This week marked the end of the EFL highlights coverage with Colin Murray on Quest after four years. Next season they transfer to ITV4.
Quest doesn’t really even sound like a TV channel and does anyone watch anything else on it? Fish Tank Kings, Doomsday Preppers (Preppers?!) and Giant Lobster Hunters maybe? Nonetheless, it has been a welcome home for the EFL highlights and it has garnered a loyal following. In part this is because it has been presented so well by Colin Murray in an informal but knowledgeable way. It had settled into a nice groove…so nice I had begun to take it for granted along with a peak audience number of over 600,000 others.
If ITV have any sense at all, they’ll offer Colin the gig and transfer the show lock, stock and two smoking barrels because not only has he proven to be the ideal host of a show, but importantly he is someone that has enthusiasm for the EFL gig and understanding of it. With over 1800 games per season to cover, this isn’t just a mere churn of the facts, because to fully appreciate the EFL you’ve got to get your head under its bonnet and have a good poke around. Under Colin’s stewardship, the overall feel has been one of informed accessibility, of knowledge worn lightly and, perhaps more importantly, of fun. Yes, fun. That thing we used to have at football before people started taking it so seriously and pretending it’s a science.
I’m a firm believer that in order to take anything seriously you’ve got to be able to laugh at it and the EFL highlights show has always had an element of that. There is an implicit understanding that football at this level has a social, civic and cultural context and that money can’t buy you love. And that’s something missing from the coverage: money. Discussion of the game is not weighed down by talk of money in the same way the top flight is, largely because few have any. And what a relief that is.
The noise from the Premier League is so loud and brash that it can drown out everything else. But of course, true football fans, even those of Premier League clubs like Colin, know the heart and soul of football is kept alive down in the Championship, League One, League Two and in the National League and below too. And in the same way the backstreet independent record shop has always been cooler than HMV, football’s boondocks have always been cooler than its moneybags cousin.
That’s why the EFL highlights are so important. They keep us all in touch with those roots, with that real heart and soul. Many don’t want to watch autocratic regimes and bloody warmonger-funded football teams playing each other. It turns their guts. But you don’t have to worry about a club’s owners murdering thousands of people, don’t have to worry about the owners deploying oppressive statecraft, when you’re watching the EFL. While there have been well-documented disastrous ownerships, by and large they have not carpet bombed Yemen. They might have a dodgy carpet warehouse, but that’s about as bad as it gets.
In many ways that really matter, the EFL highlights are the most important show broadcast because the EFL comprises most professional football in this country, even if it lives off a tiny sliver of the overall income. It is also the most popular to watch. The collective attendances of EFL games outweigh those going to the Premier League by about 20 million to 14 million attendances. Its TV viewing figures, even on a channel at the dusty end of your clicker, show there is a loyal following.
And unlike the top flight, when August rolls around, no-one has any real idea who will get into the play-offs, who will win those play offs, who will be the automatic promotion teams, nor who will be relegated. All three leagues are almost entirely unpredictable. While this unpredictability is being increasingly tempered somewhat in the Championship by the parachute payments making it easier for the likes of Fulham, Bournemouth, Norwich etc to go back up, even so, game to game, it is impossible to call the winner in advance and teams relegated from the top flight have frequently struggled to adjust.
Leagues One and Two are always up for grabs by anyone who can put a good run together. Clubs rise and fall up and down the league. And how great for any football programme to have that core unpredictability as its content, as opposed to the ‘oh look, the richest team won again’ that is the norm in the Premier League.
The lesson the Premier League pushes and has successfully indoctrinated into people and even into clubs, is that it is ‘Premier’ and thus worth all the extra money it costs to see it and all the extra money it hoovers up. But the EFL highlights show is an important counter to that. It shows week after week that fans of clubs in the EFL are no less entertained than their top-flight counterparts. Just look at them. They celebrate goals like everyone else. It’s not an inferior feeling they’re having. Try telling a Bristol Rovers fan, after their (slightly World Cup 1978) 7-0 win over Scunthorpe’s junior team in order to get automatic promotion that this isn’t premier entertainment.
The EFL show is important in reminding us all that there is life beyond the lighted stage of the Premier League, a reminder that money is not the be all and end all, that seeing the best players – whatever that might actually mean – is no guarantee of thrilling football and that football’s joys are not confined to the self-proclaimed best league in the world.
The EFL highlights keeps us in touch with those 72 clubs and in doing so keeps us in touch with important stuff. It’s also where you can see players such as Ivan Toney who will end up in the top flight, maybe even end up playing for their country. If you are just Premier League focussed, players like Toney appear to have come out of nowhere, but to EFL fans they knew all about him going back to his Northampton days.
So farewell EFL highlights on Quest, you were always very much the delicious tapas on the bar with a glass of something cold, compared to the top flight’s fatty, stodgy, carb-heavy, live game served up on the stained tablecloth of life.
Let’s hope ITV4 has the good sense to keep it exactly as it is.