Programme of the Week: 5 live’s The Monday Night Club

Date published: Friday 12th October 2018 12:52 - Matthew Stead

Johnny’s Programme of the Week is one of BBC 5 live’s must-listen shows which provides as much insight as it does belly laughs. That’ll be the Monday Night Club, then.


Presenter: Mark Chapman
Guests: Chris Sutton, Ian Wright, Rory Smith.


What’s the history?
It feels like I’ve been listening to the MNC for about a decade but the BBC are sloppy at documenting the history of their own long-running radio shows, so I’m unable to check exactly when it began. They really should create a Wiki page for such things.

The iPlayer documents shows going back to October 2009, a total of 431 episodes. Sadly, such old shows are not playable. I wish they were. The BBC needs to provide us with samples of such programmes. Not only are they of factual, historical value, they would also allow us to see the progression and change of attitudes and culture in football coverage.

The 2009 shows were presented by Arlo White, who went offski to America to do commentary work but who made a welcome reappearance at the the World Cup doing, I think, off-tube comms for some games. Anyone named after Arlo Guthrie has to be cool.

However, for many years now, MNC has largely been the fiefdom of Mark Chapman who, again, back in 2009, was sitting in for Colin Murray on an excellent Friday night show which was called ‘Kicking Off’. I don’t know who this young chap with blonde highlights is, but he too was called Mark Chapman:

Kelly Cates and others occasionally take the helm these days, but it is largely Mark’s domain.

Guests over the years have been many and varied. Ex-journalist Ian McGarry used to be a regular before becoming a ‘football operations consultant’, which makes him sound like a surgeon of some sort. John Motson was also a regular but it was the especially magnificent Steve Claridge who really made the show for many years. Steve was the star as well as the butt of many jokes and general micky-taking. His sometimes exasperated, mostly high-pitched contributions were always worth tuning in for. More recently he’s been otherwise detained but I noticed he was on co-comms last weekend, so hopefully he will be back on MNC again soon to once again be frustrated that one side or another “don’t look set up right, to me”.

For last season and this, Ian Wright, long a contributor, has become a more or less permanent guest, and is joined by A.N. Other or two – usually an ex-player but sometimes a journalist. On this occasion it is the always excellent Rory Smith of the New York Times and, better still, the Set Piece Menu Podcast.


This week’s programme
It was the pleasingly omniscient Chris Sutton who was riding shotgun with Chappers, Wrighty and Rory (Roz if you’re Ian) for Monday’s 7pm – 9pm show. I don’t know if the producers carefully mix and match people for such shows but this was a great balance of guests, each of whom have a very different voice and different perspectives.

Proceedings open with the usual verbal jousting, which is more wrestling than dancing. Chappers calls Chris ‘cheery chops’ while Chris talks into a microphone that isn’t on and Wrighty greets everyone with his usual bonhomie, often bursting into laughter and dropping into odd riffs and exclamations like he’s at a party. You can’t not enjoy the fun of this.

We start with an appraisal of Arsenal and how they seem transformed this season. Chris thinks it couldn’t have gone any better. Rory refers to the underlying xG of Arsenal, suggesting they’ll concede too many to win the league. Chappers refers to some listener input saying Fulham were really terrible and that that needs to be taken into account. Wrighty says they’re passing quicker and don’t look like Wenger’s team. They tag on a discussion of the Ramsey contract news. Rory says he’ll be more appreciated once he’s gone.  The whole piece takes about 20 minutes and it is a wide-ranging and excellent look at Unai Emery’s impact early this season.

In the middle of this, Mark quotes an American sports broadcaster who refers to the new day of the week as ‘Over-reaction Monday’ – when fans all go bonkers about the weekend’s action. It’s the perfect term.

With Arsenal chewed over and the gristle spat out, we take some sports news headlines, a news break and the travel news. Incidentally, exactly why does any national station do travel news? It has puzzled me all my life. I can understand, say, BBCTees reporting of a four-mile jam on the Tees Flyover, because it has a chance of being important to their listeners, but the chance of such relevancy on a national station is minimal. Traffic moving slowly outside of Ledbury, apparently. Oh.

