F365’s love letter to…a phenomenal year for TV and radio

Date published: Friday 21st December 2018 11:22

2018 passed ever so quickly. Every year seems to be getting shorter. You run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking, racing around to come up behind you again. And while hanging on in quiet desperation may still be the English way, it’s worth pausing to appreciate what has happened, to say our thanks for the good stuff, and cast one last smile to the past as another year gets behind us. So this is my Love Letter to some of the people, moments and things I enjoyed most in football TV and radio in 2018.

5 live’s World Cup team. It was like they had all gone on one long youth hostelling holiday together and were simply having the time of their lives. The whole thing was one big, wide summer smile.

John Murray’s commentary on England v Colombia. “Finally, finally, finally this jinx is broken” as Eric Dier scored to win England the penalty shoot-out, with the Waddler yelling “Eric!” off-mic. Perfect.

Chris Sutton‘s howling and laughing at Manuel Neuer being caught out of his goal for Germany’s defeat to South Korea. Schadenfreude doesn’t cover it.

Ian Dennis‘s throat-tearing performance for Spain v England as England scored a third. Spine-tingling. No-one does a rising emotional roar quite like Denno.

Steve Crossman’s addition to the 5 live presenting team. His Zlatan interview was a standout.

Sutton Death on 606. Genuinely tense stuff. At times it sounds as if Chris and Ali are wrestling, possibly in front of a roaring fire, possibly naked like Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Women In Love.

BT’s European Goals Show. Simply the best way to enjoy the Champions League group stages. Funny, informed, informative and quietly revolutionary.

The emergence of Stephen Warnock as a pundit. Engaging, funny and well-researched. Simply very good from the get-go. A lot more is expected and delivered by younger ex-player pundits and they frequently cast a long shadow over the old guard.

Don Hutchison on 5 live. A long time co-comm on European football – particularly the Bundesliga – has finally been given more frequent chances to show off his chops on the BBC. He is immense. Always seems totally across whatever it is he’s discussing. Superb European football knowledge. Has a gimlet eye and mixes deep factual knowledge with incisive perception. I don’t think I’ve heard a better ex-player this year.

Jon Champion and Ally McCoist and their Russian travelogue on the World Cup for ITV. Less a football commentary team and more a lovely middle-aged couple on a second honeymoon falling in love all over again.

The return of Arlo White on 5 live. Hello Arlo!

Daniel Taylor has written some wonderful pieces for the Guardian this year, none more important than his investigation into child abuse at clubs. A reason to pay for journalism.

talkSPORT’s TransEuro Express with Danny Kelly. Now with Andy Brassell riding shotgun on a permanent basis. One for the ‘listening to this educates me’ file as well as the ‘bloody good fun’ file. Essential listening. Has so far played Zappa and Deep Purple at my request. Anyone that does that is going to get my vote.

Robbie Savage‘s 2018 must be his peak year so far. Now with his own show on 5 live and BT Sport, as well as doing BT Score and also Saturday’s award-winning 606. Add to that his popular Savage, Flintoff & The Ping Pong guy podcast which, perhaps unexpectedly, has had many tender moments and important discussions, and you have a lot of approval for someone who suffers a disproportionate amount of criticism.

BT Sport Premier League Tonight Saturday discussions. Deep, thoughtful and regularly casting light into darkness or revealing that which was previously hidden. All simply done but all brilliantly done. Jake Humphrey is unfairly maligned by some. He does a great job on this show.

Lee Dixon. There’s a massive Dixon-shaped hole in Britain’s daily football life because he works for ITV. Made a rare co-comm appearance on 5 live this season. Was he great? Of course he was.

Alan Smith’s autobiography, ‘Heads Up’. One of the best of its kind this year from a man whose qualities shine through.

David Squires’s cartoons. His Guardian works are simply wonderful. A brilliant artist with a clever mind and an ability to cut through the meat to find the bone.

Daniel Gray’s Black Boots and Football Pinks – 50 Lost Wonders of the Beautiful Game. A slim volume of his trademark poetic prose which evokes so many memories.

