Whose done well and who’s just done? Johnny looks at the highs and lows of football media in 2017-18. First up, those who’ve had a good season.
TV and radio have always had minor contributions from Fleet Street journalists (and continues to do so) but this year it’s really become A Thing to ask writers onto shows for more longer form, fulsome contributions, outside of mere inward-looking press self-obsession, or short pre-game observations.
Many of us always thought a good writer would beat an ex-player almost every time on almost all football issues due to being well-informed, well-researched, well-read, articulate and with a cultural hinterland, and so it has proven. This year some of the most interesting broadcast work has comes from writers such as Andy Brassell, Gab Marcotti, Mark Langdon and Mina Rzouki, as well as the classic triumvirate of Julian Laurens, Rafa Honigstein and James Horncastle. A special word for Rory Smith who has become an increasingly regular presence on 5 live and the BBC, even breaking into that slightly odd, incestuous world of the Sunday Supplement ‘boys’. His quick mind, incredibly comprehensive depth of knowledge and ability to deliver sentences really, really fast but then linger on the ‘t’ at the end of words, has been enjoyable and enlightening in equal measure all year.
This has been a great development and long may it continue and grow. The football landscape is no longer wholly owned by the ex-player.
Women In Football
This was the year when women started to make major breakthroughs in football media in more significant numbers. Ex-England players such as Rachel Finnis-Brown, Sue Smith, Karen Carney, Alex Scott and Kelly Smith were among those employed to report on and cast the runes over men’s football, especially on BT Sport and the BBC. And hey, despite what many critics told to us here at F365 for many years, the sky didn’t fall in. In my experience, Sky has been slow to follow suit but with a #whatif campaign underway to put female talent on Gillette Soccer Specials, it will certainly do so, or risk looking out of touch.
In football presenting terms Lynsey Hipgrave, Jacqui Oatley, Kelly Cates, Gabby Logan, Caroline Barker, Ellie Oldroyd, Eilidh Barbour, Hayley McQueen and Michelle Owen have all been excellent all season long. Juliette Ferrington produces 5 live shows and gets to stick the microphone up managers’ noses as well. I’m sure there are many others too.
The presenting gig these days is often as much a contribution role as a facilitating one and these are stars one and all. Even Alyson Rudd has become a Sunday Supplement regular in an environment never happier when referring to itself as ‘the boys’.
In Russia, the BBC will have Vicky Sparks on comms for some of the games – the first woman to do so at a World Cup. A great choice and I’m sure David Moyes would agree.
With the aforementioned #whatif campaign and the great work that organisations like @WomeninFootball are doing, at last football media is starting to become properly inclusive and paint with the full rainbow. We are all better for it. Future generations will look back and wonder why it took so long, but the times, they are-a-changin’.
There is absolutely no doubt that BT Sport’s post-game show on Saturday nights has delivered a wholly new way to do an after-the-match programme. Its mix of fan contribution via video and in-depth discussion with ex-pros has been stellar and will be a template for others to follow. I know the producers have worked long and hard to hone the format over the previous season and it has really paid off this year. The clever thing is that it encourages fan contribution, but retains the ability to edit that content in the way a phone-in can’t and thus steers away from boring, dull, or giving time to stupid punters who put off viewers. They’ve selected interesting, articulate video contributors and Jake can select the best tweets to read out. The style of the show will be influential and Jake is no small factor in that, by being able to coax discussion and do the hard gear shifts between light-hearted and serious. Top notch stuff all season long.
We are blessed with many great presenters but Kelly’s sheer breadth of work has been so impressive all season long. She slips effortlessly between presenting live football on Sky and dealing with the punditocracy, to presenting The Debate. Then it’s off to 5 live to do more presenting, as well as doing 606. This shows extraordinary flexibility and an ability to bring the same winning mix of articulate charm, warmth and amusement to each, and speaks to her professionalism and character. Almost uniquely in football broadcasting, no-one dislikes Kelly and she makes us all feel good. Lord knows we need those good vibes now more than ever. Her ascent to the peak of football broadcasting has been a pleasure to witness. Proof that good things happen to good people.
His media career keeps on going up and up. Whatever you personally think of his work, he is incredibly well-liked by media bosses and it would be churlish not to say so. So liked that he is set to have his own World Cup morning show on 5 live. His podcast with Flintoff and the ping pong fella has won awards and regularly sits atop the charts. One way or another, people are engaged by him. He was never short of work on BT Sport and 5 live this year. No-one can say he’s not distinctive and in a crowded media world, that is valued. And his hair has improved. Which is good. He’s a had a great season.
