Johnny Nic’s World Cup media diary – part four: Messi as rat-scuttler, ITV go too ‘jobs for the boys’

Date published: Monday 5th December 2022 9:37 - John Nicholson

ITV pundit team

Johnny and his media World Cup diary have reached the last-16 stage, the armoire is nearly built and England are as good as England ever get…

 

FRIDAY DECEMBER 2
It’s Ghana v Uruguay and this time it’s Pien and Pat doing the yakkin’. A ridiculous penalty is awarded by the ridiculous VAR, the sort of subjective decision we were told VAR wouldn’t adjudicate on before it poked its mutant head out into the game. Even Pat, who is very pro-VAR, thinks it’s a poor decision. But instant karma dictates it’s missed..

The South Americans are two up but are heading out due to South Korea beating Portugal. In a thrilling finish, P & P squeal as a Cavani header goes over and everyone enjoys seeing Bitey Suarez crying as Uruguay are eliminated. South Korea on the other hand are going bonkers and fair play to them. You can never see Ronaldo lose too much, even if Portugal top the group.

 

Brazil v Cameroon, Serbia v Switzerland
In the build-up to the games, Seb Bassong is hilarious on the radio with Chappers. “We all love Kelly, I don’t wanna have nothing against Kelly, I’d rather have a beef with you than Kelly,” he says. I can’t really work out what all this is about, but everyone is in uproar. Radio broadcasts really do sound like a lot of fun to do.

Seb’s father said to listen to the national anthem and the one that stirred you the most is who you should play for and when it came to France or Cameroon, it was the latter which put the heat in his blood.

There’s a package of goal clips on the radio summing up the group stages. Very stirring. Such packages are always enjoyable and are a wee reminder on why we bloody love football. I put ITV on and see Real Ronaldo perched in the crowd like a wardrobe of beef. His head looks 50% bigger than it used to be. How does that happen?

Sam and Lee are on ITV comms but I have the radio on to hear ABB and Chris Sutton. Again, I don’t bother to line up the comms with the picture. I’m writing anyway, so listening is more practical. Conor McNamara is watching the Serbia game back in the UK. From the get-go he’s obviously got the best game so I put it on ITV4. I don’t recognise the voices commentating but guess it’s Seb Hutchinson and Andros Townsend, so I go back to the radio. Vincent Aboubakar scores a late winner for Cameroon and rips off his shirt to reveal an extraordinary muscular frame and is sent off for his troubles. ABB and Sutton have been having fun at the refs expense all evening as his yellow card style is so dramatic. “Here he comes…bang!…Boom!” cackles the former Celtic striker, as the card is presented one more time.

Dawn comes in from the studio and thrusts an empty glass at me. While I’m topping up the booze, Tim Vickery explains Brazil’s shortcomings. Good old Tim. Even if he’s wrong about everything, and he isn’t, he always sounds right.

ITV shows post-game Uruguay protests, Cavani pushes over the VAR machine. “Yes! Smash it!” I yell, the drink heating up my blood. The panel says we don’t want to see that but I don’t believe them. I reckon Wrighty might have done exactly the same thing in his day. It’s time someone said that we love it, absolutely love it, along with pitch invaders and players fighting. Basically, if a broadcaster tells us ‘we don’t want to see that’, you can assume that we all do.

Conor’s report on the Swiss game is breathless at one point called the Swiss ‘Swinderland’. Ramon Vega is on 5live and is wild and crazy. He sounds like he’s tipping one down..

Talking about the awful VAR-ing, Tim says “we’ve given the techno nerds a toy and they want to play with it”. And that seems about right.

England finished the group stage as joint top scorers with Spain and have the best goal difference of any side. That Southgate still gets criticism is lunacy.

As we say goodbye to the groups, I hope the human rights issues are not getting drowned out by the dramatic football. I fear the excitement that football brings is doing exactly that.

