been a bit of a dip in energy. Roy Keane has been doing the Full Roy, like when praising Harry Kane.

“Even when he scores – no silly dances – a real proper player.”

But again, each time I’ve seen them, it’s hardly been a party. Martin O’Neill has been there but there’s been no spark. I still feel Gary Neville is half-powered and Giggs still looks like a rabbit in the headlights who seems to doubt every word that emerges from his own mouth. Best in show again was Eni Aluko who doesn’t seem to have suffered the mid-tournament blues.

Glenn Hoddle seemed to be losing his voice. Some may feel that to be a blessing.

However, one of their less vaunted performers I do always enjoy is Gabriel Clarke, who has been doing England reports. Long after the Panama game ended, he was still in the now-empty stadium, talking in that smooth, unimpressed velvet voice, looking like a lonesome crow. “This is a side who fear no-one,” he says in a sober tone, like he was reading a child a bedside story.

But there has been a couple of proper stars this week on ITV and that’s the roadshow of mirth that is Ally McCoist and Jon Champion who have clearly been having a rare old time travelling around Russia. They’ve got that unfathomable thing that all partnerships have: chemistry. And that is what transforms the commentaries from being routine to being entertainment, and they should be entertainment, not just a stream of say-what-you-see facts.

Champion plays the straight man of course. “Kazan has come a long way since it fell to Ivan the Terrible in 1552,” says Coisty, in between talking about Johnny Rotten and getting excited by the football. They’re both having a great tournament. Listen to this and you get an idea of what they’ve been up to.

Also doing well is Steve Crossman, who was the fella who made the De Gea taxi joke that I mentioned last week. Steve’s been all over 5 live this week interviewing players and contributing to discussions and he has brought some welcome Teesside vibes to proceedings. On Tuesday he talked to journalists Neil Ashton, John Cross and Andy Dunn and I thought he managed to manipulate them very well. To hear them (over) praise England now, you’d never have thought they’d written so much defeatist, cynical garbage beforehand about how rubbish they were.

The way they now fellate Gareth Southgate is little short of embarrassing and it’s hard not to see them erecting him a very high pedestal just to better enjoy knocking him off it when the time comes. Sometimes I think they think we don’t know what they’re doing and then sometimes it seems as if they’re not even aware they’re doing it at all. It is easily one of the more unpleasant aspects of all this and is an axiomatic part of the ongoing debasing and souring of British life by these publications.

I don’t know what Steve’s history is in broadcasting, but he’s been a welcome and cheerful addition to the 5 live team. Let’s hope he’s on-board full-time.

Next I need to find out who Mark Tompkins is as he watched Saudi v Morocco for the BBC. Never heard of him previously. Sorry Mark.

This has also been the week of VAR issues. I know we’re all fed up with talking about it and I’m sure the broadcasters are too but obviously issues still need to be addressed. Trouble is, some of them are not fully certain how, when and why VAR should come into play and when it shouldn’t. That sometimes means they don’t know if the officials are doing the right or wrong thing and you can hear the doubt in their voices. The two primo examples of this are Jonno Pearce and Mark Lawrenson.

Jonno was on duty with Kevin Kilbane for the Germany v South Korea game. On the first Korea goal, he said: “Ooooh it must beee….Germany are heading out… Oh, he’s half a yard offside, I don’t think you need VAR for that!”

“It’s come off the defender,” says Killer, calmly.

“Ah. You do need VAR!” yells Jonno. But I sense he wishes he didn’t have to deal with it at all, and who can blame him for that? He did sum up the Germany exit very well though.

“Young and fashionable in Rio, they’ve looked old and old-fashioned in Russia. Yesterday’s heroes have become yesterday’s men.” Sweet.

Lawro does rub some up the wrong way of course, but he remains one of the BBC’s most distinctive voices and I’ve always felt we need his withering cynicism when it comes to playacting and diving. He’s come with his usual arsenal of terrible jokes. When the commentator says “this match is available in UHD,” our man quips, “I thought you were talking about milk”, cracking a joke no-one under the age of 40 will get. At one point he asked which of the yachts in a distant harbour might be Lineker’s. It all falls from him like so much distracted mumbling and that’s what I like about it, I think. He’s aware of the inconsequentiality of what he’s doing. After all, it’s only sodding football, as we’re so fond of saying.

I was talking to Robbie Savage this week about his morning half-hour show and he was saying how he had been tasked with making an upbeat half an hour of morning entertainment. He’s certainly done that. It’s usually bright and breezy stuff, based around chats with the BBC pundits. 8.30am is too early for in-depth analysis because people have lives to live and other things to do. Friday’s show featured Gazza. Now he must be a difficult interviewee because of his issues and you know you might have to hit the swear button at any point!

Chris Waddle and Freddie Flintoff were on hand to ease things through, but I thought the way Robbie took a back seat in the chat was well-judged. The toughest bit of presenting shows must be deciding when not to speak and when to leave the guests to talk. You can’t really probe Paul too much, for obvious reasons. It was all good natured and ended with Gazza and Waddler saying how much they loved each other. That was actually a little moving and, as ever, once you’ve heard Paul talk, it leaves a few tears of sadness in your soul. That was a little gem to start the day.

Chris Sutton continues to rampage across Russia and has turned into a history professor, seemingly happy to dispense facts and figures about every place he’s been posted to. For the penalty decision in the Portugal v Iran game, Chris declared: “There’s no way he can give that as a penalty. But then he does. It was a ridiculous decision. His head was frazzled.” I love the word frazzled. You can’t beat a double zed.