Rory Smith‘s writing in the New York Times always brings detailed insight that educates as much as it entertains. Tremendous value in 5 live discussions and podcasts too. His proposition on last week’s MNC that Manchester United don’t need to be successful to be financially dominant, that there is more exposure and social media clicks in being a bit rubbish, was typically profound, envelope-pushing thinking.

Marina Hyde‘s Guardian columns. No-one dishes out a savaging with as much sweetened acid. Sometimes hides the dirk in a literary velvet glove, sometimes just sticks it right where the sun don’t shine with a rare ferocity. A genuinely important writer on football, sport, politics and life, who knows that to take anything seriously you must laugh at it.

Set Piece Menu podcast. Four friends talking about football over food doesn’t sound like it’d be a must-listen but when those four are Rory Smith, Hugh Ferris, Steven Wyeth and Andy Hinchcliffe, it is. They discuss big, important subjects in an intelligent, accessible way but also obsess over the sort of details that only football’s over-focused minds concern themselves with. And that’s why it’s great. Hinchcliffe’s talk of how a co-comm goes about being any good was absolutely enlightening and you’d hope would be followed by all who do the job or would like to.

Simon Jordan on talkSPORT. The ex-Palace chairman usually works with Danny Kelly and is an extraordinary performer. Very articulate, has probably never said “err…I don’t know” in his life. His experiences in football are never less than riveting and the way he talks about them is never not gripping. His insights into how the cogs of the football machine turn behind the scenes are always fascinating.

Nutmeg. A periodical published every two months, it contains original writing about Scottish football in both sporting and cultural terms. The sort of publication that is the antidote to tabloid media’s nonsensical blowharding. Indeed, so much is this the case that it is hard to think both of them use the same language.

Jonno Pearce. JP isn’t just a great commentator, he’s also hilarious on a regular basis. Dry, self-deprecating and never slow to tell you when he’s wearing thermal underwear, his story about being seen by other guests in his underwear in a hotel room this year was particularly magnifico.

BT Sport ads have made me laugh: the one with Gary Lineker, Rio and ball-juggling studio workers especially so.

The Football Show on Yahoo Sport has been fun and diverse. Fronted by Lynsey Hipgrave, she’s also brought her welcome and not inconsiderable talents to BT all year long.

David Pleat on the radio. Used all too rarely these days but even so, every minute is a stone-cold classic when he is on. Hello, everyone!

Totally Football Show‘s tribute to the late and great Peter Brackley, who was such a huge part of our growing up.

Gab Marcotti has been on many programmes all year long and always brings something original to the debate. An original who simply doesn’t do the default thinking thing that is still too common. As soon as you hear his voice you think, ‘oh I’ll listen to this, this’ll be good’. Writes an excellent column too.

Tam Cowan and Stuart Cosgrove on BBC Scotland on Saturdays. A football broadcasting version of Tablet: compulsive.

Colin Murray on 5 live and Quest. Does sterling service in the Fighting Talk chair and doing the new EFL highlights show but this year his ‘At Home’ series has been a must-listen. His chat with Steve McClaren was easily the most revealing, human and warm of any that have ever been done with the former Boro boss.

Mark Pougatch‘s Jimmy Armfield documentary. A lovely, understated programme for a lovely, understated man. Pougers’s incredulity at Jimmy’s modesty at missing the ’66 final was so heartwarming and the programme was full of those moments when the swirl of emotions sweep into your synapses and all at once you feel nostalgic, appreciative, happy, sad and all too mortal. Show of the year? Well, there was nothing better, that’s for sure.

BT Sport’s coverage of Scottish football with Darrell Currie. Far more arsy, far more inclement weather and way more confrontational than its English relation. With the likes of Stephen Craigen, Kris Boyd, Michael Stewart and the inimitable Chris Sutton, you always feel they’re just one drink away from a serious ruck. At times, genuinely riveting discussions and disputes.

(Great football too from one of Europe’s hippest leagues.)

The return of Jamie Carragher with Gary Neville. One of the reasons we live in an era which demands more than ever in terms of its pundits is down to these two purveyors of north western poetry prowling around each other in a verbal wrestle.