 

SATURDAY DECEMBER 3
It’s a lovely dry, soft morning so we take a walk to a local cafe, the Boathouse, for breakfast. It looks out over the Firth of Clyde. We watch a huge tanker sailing towards Port Glasgow, massive but silent.

I opt for a potato scone served in a bacon and egg roll, which is a bit odd, the scone being potato and wheat served inside wheat, but that never did the macaroni pie any harm, I take this as a local delicacy and scarf it doon. Delicious. While there I eavesdrop on some fellas talking about football. One says he likes ‘seeing small nations like Japan’ doing well. I know what he means but Japan has a population pof 125 million, albeit crammed into 10 square feet of land.

 

Netherlands v USA
When home I find 5Live has Mark, Pablo Z and that nice Adam Crafton on. Where has Rory gone? Maz is in a Dutch fan zone with ‘Sex On Fire’ blasting out. It sounds like it is a comment on her broadcasting. EFL and non-top flight Scottish games are back and just hearing the words Arbroath v Morton fills my heart with warmth in a way Netherlands v USA from Qatar cannot.

Kelly Somers interviews Phil Foden. He sounds very young and boyish, like a teenager talking to his mother about his first girlfriend. Sometimes we forget how young they are.

The former Bolton player Stuart Holden talks enthusiastically about the USA. A Dutch journalist says Cody Gakpo reminds him of an animal in the African jungle, which must have caused a few nervous glances and made everyone’s hearts beat a bit faster in the studio

A report from a bar somewhere in America echoes to loud chants of ‘USA USA’ like its the Simpsons. But every USA fan interviewed is so articulate and knows so much about the game and are so committed to it. There is none of the entitlement that runs through so much of the higher echelons of the English game. God knows what they must think when they hear some of the less cerebral English fans interviewed.

Mario Melchiot is good value throughout. Says he’s glad he came to England to escape Dutch negativity and never went home. Given that England’s negativity is worn like a thick coat against the winter weather, how bad must it be in Dutchland?

USA threw everything at the Dutch in the second half but, like so many teams, just lacked a strikeforce worth the name. That’s them oot.

 

Argentina v Australia
Pele, it seems, is in end of life care at the age of 82. Pat Nevin, who met the great man while chair of the PFA, pays tribute. “He is the legend of all legends. A decent good man, a lovely man.” Recalling the 1970 World Cup, a Proustian moment for all of us who saw it, it made the wee Patrick believe “beauty and skill can win the day. The apex of that was Pele”. Aw.

Pien Meulensteen and her mother are interviewed, as her dad, Rene, is an Aussie coach. She’s home tomorrow. Job done. Thanks Pien. She’s had a very good World Cup and, added to her work in the summer on the Euros, will have further raised her profile substantially to domestic audiences.

Pat says how Graham Arnold reminds him of Ange Posta-difficult-name-to-spell. I can imagine Graham Arnold saying “that’s not a knife…this is a knife” in Crocodile Dundee style then remember that came out 36 years ago, so may not be understood by most of you.

I see the TV presence of Alex Scott is driving the usual suspects crazy. That she seems to be such a threat to their peace of mind is very peculiar. You can’t help feeling that it is rooted in some of the most unpleasant bigotries. Their ‘arguments’ against her sound like people who feel they are losing status and prominence in their own little world and they don’t like it. The world they knew is evaporating. Thankfully. It is strange how positive change can seem so negative to some people and so liberating to others.

Mile Jedinak, former Aussie captain is on hand to cast opinion on how the match is going, He has an unusually dour, almost miserable tone which at least gives Danny Murphy some company. The Aussie habit of starting sentences with ‘Listen…’ always invests their words with a degree of defensiveness.

My 9 meg of broadband keeps buffering and rebooting because it’s slowed down to 3meg, probably because it’s Saturday night and there is significant demand on it, so I have to switch to the terrestrial aerial sat on the mantelpiece like it’s 1976. F*cking BT Broadband. They treat us with contempt and charge us for the pleasure. When I complained to my MSP about this terrible service which impacts greatly on the local economy, BT rang me up and said there were no plans to upgrade the wiring. None. Sorry pal. They are shameless.