I don’t doubt there will be someone for whom this might have some degree of impact but is it really worth dedicating so many resources to it 24/7, not just on 5 live but on Radio 2 as well? If you’re going to report on traffic why not on queues in Marks and Spencer Food Halls? “There’s long lines at the tills in Shrewsbury due to heavily discounted pesto.”

Traffic reports are so commonplace, no-one seems to question why they exist. But I do. On 5 live they’re clearly perfunctory. I mean, you could have a DAB dedicated travel channel if you’re that interested in it. And anyway, on the two – yes, two – occasions the travel news referred to a route I was on, it was impossible to do anything to avoid the jam anyway. I can’t be alone in this.

We return for a chat about Spurs and how they’re thought to not be having a good start to the season, even though they’re on the same points as Arsenal. “If this is a bad start to the season, it’s a good bad start, isn’t it?” says Chris, as ever playing The Riddler – though hopefully not wearing this.

Then we get a bit of blether about John Terry. Rory says people aren’t well disposed towards him because of how they perceive his character, which is why we love Rory being on the radio. The ex-players seem a bit less keen to say such things.

There’s an interview with Paulo Ferreira about Terry. He says he was very good at integrating the foreign players at Chelsea and that he was a “top, top player”, thus showing he spent too much time in England. Paulo thinks he’ll be a good manager. Wrighty says it’s a whole different ball game, being manager rather than captain. Sutton reckons he’ll do well in management and it’d be exciting to see him at Villa. Rory is a little more circumspect and that seems the right tone to strike and is the one I’m sure will resonate with listeners the most. Mark injects a note of caution by saying there is no evidence Thierry Henry and John Terry would be a good management partnership. He also points out how different the Frank Lampard/Jody Morris gig is at Derby, as they had a previous existing relationship and Morris had already been successful as a youth-team coach.

The ex-players seem more keen on the ‘glamour’ of it than the journalists. Chris starts shouting and, laughing, says, “If they haven’t done well in six games – sack them!” Everyone erupts into laughter.

And that’s an hour done. News time, again..

Once underway again, we talk about Mourinho potentially swearing in Portuguese into a TV camera and how it is now being investigated, which seems a waste of everyone’s time. And then it’s onto the Newcastle game. Rory asks a good question of the ex-players, wondering if it is possible to bottle the attitude United showed in the second half when they had to throw caution to the wind and apply it in other games. Excellent question, but he doesn’t get a clear response.

“What is he doing to help the situation? asks Chris of Mourinho. “It’s all negative, negative, negative…it’s been a disastrous season.” Sutton (or Sutts, as only Paul Ince seems to call him) is on good form here. “All this ‘I’m being persecuted’…he’s not doing himself any favours at all.”

I like Chris’s unequivocal stance on this.

“The persona he’s adopted is baffling,” adds Rory, who goes on to say they are one defeat away from crisis all the time now.

Mark plays a clip of Alan Shearer talking about Ross Barkley on MOTD2, saying he’s 24 and will be 25 next birthday. Everyone has a laugh about this. All *very* MNC, this.

We get some talk about Hazard going to Real Madrid before another news break. Is the news really essential for a sports channel? Why? It isn’t. It should stop. Give us a sodding break from the news, please.

Last half hour. There are plenty of laughs about the Ballon d’Or shortlist having 30 players on it!

Mark has a really lovely short chat with Ian about Bradley Wright-Phillips scoring over 20 goals in the MLS for New York Red Bulls for the third time consecutive season. Rory says he talked to him in New York a few years ago and noted how happy he was to be living and playing there. It seemed to rejuvenate his passion for the game. This is a lovely, warm, somewhat touching point of the night.

Yay! It’s Andy Brassell to talk European football. Problems at Real Madrid. Rory, as a big fan of European football, is on strong territory here and says Julen Lopetegui never looked right for the Madrid job. “An unnatural fit.” Andy agrees. “He’s got no history as a club coach” and has a ‘caretaker vibe’.

We wrap up the all-too-short two hours with a discussion of the Liverpool v Manchester City game. Chappers has the best stat of the night: that only Juan Pablo Angel has a worse penalty record in the Premier League than Riyad Mahrez. Rory does a good analysis of why Mo Salah hasn’t quite been at the top of his goalscoring form of last season.