Dave Jones. One of TV’s ultimate facilitators. As reliable as air.

Paul Scholes’s punditry about Manchester United on BT. Football’s living Lowry painting has a voice like cold, horizontal rain blowing in off the moors and the disposition of an abandoned industrial canal. Yet there has been joy in his sorrowful, downbeat misery about his former employers. Somehow, after he’s had his say, the world, it don’t seem so bad.

Danny Baker‘s 5 live show on Saturdays. Only occasionally infected with football but never not wonderful broadcasting from someone who understands that life is a pointillist painting and every tiny dot is where the truth lies.

Tim Sherwood on The Debate. Always a hugely entertaining, non-nuanced, block capitals character, so much so that it is as though an actor is playing him as a satirical parody. No-one is more certain of his own point of view with less reason. See also: Paul Ince and Dean Saunders.

That Peter Crouch Podcast. In which our hero talks about what life in football is really like in a funny and candid way. In doing so, he often reveals just how awful the Alpha Male football club culture is. Makes me wonder how much talent we lose to the game because of that. The Christmas special was especially wonderful. The story of Peter giving his shoes to a homeless man was one to glaze the eyes.

Ray Wilkins tributes on 5 live were touching and moving and a reminder that behind so many genial, decent appearances, is someone in deep pain.

Pat Murphy’s reports. A wonderful BBC veteran midlands reporter, full of sharp grit and knowledge from a lifetime of working in football. Speaks with a fearless authority. One of the old school. Hard not to imagine he works with a nip of brandy in the bloodstream and a cigar in his top pocket for later.

Alex Scott had a big, well-deserved media breakthrough year. Fresh and incisive, she delivers with a broad smile and bright eyes, making us all feel a little bit happier about life. And lord knows we need that. This from the Guardian explains it.

‘She retired from professional football in 2017, joining the BBC’s FA Cup final reporting team in May last year. Celebrating after the game, she seized her chance and told the BBC’s head of football, Steve Rudge, that she was ready to go to the World Cup in 2018. “He was laughing and saying: ‘We need to build you first, you’re not ready.’ And I was like: ‘No, I’m ready. I know what I can offer,'” she says. And her response when she finally got offered the job? “I was like: ‘Oh, you finally saw it, did you?'”

“I’ve been in football since the age of eight. Of course I know what I’m talking about.

Amen, sister.

Jacqui Oatley‘s work as an ambassador for Women In Football and the promotion of fairness and equality in the game has been important and inspirational in helping us build a new, better future together. Anyone who puts their head above the parapet to fight for change in a sport that has a long history of sexism, misogyny and bullying deserves our praise. Always excellent broadcast work too from the ITV World Cup studio to Radio 4’s Today programme. Gets extra points for not clumping Patrice Evra around the head.

Mark Clemmit on 5 live. The BBC’s EFL man is a highly distinctive broadcaster who continues to bestride the field as the go-to fella for all things non-Premier League. When he talks, we listen and everyone who isn’t from Teesside probably thinks he’s a Geordie.

Kelly Cates, Mark Chapman, Caroline Barker, Mark Pougatch, Jonathan Overend: 5 live’s stable of stellar presenters who, if you listen to the station a lot, become like extended family members. All really knowledgeable, but all wear it really lightly. They have made being professional, friendly and informal into an art form. Our lives would be far less fun without them.

Every 5 live commentator – and I do mean every single one. Well done, one and all. You all paint pictures with words, deliver humour, insight, detail and emotion every day. If you’ve ever tried it, it is a really hard job: like patting your head while rubbing your tummy, herding cats and knitting socks with your feet, all at the same time. How they all do it beggars belief.

Martin Tyler. That he continues to be Sky’s primo commentator into his 70s is a tribute to his quality and consistency.

Gary Bloom. talkSPORT’s psychiatrist. His interviews with sportspeople have been fascinating and sometimes so intimate, you almost feel as if you are on the couch too. The one with Sam Allardyce was especially revealing.