This is a double punch in the guts because it means I have to actually hear Danny Murphy on co-comms whose voice I find is a kind of aural mogadon. He drones like a hurdy gurdy but unlike listening to the hurdy gurdy doesn’t put you into a hypnotic state where you can lose your ego and be freed from this world of tears.

I don’t listen to a lot of TV comms outside of Clive’s and Ally’s work and what I notice immediately this time is how little talking there is. It feels much less interesting compared to radio. I don’t recognise the comms voice so I’ll guess it was Mark Scott. (It was actually Steve Bower).

I don’t know if this is true, but it feels to me like the BBC now employs commentators who are not distinctive for the TV. It has to be deliberate. Time was when you couldn’t mistake Tony Gubba for John Motson or Barry Davies, now, it is far more bland. I wonder if this is to make sure there are no hostages to fortune for the Tory attack dogs who, despite being called Conservatives, don’t want to conserve the BBC.

Rabbie brings in a recently expired bird at half time, a lovely female goldfinch. He snaffles them when they’re roosting, the rotten get. He looks at me while I’m admonishing this unnecessary death with an expression which says “what do you expect? I’m a cat”.

Kelly Somers interviews Gareth. She appears to be wearing a 17th century farm girl’s top made out of hessian. Gareth is soft-spoken and wise like a big beaked Buddha. The awful EE logo is prominent on both sides of his polo shirt. It’s so vulgar. There was a time when the majority of people would’ve thought the England manager advertising an energy company was not just bizarre, but morally wrong. Now it comes as standard. It isn’t progress.

As I’ve said before, I don’t like Messi. He looks like a tiny boy wearing a big man’s kit. He runs the way rats scuttle. He’s absolutely brilliant at football but I can’t help disliking him. It must be some flaw in my psychological make-up, possibly something to do with how he is so eulogised. Danny Murphy talks about him as though he is the Messiah, asserting he’s ‘an incredible human being’.

This about a man who was prosecuted along with his father Jorge and found guilty of defrauding Spain of €4.1m between 2007 and 2009 by using tax havens in Belize and Uruguay to conceal earnings from image rights, despite already being rich. The greedy get. And that’s before we talk about taking massive sacks of even more cash from Middle Eastern autocracies. His football does not sportswash all of that. But mostly it is just an irrational dislike. We all have them.

The Aussies lose the game because their goalkeeper can’t play it out from the back. Had they just played it long and been physical, they’d have had a much better chance of winning. Argentina don’t look that good and just rely on the rat scuttler to do something, as they did in this game. Neutralise him in whatever way you can and you’ll probably win. I hope the Dutch give them a serious Gakpo-ing in the next round.

Messi Ronaldo

 

SUNDAY DECEMBER 4
It’s properly cold this morning for the first time this winter, but we’ve still not had a frost, so much so that our nasturtiums which should have died and turned to mush by now, are still growing, still flowering. It all feels very Edge Of Darkness, though unless you’re over 45 you probably don’t remember that either. I must get some more contemporary cultural reference points, possibly related to Dua Lipa, or, err…Chief Keef.

There’s bound to be plenty of England build-up today, too much really, and most of it will be trying to spin not much into something, with an almost manic desire to fill the long hours. I’ve often wondered if the commissioning editors who put together all the football coverage actually like football or have a cultural understanding of it. Because I know of no-one who is going to listen to the radio from noon for a seven-hour build up to the England game, three hours before the France v Poland game and I listen to more radio hours than most. An hour is the most anyone needs.

Dawn is painting the constituent parts of the armoire with chalk paint, whatever that is, and tells me I’m not to touch anything in the studio. Having hung the new curtains last night, the bedroom is starting to look like a £150-a-night boutique hotel, only one with piles of dirty clothes and all manner of power tools scattered across the floor. Actually, Dawn would love to stay in a hotel that had power tools in the room.

