Johnny’s much coveted Programme of the Week accolade is awarded to something a bit obscure, with a relatively small but loyal audience. That’ll be the catchily-titled BT Sport’s coverage of the National League, sponsored by Vanarama, then.
What’s The History?
You might think it;s still called the Conference – indeed even some taking part in the programme still refer to it as the Conference – but it isn’t. Oh no. It’s the National League these days but it is still the fifth tier of the English football pyramid. You’ll find sides like Harrogate Town (one of my old stomping grounds), Leyton Orient, Hartlepool United (another of my old stomping grounds), Barnet and Solihull Moors fighting it out for promotion to League Two (aka the Fourth Division, to those of us who can count).
The league, whatever the sponsor, has been on BT Sport since 2013 and prior to that was on something called Premier Sports. That was and indeed still is one of those channels at the dusty end of the fretboard which you never watch and you are left wondering how and why they manage to survive. In the 2010-2011 season they failed to attract enough viewers to its Conference football broadcasts to share any revenue with the clubs beyond the £5,000 broadcast fee paid to home clubs and £1,000 to away clubs. Oops. Prior to that it had been on Setanta, which also went the way of all mortal flesh.
So the fact it has been on BT Sport for five years and that they’ve just renewed their deal and are now set to show a game a week, sometimes two during international breaks, up until 2021 must be something of a relief for all concerned. There’s no point in pretending this is mainstream and popular football, but those who love the lower leagues REALLY love it. It is the sustaining roots of the game, firmly embedded in the community. It is all very much ‘We’ and not ‘I’. Most grounds hold between 4,000 and 10,000. You can sit in the stands or stand around the pitch, leaning on a rail. It is downhome and, what I would call, Proper.
Over the years, it’s had a few different presenters and commentators, but this season they seem to have settled on Matt Smith to hold the microphone with Adam Summerton doing comms and ex-pro Adam Virgo riding shotgun. Wiki tells me James Richardson is the ‘relief host’ but I’ve yet to see evidence of this, or of him giving anyone relief of any sort.
This Week’s Programme
Presenter: Matt Smith
Pundits: Grant Holt and Macauley Bonne
Commentator: Adam Summerton
Co-Comm: Adam Virgo
The reason I’ve given this show the PotW award is for how it handles the whole event, not just the action. This is unglamorous community football, so they’ve made the excellent decision to keep the presentation very informal and without any grandstanding at all.
To this end there are cameras in the usually rather cramped dressing rooms, and the home manager is interviewed in his office surrounded by the detritus of his working life. The visiting boss is chatted to pitchside, in or near the dugout. Everyone takes it seriously but there is not an ounce of pretension or larging it.
Anyway, it begins with a lovely short title sequence of sliding images from the league with the names of the teams moving around the screen. Then there’s our Matt standing on the pitch in some lovely early September evening sunshine, with that familiar pre-game hum of a small but happy crowd as his soundtrack, along with some dreadful pop music distorting the tannoy. He is suitably attired this evening in a thin, tight-fitting grey cardi, blue pants and some nice brown leather baseball type boots that look quite expensive.
While what the presenter is wearing might not seem important, in this case I think it does set a tone, which is to express informality and ordinariness in a wholly positive way. It feels just right for the occasion and suits Matt, who always seems at his best in a less formal environment.
We follow him off the pitch into what looks like some sort of portakabin where Lee Bradbury, the Havant manager, has his office for a short interview in front of one of those diary planners with a waste bin squeezed in beside him. It is all very down to earth and, well, ordinary. Ordinary is underrated in my book.
There are then clips of some of the goals from all the midweek games just to get us up to speed. Love these because they show a myriad of small, homely grounds.
We get a short profile of one of tonight’s pundit, Macaulay Bonne, then an interview with his manager, Justin Edinburgh of Leyton Orient.
We get a look at the league table which reveals Harrogate Town at the top and Braintree at the bottom. Matt returns to chat with tonight’s pundits: Grant Holt and the aforementioned Bonne. It all happens on the pitch as players warm up. Grant looks like an off-duty copper and speaks in an excellent Cumbrian accent which oddly sounds very Teesside. ‘Holty’ is a regular on the show and played for Barrow in the National League last year. Bonne is a bit hesitant and seems rather nervous but warms up as the evening goes on.
Grant knows his stuff at this level and has predicted Harrogate to do well so is pleased to see them at the top. He’s a good talker and never prevaricates or speaks haltingly. Only Holtingly.
After the ad break, Matt talks to Aldershot manager Gary Waddock who speaks about the difficulties of coaching a team at this level with a high turnover of players and lots of youngsters in the squad.
What I love here is not just how knowledgeable all are about this level, but how no-one is disparaging of the quality of football – quite the reverse in fact. This is a world within itself and it has no need to see itself in a wider context.
Then it is over to Summerton and Virgo who are very, very pleasingly in the club bar. Behind them is the actual bar with people being served drinks, others are supping pints. And like all such lower league places, they have those chairs which are velour or dralon seats and have backs with metal frames. They’re not comfortable and are aesthetically unpleasant but for some reason, everyone has them in gold and burgundy or, as here, in silver and grey. I love this. I really, really love it. It’s just so…well…I’ll say it again: ordinary. And ordinary is rare on live TV sporting events. Or it is to me, anyway. It feels inclusive and commonplace, not exclusive and rarefied.
