Johnny starts a new column this week looking at one of the best programmes of the week on TV, radio and podcasts. He starts with the grandaddy of all football shows. That’ll be Match of the Day, then.
What’s the History?
MOTD began in 1964 and has pretty much always been broadcast late on a Saturday night. The theme tune is burned into the national psyche, written by Barry Stoller and first used in 1970 (an alternative version was actually released as a single on Pye International).
For decades we all came in from the pub, slumped on the settee and caught up with action from earlier in the day, as a precursor to what the northeast used to call ‘Saturday night on the nest’ – at least if you were still capable after eight pints of Brown Ale and a battered sausage. Even in my halls of residence, we’d all come back from the Union bar to watch it in the TV lounge en masse. It was a planet around which so many people orbited.
While the brand has always been used for live broadcasts and it is also a magazine title – and there is MOTD2 Extra too – it is still nonetheless synonymous with the Saturday highlights show more than anything else. It has also been home to icons of commentary like John Motson, Barry Davies, and something of a proving ground for many, many others from Clive, Clive to Jon Champion, Jacqui Oatley and many more.
When it was moved to Sunday afternoons for the 1980–81 and 1982–83 seasons it was as though there was a rift in the space-time continuum. Something was wrong with the world. Between 1988 and 1992 they lost the rights to ITV because, as some have since speculated, the BBC management at the time did not value football, as one tragedy after another afflicted the game. From 2001-2004 once again they lost the rights to ITV. But for the last 14 years the BBC linen suits seem to have finally understood its importance as a programme, an institution and as part of the British way of life and indeed, to a large degree, of British identity.
The new season’s intro package is an ‘around the country’ sort of affair as graphics and photos of players and symbols of clubs float in and out. When you watch it without the famous music, it’s not especially engaging, but with it, it really works.
Then we’re onto clips of players from the World Cup scoring goals and it is all fast edits. Indeed the edits are so fast that they’re almost unsettling: a little like a strobe light – you like it, but it messes with your head. I guess the intention is to provoke the senses and build excitement, and it is successful in doing so.
And then there’s Gary all relaxed and evenly tanned to the colour of milky tea and just as familiar and comforting, if not as useful for dunking biscuits into. He’s sitting in front of an iridescent royal blue honeycomb and with a half a smile and a nod of the head, we’re underway. He introduces Alan and Wrighty, both of whom look like cats that have not just got the cream but have inherited the world’s biggest dairy farm. Wrighty is giving it the full cheesy grin. This is nice. It’s important to remember that football is not such a serious thing and is meant to be fun and friendly.
The camera pulls back to reveal the full studio with the fierce and unequivocal shade of royal blue complimented with vivid orange and reds. The boys are sitting around a circular table that looks like it is made of ice. Behind them hovers a see-through panelled football shape, slowly rotating. It still does look like a collection of what Boots might call sanitary products. Dawn, my partner, a Geordie, so not one to dress anything up and who knows little about football and cares even less, pointed at it and said: “Do they know they look like fanny pads?” I said I’m sure they must do by now.
It’s onto the action with Fulham v Crystal Palace. The graphic which lists the teams rises up out of a yellow bar and looks, as all telly does these days, more like a computer game. I’d like them to recreate the old diagonal slanting lists of yore, myself. The action is commentated on by Steve Bower. The score remains in the top left next to a yellow and black BBC logo, just in case you forget what channel you’re watching it on.
The coverage of the game is fine. As I’m watching in critic mode, it occurs to me that all football in the UK looks exactly the same, as though it is done by the same company at every game, no matter the channel. There are no quirks or individualisms that would, at least to the layperson’s eyes, identify it as being coverage of Team A over Team B. Post-game interviews are sign-posted by the floating skeletal ball looming up and back. As per Premier League regulations, these are done in front of two-sided shell stands of sponsor logos for betting and trainers, just to remind us who is really in charge. Remember when advertising wasn’t allowed on the BBC?
Oft forgotten is the fact that these one-on-ones are done by the commentator who, after doing a 90-minute stint, has to then run down from the box, turn into a journalist and thrust a mic in front of the players and managers. In truth, these interview moments are rarely of massive interest in these well-trained media PR days. If they didn’t happen, I’m not sure any of us would miss them, and certainly not the editors for whom it is just one more thing to slice and dice. Still, it is always nice to see Roy Hodgson giving it the full owl. As he does so, the stats from the game pop up and down in the bottom right-hand corner, including that most modern of stats: Expected Goals. This must mean they’re A Real Thing now because if anything in football broadcasting is mainstream, it’s MOTD.