Anyway, I make a spicy Mexican polenta cake, loaded with cheese, black beans, chilli peppers and tomatoes and put it aside to cool for high-class snacking tonight. ‘Armpits’ says Dawn as she comes in sniffing the air. ‘It’s the cumin’ I say and slap her hand as she snaffles bits of crispy cheese off the top.

While I’m editing the final version of this diary entry, I play ‘Music From The Big Pink’, by The Band, ‘Mechanical Resonance’ by Tesla and ‘Holy Diver’ by Dio, then finally tune in for the France game with a brew on the go.

 

France v Poland
In the run-up to the match, Kelly talks to Laura Georges about French football. She’s been really good. There is an authority to how she talks. The ubiquitous Julien Laurens is also on hand for some Frenching.

Ian Dennis is on 5Live comms for this game with Chris Sutton as co-pilot. I’ve not written much about Denno yet but he is one of 5Live’s main commentators week in week out and something of a master of the art. Like John Murray, he doesn’t seem to do TV work so is probably not a household name and I’m sure that’s how he likes it.

The key to great radio commentary is to balance out description of the action with facts, figures, anecdotes and general nattering with the co-comm. Added to that, you have to be sufficiently engaged with the play to raise the emotional temperature when the game gets down to the vinegar strokes.

Being articulate and across the basic facts of play is essential, but letting go with a guttural yell as the ball goes in, is also important. That must be really hard to balance out. How much is self-knowing and as such contrived and how much is just a natural emotional outpouring should be impossible to tell, and Denno is fantastic at it because you absolutely can’t tell. He seems so caught up in the moment, can let out a full-throated tonsil-rattling bellow with the best of them, and yet never loses his professionalism. It’s all very engaging and must be born out of detailed preparation. He is also often unfairly subjected to ribbing about his epicurean tendencies for food and drink in large portions, but there’s nowt wrong with enjoying a big dinner and a big drink. Makes the world go around.

Chris Sutton has developed a very distinctive style to his co-comm work which is quite hard to define and I guess that’s what makes him unique. Because radio football is inevitably about entertainment at least as much as it is about delivering the straight facts and figures of a game, the best at the job can add colour and opinion along with anecdotes and a joke, as well as the basic knowledge. Sutton can do all the basics, but he also adopts contrary positions and can be quite delightfully arsy. How much this is an act and how much is his real self is hard to tell, but I suspect it is more the former than the latter.

With Denno and Chris, there is rarely any need for the commentator to invite the co-comm to say something, rather, they work seamlessly together, each knowing when the other will want to come in. And that is also part of the art.

When done well, you don’t even realise that all this technical skill is going on. It just sounds like two people talking about something which in turn leads people to think it’s an easy art, when it really isn’t.

Poland missed their big chances and went one down. Dawn says that Sir Ches looks like Matt Hancock only with hair but that seems overly cruel. She also thinks Giroud looks like Rylan Clark, which seems a better bet. Poland play as though they don’t have one of the world’s best strikers up top. It’s very odd.

On TV, at half time Dier and Pickford – which sounds like a removals firm – watch old round of 16 games. I wonder what it feels like to watch yourself in slow motion taking or saving a penalty? It’s amazing how little Lineker has changed from 1986 to now, hair colour apart. In the second half it all goes predictably and predictability is one of the worst things in football for the neutral. ‘Glick looks like a farm hand who shifts bales of straw,’ Chris says. Whether this is a good thing for a footballer or not is not clear.

On TV, post-game Mo Po, Laura Georges and Rio all agree that Mbappe is brilliant. Laura has fantastic braided hair. She’s the sort of person you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of and has a steely gaze. Poch on the other hand still has hair that looks like George Costanza’s wig and seems in a very laidback mood. He predicts Argentina will win the thing and smiles like the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice In Wonderland.