He’s been around in Scottish football for a while, only making occasional incursions across the border into England, but this was the year he became almost omnipresent on 5 live and BT Sport. He’s the only man who can deliver a withering look that you can actually see on the radio. Critics take him too seriously; much is delivered tongue-in-cheek, whilst playing something of a role. He’s a firestarter, a twisted firestarter. And no-one is better at it. But in among the acid and the rhetorical questions is also some depth of knowledge and research. Those of us who enjoy our Scottish football also love that he sticks up for the game here, when south of the border.
This season, the tolerance for the pundit who might say “he’ll be disappointed with that” has all but evaporated. There are very few of the old school, mind-in-neutral types that get regular work. The standards have been raised in all mediums. Mark Schwarzer and Stephen Warnock have got more exposure this year and have both been excellent. Leon Osman has been given a lot of air time too and is getting better with every opportunity. It’s also been pleasing to see Frank Lampard on TV a lot, as he always brings some grown-up to the debate. Throw in the likes of Danny Higginbotham, Owen Hargreaves and many, many others along with the old school spit and sizzle of Graeme Souness, and we’re really in a very good place compared to any other year of football TV and radio.
5 live Commentators and Presenters
Without picking out anyone individually I would just say that this year, same as last year, all of the commentators – and I do mean every single one of them – are utterly brilliant. Knowledgeable, passionate, individual, quirky, well-researched aural painters of pictures. How they are so good so often beggars belief. And I’m going to ask the question again: When are they going to get their own discussion show? The weekly Commentators Summit must happen in 2018-2019. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it.
When it comes to presenters – Mark Chapman, Cates, Barker, Oldroyd, Pougers, Jonathan Overend – they simply don’t get better than this. All engaging, friendly and relaxed, they’ve taken us from the copper-coloured autumn days through dark, whisky-drenched frosts of winter, to the bright blue of spring and now gold of summer and it’s been a pleasure every single day. Take a bow, one and all. You make our lives better.
Any radio station that can deliver the in-depth quality of discussion programmes that Mark Saggers hosts after 7pm deserves applause. Add in Danny Kelly‘s various media excursions, but especially the Trans Euro Express on Sunday Nights, and you’ve got something wonderful.
The European Goals Show
BT Sport shamefully cancelled the European Football Show and haven’t replaced it with anything superior or more popular. But they made the sensible choice to keep the Champions League Goals Show on. For those of us who are busy writing while games unfold, it is the perfect football smorgasbord presented by knowledgeable people who feel like pals. You emerge from the experience wiser for it.
For those of us whose preferred football medium is aural, the blossoming of podcasts in recent years has been a joy. There are so many that are very interesting, but this year saw the launch of The Totally Football Show and the Italian and Championship counterparts and it’s been a must-listen all season long. The Euro Leagues podcast on 5 live offered a lot of insight and laughing too.
Set Piece Menu has provided some of the most interesting nuanced and deep discussions I’ve heard all season. There are many, many more too. If you don’t pod, you might want to think about doing so. They are so often the home of People Like Us
More broadly, pods continue to provide a counter narrative to the downmarket the tabloid media would like to push and in doing so have been a welcome home for sanity in a gone-mad world.
Just a quick word for local football on local radio stations, be it the BBC or independent. Often overlooked and underfunded, they are nonetheless an important link between local clubs and community that supports them. If the one I know best – BBC Tees – is anything to go by, these are passionate people who love the medium they work in and go above and beyond to bring interesting niche broadcasting to often small but dedicated audiences. They deserve more praise than they usually get.
While Jeff Stelling continues to do sterling work hosting, the show has never felt more tired, and the feeling that it is outdated is now irresistible. It has been left behind by being too samey, conservative and unimaginative. Each week is like the last. You know exactly what each of them will say about any issue before they say it. Increasingly, it feels like they’re making it for their own entertainment and not ours. It seems out of touch and at times actually quite odd, like looking as ghosts from a gone world.
Their aim isn’t to have in-depth analysis; rather, they want to pitch things more broadly at a certain sort of opinion-based laugh-a-little-too-loudly male banter culture. But at times it’s reached a kind self-parody. In a digital era where so many are working hard to be knowledgeable and articulate, it feels like Soccer Saturday is the programme for the fax generation. The greatest crime isn’t to be disliked, it’s to be ignored and it has never been easier to not bother with it, or to turn over to BT Score which has different people every week and feels much fresher and more modern.
It must also be said that by roping the Soccer Saturday ‘boys’ into the ‘Boost’ adverts, it has really made the whole thing feel especially downmarket, tacky and with a faint whiff of stale Brut 33-drenched, middle-aged lothario’s mahogany tan about it.