Alan and Wrighty start to feast upon the highlights, prompted by Gary. It’s perforce fairly lightweight, as there’s so little time. A little bit on Palace’s young full back for Ian, a penalty to call for Alan, a look at Fulham’s poor crossing from the former, and that’s it done. Everton v Wolves is up next with comms by Alistair Mann, which isn’t a name I recognise, though he has probably been in the job for years. We repeat the process from the first again: Punditry revolves around whether the Jagielka tackle was a red card; Al’s got some stats loaded into his punditry gun about Neves; Wrighty liked Richarlison.
Cardiff v Bournemouth is the third cab off the rank with Mark Scott. Another “who is he?” for me, on comms.
There’s a mini preview after this of the upcoming four games, which I always feel suggests producers think punters are getting restless and need to be encouraged not to go to bed or turn over to the naked channel.
Newcastle v Spurs is handled by Simon Brotherton, who is one of the Beeb’s higher profile dudes. Afterwards, Al purrs over Dele Alli’s header, while Wrighty thinks the Toon were unlucky and looks at their poor communication. Al has a wee pop at Mike Ashley not helping Rafa in his job, but it’s nothing overly visceral. Wrighty smirks and giggles, as he does, and it’s soon over.
The Terriers v Chelsea game is done by Guy Mowbray, another one of MOTD’s more distinctive main commentators.
We then get a short preview of Sunday’s matches backed with a welcome slab of rock ‘n’ roll in a deep Aerosmith cut: ‘Back In The Saddle Again’, the opening track on their seminal 1977 album ‘Rocks’, as its soundtrack. Then there’s an ad for the BBC’s New Voices scheme to find new commentators.
The highly experienced John Roder does the game from Vicarage Road, which sees Watford take on Brighton. As before every game, the tactics and line-up each team will use is flashed up in the bottom left of the screen. I hadn’t taken notice of this before but it’s a nice touch actually. Amazing how many things you see that don’t really sink in.
Then Martin Fisher (nope, me neither) wraps up the games with highlights of Manchester United v Leicester. There’s some short, interesting reflection on Mourinho being unhappy and upsetting players and how he’ll get the sack if he keeps on doing it.
A quick look at the table and at three newspaper back pages and we’re done. The end credit is the BBC’s Get Active, Get Inspired slogan which, though obviously well-meaning, seems a bit out of place on a Saturday night just before midnight. And it must be said, it does have that whiff of the BBC acting as Matron, which makes me want to shout “stop telling me what to do” at the screen.
Another show done and we’re all bang up to date with the day’s football. Those who feel it isn’t cutting-edge analysis are barking up the wrong tree, because it simply can’t be like that in a show of this nature. To criticise it for not being Monday Night Football or the Totally Football Show is like criticising beef for not being chicken. It is simply a different beast. There is little time in the 90 allotted minutes for detailed discussion and they rightly put the emphasis, as they always have done, on the matches.
For a programme that once utilized commentators who were so distinctive as to be an impressionist’s dream, these days they do tend to sound similar to each other, at least to my ears. All really good, of course – you would expect nothing less – but occasionally one would like something more idiosyncratic and identifiable. However, again, this is nit-picking and may well just be merely personal preference.
MOTD on Saturday, as with every Saturday, is smooth and glides through our consciousness with effortless ease. There are no sharp edges and nothing to frighten the horses before bed. This is because of the high production values, the tightly scripted and formatted structure and the relaxed presentation. It might seem like nothing much is being done to make a programme that is so familiar to us, but each week a hell of a lot must go into it and at speed to get it ready for 10.30pm. Of course, we all take it for granted, and in a way, we should. But even so, an occasional pause to appreciate the team behind it would not go amiss.
An insider told me about the pressure the production team are under. “It can be a bit tight but generally each match edit has to be watched by at least two people who are not involved in it, a run-of-the-mill, seven-minute edit can be completed by around 7pm. Obviously the more we see Saturday 7.45 kick-offs come in, the tighter it will be, but then it is just like a midweek show, when it can be extremely tight. However they are all very good on the production side and not many errors slip through, picture or sound wise. I challenge you to remember one as I can’t.”