Tim Vickery has been on air a lot in the last week too, declaring the Argentine defence to be “held together by duct tape and Javier Mascherano”, and generally dispensing knowledge like you would sweets.

Guillem Balague has been a good contributor on 5 live‘s Spanish coverage too. Also good value has been the well-used Rob Green who did a good piece about how many goalies are having to adapt their game to the new requirements and how you have to go against your instincts to boot it long, when it’s all you’ve been told to do all your life. His point is that experienced keepers had much less value these days in comparison to keepers who can play the ‘new’ way.

Over on talkSPORT, after Jason Cundy’s TV performance this week I’ve been put off even listening in case he’s on. I just don’t want his brand of nonsense to harsh my buzz. And their phone-ins really would test the patience of a saint. However, I’ve made a special effort to tune in to any of Ian Danter’s commentaries, as I’ve really been enjoying his work in tandem with Matt Holland. They’re working really well together and he’s been the stations best commentator to date that I’ve heard. Here‘s one of his little promo pieces

And while we’re looking at clips, this one was very amusing. Kelly Cates takes us around the 5 live ‘studio’, which just looks like a small cafe full of TVs and computers. That they produce such great, professional radio from such cramped conditions is a testament to the quality of all involved.

Chris Waddle has continued to be on fine form. On seeing a sleepy Maradona he said that, “yeah, the water’s strong here”. He also did a great podcast with Mark Chapman and Terry Butcher about their experiences of playing Belgium in 1990. Inevitably, there were many tales of Gazza. The Waddler’s exasperation at all the discussion about whether England should win or come second in the group was typically good common sense. “You go out, try to win and whatever happens, happens”. Such fatalism is the antidote to the endless anally tentative overthinking that passes for some football debate these days. Also it has to be said Chris’s voice is a joy as it offers no concession to modernity at all. ‘Our’ is still ‘wa’, ‘cannot’ is ‘cannat’ and his off-mic yelps and groans at the action on the pitch always make me sit up.

One of the week’s best commentaries which didn’t involve Jon Champion and Coisty was Ian Dennis‘s work on the Brazil v Serbia game. He was annoyed by Neymar’s playacting: “Did he need to roll four five six times? NO WAY!” says Denno, giving it the full Northern Bellow (one for David Coverdale fans, there).

As Serbia tried to get back in the game, he yelled: “If you’re going to go out of the World Cup you’re going to go out fighting!”, his voice rasping like sandpaper, emotions rising. It was proper hair-raising stuff.

Another one of the newer voices this week on 5 live was journalist Archie Rhind-Tutt who is based in Germany but is English. He sounded like a footballing Adrian Mole and that is a very good thing. ‘There’s only one Rhind-Tutt’ must surely be an accurate chant.

I’ve tended to avoid 5 live’s 606’s phone-ins, especially any that involve talking about England because when I do hear them, the quality of contribution is often low and when you add that into the terrible quality of almost every mobile phone connection in this country, it all makes it a very unpleasant experience. But I did give the post-Belgium one with Kelly and Terry Butcher a go. There was – as there always is – a Mancunian who sounds like he’s trying to start a fight outside a pub, all passive-aggressive snarl – who told us that England have some “very, very poor players”. This objectively isn’t true.

There was a lot more of this sort of unreasoned stuff. Where does the pleasure lie in hearing it? In what other walk of life would anyone choose to hear ill-informed opinion as entertainment? At one point it genuinely sounded like Kelly was a carer just trying to be nice to people who were existentially angry or bewildered in some way.

Even the articulate people were merely restating points that had been made time and time again by the pundits and commentators. To me, this is largely valueless broadcasting.

In fact, as much as I love 5 live, their insistence on talking to fans and members of the public is their weakest card by a long way. It’s not a bad idea in theory to speak to the people, but it is so inevitably random that you end up with some right old guff cluttering the airwaves. Rachel Burden was showing fans the England line-up, pre-game. No-one really knew what to say about it and it was excruciating listening for a few minutes. The conclusions were “I’m happy with that”, and “Well, I’d have liked to see Kane”, and you stare at the radio and wonder what the point in all of that really was? If someone stops you on the street and asks you almost anything, it’d be hard to say anything that you would wish to be broadcast as entertainment, wouldn’t it? Most of us can’t be especially eloquent and insightful on demand, so I’m not sure why any broadcaster thinks it might still be a good idea to talk to us. I just end up feeling sorry for all concerned.

If it was down to me I wouldn’t even read out most of the Tweets, as so many of them are a total overreaction and you can hear the presenter’s weary exasperation at even having to utter the words. Just because it is a point of view, that is not a justification in and of itself for broadcasting it. I’d rather hear the commentators talk among themselves as they know way more than most civilians. Oh well. Maybe I’m out on a limb on this.

Oh and while I’m talking 5 live, they’ve definitely been telling us when comms are from the studio. I must’ve just missed them previously. Jolly good.

So who was this week’s winner in the Broadcasting Battle? Well, as both TV broadcasters felt a little tired at points this week, I have to hand it to 5 live again for keeping their energy levels high, so high that when Mark Chapman is in the MOTD studio, he raises the energy level there too. All broadcasters have their strengths and weaknesses but 5 live have more of the former and less of the latter than anyone else. It still seems to be a kind of football-themed youth hostelling holiday for them all.

There was a lovely touching moment on BBC TV by Lineker announcing the death of Albert Sewell, who you will all doubtless recall was the stats man that Des used to refer to.

Long before there was Opta, there was Albert. Rest in peace, old boy. There’s no more counting to be done now.

John Nicholson


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