BT Score led the way into the future by featuring two female pundits on the show. Then Sky Sports added a woman into Soccer Special nights. Hard not to see those two things as related. Now let’s see if they dare increase the estrogen levels on Soccer Saturday. See also the excellent Natalie Sawyer and Laura Woods on talkSPORT. The old world is rapidly fading and the times they are a changin’. It’s about time.

Match of the Day. Always there, like the wind. Always delivering, like a midwife. Still part of the warp and weft of British football broadcasting after 54 years. Gary, Gabby or Mark, it’s always good, always part of our national identity.

The Totally Football podcasts. Consistently entertaining and insightful with AC Jimbo and many other star performers. Now with an added portion of Caroline Barker hosting the EFL pod and amusing us all in the process.

Eni Aluko on ITV in the World Cup being applauded by Patrice Evra for doing the excellent job that he patently wasn’t up to doing himself was symbolic of the times on many different levels.

Mark Saggers. talkSPORT’s oft-unsung presenter who always brings some grown up and serious to the room. Love his low key, Night Fly, late-night jazz and conversation, java and a pack of Chesterfield Kings style.

Jermaine Jenas on radio and TV. Now such a part of the BBC and BT Sport furniture that we forget how relatively new he still is to the gig. Seems to be effortlessly shifting through the gears from pundit to presenter and now interviewer. Makes being good look easy. Bet he still gets asked his age in pubs.

David Preece, the ex-goalie, is to be found mostly on 5 live, the Totally Football Show and Twitter. A welcome specialist eye delivered in a welcome Sunderland accent which evokes the smell of coal smoke, rollies, Double Maxim and the hot beef dripping of chip shops on a December afternoon.

The Friday Night Social with Darren Fletcher and JJ. The perfect pre-weekend show always has interesting and original guests, often ex-players that you rarely if ever hear from. Can do both serious and fun. Seems to have the happy ability to get out-of-work managers jobs shortly after their appearance. Get Jose on.

Ian Wright. Made several important contributions to the racism debate on TV and radio, as well as bringing trademark bonhomie, fun, outlandish hats and creative nickname invention abilities.

Ian Dennis (again) going around the grounds to get scores and reports, all while commentating on a game from 3pm every Saturday afternoon on 5 live. An amazing feat of concentration which casts the listener’s mind via the airwaves to lives lived elsewhere. In doing so, it underlines the fact that we are all one.

The Women’s Football Show. The BBC is normalising coverage of the game by the simple process of being there week in week out. And the sky has not fallen in.

The Guardian Football Weekly Podcast. After 2017’s revolution, it has emerged even stronger. To become essential listening is to be at the peak of your trade as a podcast. That is what Max, Barry and co have achieved. It is no small thing.

The ITV studio when England won the penalty shoot-out at the World Cup with Gary Neville, Lee Dixon and Ian Wright just going bonkers in a classic ‘I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together’ moment.

The fleeting look of incredulity on the faces of Jacqui Oatley or Mark Pougatch when Patrice Evra was talking about pretty much anything.

Chris Waddle on 5 live choking back tears when talking about England winning a penalty shoot-out. Aw Chris, you big softie.

Pat Nevin on the radio. Seems almost overworked these days as every thinking person’s thinking man of football. He pulled up alongside me and my missus on Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, right by West Register House, leaned out and put some rubbish in a bin and drove off again. Dawn said “wasn’t that Neville Patterson, the clever football man?” “Kind of,” I said, and walked on.


A huge response came in, proof that despite what some might think when negativity and nastiness are so rife, there is a widespread appreciation of football on TV and radio.

It’s interesting how there’s been a shift in what is expected of pundits these days. The ex-pro who now hopes to pick up easy money doing studio or co-comms work is in for a shock. Standards are incredibly high. You have to do work. A lot of work. And watch a lot of football.

There was also a positive response to the increase in women in football media. All of which makes me feel sorry for those who just moan about football media, seeing bias and stupidity everywhere. It has never been less the case.

‘Female presenters for the football, particularly the World Cup, has been a fantastic step forward. Not just in terms of social equality, but in terms of quality, they know their stuff and are far superior to many of the PFM Old Boys.’