And that’s us done. It’s been a typical entertaining evening’s work by all.

It is ostensibly a simple programme but the reason it has become one of the gold-standard shows is because of its winning mixture of light-hearted and serious. This relies on great chemistry between the host and guests and this is what Mark Chapman does so well. While presenting is, by nature, an understated artform because the presenter is there largely to facilitate the guest’s contributions, Chapman is, in so many ways, the star of the show every week.

I’ve long considered why this might be and have come to the conclusion that it requires several skills to be deployed simultaneously: you need to follow the basic running order script; you also need to be both philosophically and intellectually across the topics that are up for debate. This requires a breadth of knowledge and an overview of subjects way beyond what some pundits need to have, all so different sides of the debate can be put forward. On top of that, you simply also need to know a helluva lot of detail about football in terms of facts and figures.

And when you’ve done all of that, you need to have enough personality and warmth of character to ensure that the broadcast is entertaining and warm. Radio is such an intimate medium that it is easy for a presenter to grate and annoy. The fake and the shallow tend to be exposed as such very easily.

Being the host of a radio show sounds easy to do in theory, but anyone who has ever been on the radio for more than a few minutes will testify just how difficult it is to do to a high standard. To not ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’, to be interesting, coherent and articulate for a couple of hours. It’s really, really tough. You can get away with having guests who are not all of these things, but a host absolutely cannot or the show becomes anything from tedious to shambolic. So that’s why the MNC works so well: because of Chappers first and foremost. And whilst he isn’t the ‘star’ and doesn’t want to be the ‘star’, if the word ‘star’ means anything at all, it really is him.


What the people say

‘Sutton and Wrighty are a brilliant combination: they come at things from different angles but don’t take themselves too seriously. Chappers is a brilliant host, but he’s an extraordinary interviewer, too’ – Rory Smith.

‘We live in a world where all football fans are ‘knowledge rich’. That’s why it’s so special when you find a show that you genuinely learn something from. Always a cracking listen and manages to make you laugh at the same time’ – Dan Walker.

‘Love it, John. You can take the same guests in a different context, but it wouldn’t feel the same. An intangible warmth and a gentle humour to it, which is rare in mainstream broadcast. Seems less judgemental, and more thoughtful, reflective than a lot of analysis’ – Ed Draper.

‘It’s become one of the best places for weekly football chatter and I’m not entirely sure how. It’s got a nice, jokey atmosphere without coming off as too lad-banterish. Never thought I’d say this about Ian Wright but he and Sutton are excellent.’

‘I absolutely love the show. Look forward to it every week. I live in Madrid these days and it’s one of my connections with home. Best football radio/chat show around. Please have Rory Smith on more often.’

‘It performs that clever trick of talking about topics that you think you know about, thus being comfortable listening, yet challenges your thinking with usually high quality guests and analysis beyond the obvious. Mark Chapman challenges his guests to go beyond cliche. A triumph.’


Does it have a future?
A Monday review of the weekend’s action is always going to be needed. It’s an important day in the football week and is most often when we digest proceedings and look forward to the next smorgasboard of action. So it seems likely that even the most out of touch BBC exec will be able to understand why MNC is a 5 live primo broadcast that should remain part of the aural sports furniture of our lives.

It is currently two hours long, or just one hour if there’s a game on. This is just too short. I’ve always thought a much longer show is needed because when you take out the news breaks and other sports reports, it’s more like 90 minutes of football discussion. If, during that 90 minutes, there is an interview with a player or manager, that’ll further reduce the time left to discuss matters. On Monday, they only covered a handful of the topics they could have touched on. It needs to be longer, much longer. Four hours would be about right.

More important still, there is only a small amount of time available for non-Premier League matters. I’ve argued for an EFL MNC too, even if it’s only as a podcast and isn’t broadcast live. There are so many more interesting matters that need chewing over outside of the PL and they just get overlooked on Mondays.

So not only would I hope MNC has a future because it is a stellar part of the football broadcasting architecture, I would hope it is expanded to give it the amount of time it needs to properly honour its importance and quality.

John Nicholson


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