Well, I certainly can’t either. The first MOTD of the new season will almost certainly be at the same standard as the last in May, and when you think about it, that is an amazing achievement.
15 Things The People Say About It
“They seem to have got the appropriate level of banter and analysis right for what is an entertainment slot on the BBC. The strikers’ union of Messrs Lineker, Wright and Shearer works well.”
“The one program we’re as likely to watch at age 60 as we were aged 6.”
“It’s on too late as I fall asleep before the first game has finished!”
“MOTD is an institution, reflected in an era where almost all domestic sport has been removed from free to air TV. Even though Sky offered their first-look version at an earlier time and with game choice, the familiarity of MOTD offers comfort.”
“One MOTD into the new season and I am missing the mix of new and old pundits that helped make BBC’s World Cup coverage so great. Cesc Fabregas, for example, was fresh, opinionated and insightful during the summer. Regulars raised their game around him. We are now back to pals/bantz. I’d not be against journalists appearing on MOTD more often – one alongside an ex-pro – as it is fresh analysis which is missing from MOTD, and that is why I regularly fast forward thru the Murphy/Jenas/Keown/Wright comments as they are copy and paste jobs. More rotation needed!”
“It’s an institution in our household for Saturday night viewing – it’s the one programme where the formula doesn’t need messing with.”
“Gary Lineker is brilliant and keeps getting better. I often watch MOTD and want the others to shut up so I can hear him tell us what he thinks. I know he’s presenting but I want to hear more of his insight and less from his boring pals.”
“The only BBC TV sport programme that has improved in the last ten years. Having it on the iPlayer to restart if you miss the kick-off is very handy. Pundits can be a bit sanctimonious – but the speed at which they work with VT editors to make analysis packages is impressive!”
“Instantly recognizable and most iconic television sporting music alongside soul limbo (if you don’t think of cricket after two bars, you weren’t born or are simply too young to remember).”
“Enjoy it a lot and always have done. It’s an institution that has shown efforts to evolve but is light years behind MNF in terms of tactical insight and it feels like it is deliberately dumbing down a lot of the time.”
“The commentary is stronger than ever. Last week they had Fisher, Brotherton, Scott, Bower, Mowbray, Roder and Mann. All top-notch and they have at least another half-dozen very good commentators to call on as well.”
“Usually watched on a Sunday morning with a hangover, but the repeat: the one I’ve Sky Plus’d from the night before so I can fast forward the punditry.”
“I complain about it occasionally. And then I remember what happened when ITV had the highlights…”
“It’s brilliant, and pitched at a level for the casual fan. If you want five minutes of statistical analysis on wing backs, it’s not for you, but it does its thing well. Lineker is excellent, pundits are mixed, and some of the variety from the World Cup would be nice, but it’s still great.”
“It’s the football we watched with our parents and the football we now watch with our children.”
Is There Any Future For It?
The BBC has got the rights to show highlights until the end of the 2021-2022 season and paid £211.5 million for the pleasure. It is unthinkable that they would let it slip from their grasp again. It still attracts relatively big audiences in this multi-channel age, often pulling in over four million viewers. Live England games on the BBC are especially still some of the station’s most popular shows.
Gary Lineker has now been in the presenter’s seat for an amazing 19 years (with help from the excellent alternatives, Gabby Logan and Dan Walker), and as such is the longest servant of the show. Prior to that, Des Lynam did a 13-year stint. It’s such consistency that establishes a programme as an institution.
Older people do sometimes feel it is on too late as they’re getting sleepy after 10pm but there are younger people who rightly laugh at that, especially as one can catch up in various ways at your own convenience. There are perennial complaints about bias against small teams and who comes last in the highlights list but these are almost always the whining of people with too much time on their hands and too much paranoia in their football life. It’s all nonsense.
I hope teenagers still fall asleep in front of it, full of Stones Best bitter, just as I used to aged 17, before waking up with the screen hissing white noise (it doesn’t do that anymore, does it?), freezing cold at 3.30am. It was a rite of passage and one which should rightfully be passed down through the generations.
If the BBC is for anything it is for providing quality cultural bookmarks in every generation’s lives. Match of the Day has been doing that for over 50 years and I fully hope and wish it will be doing so for the next 50.