‘The collective (both BBC and ITV) optimism, spirit and just general sense of grown people having fun at the World Cup was a delight. International coverage is so often grim, but this summer we all felt like big kids. Full of optimism.’

‘Best new podcasts of the year: James Richardson’s Golazzo, a brilliant mix of nostalgia, opinion and news; and the Danny Baker/Gary Lineker Behind Closed Doors effort, an amusing and interesting listen from two exceptional broadcasters.’

‘Trans Euro Express is still the best radio show out there.’

‘I loved pre QFWC with Lineker, Ferdinand and Klinsmann – the absolute unadulterated boyish optimism of GL and RF mixed with the knowing of JK was a joy to behold. Plus loved it when Lineker looked towards the trophy.’

‘The coverage of Jimmy Armfield’s passing on @5liveSport was really good. Could’ve listened to the anecdotes all night. Really miss his calm, balanced & authoritative co-comms on the wireless, he was a master of it as well as all the other feathers in his cap.’

‘Sutton/Ali Bruce Ball combo at World Cup, McCoist at World Cup, Wright/Keane/Neville spat, and Darren Fletcher comms for BT Sport.’

‘I already miss Kels and Wrighty on 606 – and that’s no criticism of Sutton and ABB (you have to change things up) but they were halcyon times. Oh, and my fave moment? England v Colombia penalty montage on BBC.’

‘Really enjoying the At The Match podcast from Andy Brassell.’

‘The inclusion of Laura Woods and Natalie Sawyer to talkSPORT is welcoming.’

‘Colin Murray holding the Quest EFL highlights fort whilst Ian Holloway was suffering from Montezuma’s revenge.’

‘I know I sound like a stuck record but, once again, 5 Live is still in a golden age. Special mention to @markchapman @IanWright0 @chris_sutton73 and everyone else on the wonderful Monday Night Club.’

‘Peter Crouch on his 5Live podcast has been everything a modern footballer isn’t supposed to be. Outstanding work from everyone involved. Genuinely, Informed, Educated and Entertained every episode.’

‘The emergence of eloquent pundits on TV during the WC who knew their stuff and weren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. Alex Scott & Eni Aluko, it transpired, were women: the glass ceiling looks more fragile than ever.’

‘A few spring to mind – @GNev2 and @kenearlys on @SecondCaptains preview show regarding Jose and Man Utd, @bglendenning and @barneyronay and the witch’s curse and the feel good factor of @JonChampionJC and Ally McCoist and their travels around Russia during the World Cup.’

‘Ian Wright shouting “foinal” at Roy Keane.’

‘Peter Drury commentary on Roma v Barcelona.’

‘The Debate on racism last week with @Sol14Bamba was superb, eye opening and massively important. Everyone who attends games should watch it.’

‘Steve Wilson’s “HE’S ONLY GONE AND DONE IT!” line after Ronaldo’s hat-trick clinching last minute free-kick in the 3-3 with Spain. A perfect bit of commentary – summed it up perfectly.’

‘James Milner’s Ribena comment.’

‘The 5 Live World Cup Daily was just utter joy and perfection. Chris Sutton passionately promoting the Iran v Morocco match was radio for the ages.’

‘For me it’s all about @TheTotallyShow. I discovered it at the end of last season and have listened to it and its sister show Golazzo ever since.  Its helped reignite my love for the game thanks to its less showy, more intelligent and concise football chat.’

‘When Alan Brazil criticised Hector Bellerin on his Vegan diet. I was so mad laughing. Surely a memorable incident on radio.’

‘Charlie Austin’s rant.’

‘The Stewart, Sutton, Craigan triumvirate that is BT’s Scottish football coverage are always good. Shame it’s all going to Sky.’

‘The opening match of the World Cup – however well or badly covered – is like coming downstairs on Christmas morning aged 8.’

It’s easy to overlook the high quality of UK TV production. Don’t forget the folk who bring it to your screens, and – think back to last Saturday in the South – in some pretty dreadful winter weather conditions.

And so, that is 2018’s football and the radio and TV. I hope you enjoyed every minute. We are living in a golden age of broadcasting and long may it continue.

John Nicholson


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