The boys have a chat about the upcoming game. Summerton, who I don’t recognise, is sans hair, slim and rakish. Virgo was a player for the likes of Brighton, Yeovil and Bristol Rovers. I seem to recall him at Celtic too. These days he’s pleasingly thicker-set than many an ex-pro, and I think we all like to see that. They both talk knowledgeably about today’s local rivals.
I know it might not seem like much, but seeing a pre-game dissection take place in this setting is so much warmer and more ‘real’ than having everyone in a brightly-coloured studio with big iPads and lots of whizz-bang. It’s not faux or dressed up or bigged up in any way and I love that level of honesty.
Cut to the dressing-room camera and some lads seem to be wearing black sports bras (manzeer or bro? One for Seinfeld fans, there). I’m not here to judge. The director must have to be careful not to cut to this camera when there’s any nudity on display for fear of the biggest whang in the room being in display to all and sundry – though on reflection, maybe they could boost their audience if they did that.
Back to Matt and the two lads, it is clear Holty is the go-to man to fill any dead air as they consider some of tonight’s players to watch. He’s excellent. Really authoritative and he stands stock still, legs as solid as two concrete bollards. In fact, it appears he may have been cemented in place, so solidly set is he.
The game kicks off and the coverage of the action is as good as any you’ll see at any level. They have the score in the bottom left, rather than the more usual top left, but that’s fine. I don’t know if Summerton and Virgo have been working together very long but they’re an excellent pairing, informal when needed but with very little defaulting to cliches.
Half-time sees us back on the pitch for a perusal of the highlights of the first 45 minutes as the Tottenham Sound of the Dave Clark Five’s ‘Glad All Over’ blasts over the tannoy. Lord, I’ve heard that too much in my life.
The second half sees Havant run out 2-1 winners. It’s a decent, very competitive game.
We take a look at how this affects the league table, then Matt interviews two sweaty Havant players, one of whom is Man of the Match and gets an excellent giant £200 ‘cheque’ from Vanarama which is to be donated to a charity of his choice. £200. That’s the level we’re dealing with here. Real money, in understandable amounts. Brilliant. All that’s missing is a meat raffle.
The ground, now empty, has that slightly melancholic air of all the excitement, anticipation and energy having dissipated. Darkness drapes itself around the floodlights as we wrap up with a chat with victorious manager Lee Bradbury who is wearing very shiny tan shoes. And without any fanfare at all, the show is over.
The fulcrum of the whole programme is Matt Smith who, as a very experienced live performer, is perfect in the role. You need someone who is not going to be uptight when the camera can see your legs and you’re required to wander around with a mic in your hand. I should also say it looked as though he really enjoyed the whole thing too. This may just be professionalism, of course, but he seemed very relaxed throughout. Or maybe he’d just been in the bar with the two Adams!
3 Things People Say About It
I didn’t expect to get many comments for this for obvious reasons. And I didn’t. This is more a reflection on the small audiences you get on subscription channels which are showing niche football, less on the quality of the programme.
‘Adam Summerton’s a really good commentator. Can see him going places.’
‘The fact this even exists as a TV programme has to be a good thing.’
‘Adam Virgo and Jeff Brazier always find time to come on the podcast. Top guys and they know their stuff’ – from the National League Full Time podcast (@NLFullTime).
Does It Have A Future?
There are many of us who can take or leave top-flight football – or at least tend to see it as a cheesy soap opera in comparison to lower league football’s interesting documentary. We love football played out of the limelight in small grounds set in small towns. It feels soulful and human and understandable in a world which all too often lacks all three of those characteristics.
Whether it is good quality entertainment or not is, to a degree, irrelevant. Just witnessing it is enough. Being there is more important than what happens once there. People like us will always orbit towards broadcasts like this when we can. There will always be a demand, just not a very big one.
They have the contract up to 2021. I’ve not been able to find the viewing figures for it anywhere but I can’t imagine they’re very high. Indeed, when asking for comments on it, the paucity of contributions I’m sure reflected the tiny audience it gets. This is a real shame and I’m sure if people would only wean themselves off the idea that only the Premier League is worthy of their attention and get with the fact that roots football is great football, then it could get a much bigger audience. Sadly, football has a very narrow, conservative strand to its culture which often seems to intrinsically dislike change or trying anything new. That makes me worry for the future of broadcasts such as this if BT Sport were to withdraw their financial support because I imagine it isn’t profitable in any meaningful way and no-one would take it on who wasn’t able to pay for it through profits earned elsewhere.
As such, National League football is likely to always be done on something of a shoestring budget and always have a precarious long-term future on TV. All the more reason then to enjoy it for the next three years. If you don’t watch it, please do give it a try, but don’t compare it to top-flight football broadcasting; it is trying to do something else. And let me tell you, it is doing it very well indeed and they should be both congratulated and thanked for that.