 

England v Senegal
Dawn has put the basic frame of the armoire together in the bedroom. It’s the first time I’ve seen it assembled. It looks amazing, all the more so because it’s made from repurposing the wood from the old wardrobe. “It’s far from finished yet,” she says. Even so, I’m very impressed and feel a bit guilty that I didn’t expect it to look so good when it was all in pieces.

I’ve got a special bottle of Isle Of Bute gin in for the game and Dawn is doing design work on her computer this evening so shares the bottle with me. “Are you shitting yourself about the game?” she asks. Back in the day I used to be a nervous wreck watching England but that has disappeared now. I’m happy to celebrate the good stuff but the bad doesn’t get me down at all, the way it once used to. I think having suffered from depression and recovered does that to you. You realise that a feeling of contentment or even happiness is worth preserving, and you don’t get things out of perspective. If England lose, it really doesn’t matter at all.

Statman Dave from Salford and Ellen White at home are on hand for 5Live’s build-up. I like Statman and his deep cuts from the stat file are always worth hearing. He’s clearly heard what the team is, gives something away about (I think, as I sneezed) Rashford coming off the bench and has to back peddle to try and hide the fact, as it will have been embargoed until 5.45pm. Ooops. I wonder how much trouble you get into for that. It’s not like it makes any difference to anyone.

Mark Chapman makes a good point that football is so global now, there are never any surprises at international level any more. I remember in the 1970 World Cup having to find El Salvador in my atlas as I’d never heard of it before. These days a nine-year-old probably knows who their best players are.

When the team is announced and seems, as ever, rather good, but inevitably some think playing Henderson is tantamount to imbecilic and not playing Rashford likewise.

ITV have gone all male with Roy, Wrighty, GNev and Pougars which gives off a ‘leave the big game to the men’ vibe. It would say so much for inclusivity on big national television occasions to include women, especially as ITV have plenty of good performers available to them at this tournament. For all the recent progress made, history will show this was a mistake. Laura and Karen are pitchside and that only adds to the ‘leave the big game to the lads’ vibe.

My prediction is a 3-1 England win but I’m hopeless at predictions.

5Live have got Rob Green behind Pickford’s goal in the first half. John Murray and Matt Upson see a lot of England’s problems. Walker doesn’t look fit to me, but I think they’re being unduly negative and they seem to get stuck in that narrative, so it is a surprise to them when England score. So surprised that JM absolutely belts out ‘England take the lead!’ at top volume, all Marshall 100 Watt stacks turned up to 11 and in doing so makes himself a bit hoarse.

Clip that for a future package. We’ll hear that for the next year.

The second goal is exquisite. Bellingham bossing it, Foden’s first-time ball and Kane absolutely battering it. That was ice cold. And now the narrative has to change somewhat. England are in control and the tension slips away. We have defensive frailties, all teams do, but that is why you have goalkeepers. However, we are killer going forward and when it all clicks, man, I’ve never seen an England team as good as this.

16 Conclusions on the game are here.

By the time of the third goal JM is definitely hoarse and he’s done his hammy as well. Will he last the course? From behind the goal, Rob Green spots Pickford plucking the ball out of the air and marching across his penalty area, holding the ball aloft. He says holding the pose of catching the ball is something the England goalkeeping coach encourages and spots him fist pumping on seeing Pickford following instructions. A strange little detail but an interesting one.

On TV Wrighty is calling Jude Bellingham ‘the truth’ and everyone is very pleased but no-one can add much in the few minutes before adverts kick in. It’s vaguely cringey and grubby that in the middle of all this Pougers has to announce the latest competition to win whatever it is. But that’s commercial telly for you, I suppose. They have to drum up the cash somehow.

The gin was good, the football was good. England are probably a better team than France, but are they better than Mbappe? We shall see.

Read more: Johnny Nic’s World Cup media diary – Part one | Part two |Part three

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