“The Soccer Saturday boys are about to spontaneously combust,” Jeff cartoonishly tells us and who among us does not inwardly cringe a little? It’s really dispiriting to see it go this way. Sad, almost. Remember the glory days when the two trainers would lay out the kit and prepare a dressing room for the match in the ad break bumpers? Those feel like innocent days of the distant past now. Now you actually fear what new fresh horror is going to come on the screen next. It’s uncomfortable and embarrassing and, given the concern about the increase in problem gambling that has grown all season, never more inappropriate.
Jeff’s work from 3pm to 5pm remains exemplary but surely this is a dog that’s had its day in this incarnation. I’m not being ‘orrible but you might say it’s on a glacier and it’s wearing slippers, Jeff. Literally.
Newspaper Match Reports, Journalists and Journalism
It’s amazing that match reports still happen. Already out of date before they even appear in print, a game has been sliced, diced and dismissed by the time a physical paper hits the streets. I often wonder if some of the Sunday Supplement type ‘boys’ are so defensive so much of the time because they’re being out-moded before our eyes. Once they were the gatekeepers to information; today the gate is open, the fences are torn down and it’s been declared a free festival.
Even press conferences are now on TV, rendering anything any of them write second-hand news by the time the ink hits the paper. They still go on about being a conduit between fans and clubs, pretending to get information out of the club on behalf of supporters, but surely no-one believes this any more, because when it comes to news, they’re always one lap behind the race.
Also, it has to be said that many have repeatedly shat the nest by fabricating faux outrage against players, by distorting facts to fit a narrative which they will later deny or contradict, by relying on a weird outdated lexicon, by sucking the joy out of football and substituting that joy with poison, by indulging in direct or implied racism and sexism, and by a thousand other crimes against truth, taste and decency. Much of what is said in the tabloid world is totally disbelieved and disregarded by plenty.
Of course, there is still a need for good, insightful, well-informed writing in newspapers. We do get that from some great people, such as Danny Taylor, David Conn, Henry Winter and others. But the art of football journalism as it once was, is, in 2018, in a parlous state, where perfectly decent writers are having their pieces distorted by headline writers tasked with sensationalising everything, by being forced to spaff nonsense to fill up websites, by having to confect gossip, by having to make out a footballer doing anything, no matter how banal, is ‘news’.
God, it must be depressing to have your artform flushed down the river like sewage in pursuit of higher click-through rates and absolutely nothing else at all. It might just be my vivid imagination but I swear you can see the soul dying in the eyes of some of Fleet Street’s football journos, unable to say so for fear of losing their job, but staring into the dark abyss that was once their bright career.
Tabloid Football Websites
Universally despicable and absolutely desperate for clicks, their shallow, vapid, misogynist, lowest common denominator approach to football is the debasing of all that is decent, intelligent and empathetic. Drumming up the evil for money, they pollute the national discourse and offer succour to idiots and bigots. The ceaseless – and let’s be honest – utterly pointless need to fill space with anything, no matter how vapid, irrelevant, distorted or outright fictional, and to then try summon up a demand for such vomit by appealing to base instincts, is a national disgrace.
The egregious depiction of women as nothing but characterless, decorative meat, defined wholly against the male footballer, is nothing short of disgusting. It is one which corrupts not just the whole of the British media, but the entirety of British life: cultural, political and mental. It has reached a new nadir in 2018. Next year will be worse still as the bloated corpse of decency further emits the stench of decay. Expect new lows, but do not tolerate them.
There was a time when Sky ruled the football roost. It had all the live Premier League football and it had the Champions League to itself. There is now a palpable, ‘glory days are gone’ feel about the station. As previously mentioned, Soccer Saturday, once a great innovation, has been sacrificed to the betting industry. Its Monday Night Football analysis took a big hit with the Jamie Carragher suspension, losing an important and loved voice. Gary Neville continues to be excellent but the revolution in detailed analysis that he all but pioneered has now become the new norm and therefore he no longer stands out as a beacon of knowledge in a sea of ignorance.
When it comes to live football, it’s all good. The greater prominence of Andy Hinchcliffe this season has been especially pleasing. It’s all very 7 or 8 out of 10. But there’s no innovation any more. The BT Sport post-game show has sprinted past them and away into the distance.
With the end of the league season we’ve now entered a near three-month period where many of us will not watch the channel at all. They launched The Debate to try and engage post-game viewers and it hasn’t been a disaster by any means, but it’s been misnamed because there has been precious little actual debate. without any clips or interviews, it doesn’t offer much that is original or overly engaging. This is not least because the pundits they get on, such as Ian Wright, are on other shows saying the same sort of stuff. It’s all fine in its own way but Sky used to be the primo innovators. All of which makes me feel they need a major visionary overhaul in how it does all things football.
If we made the appropriate choices and ignored the garbage as best we can, in the 2017-18 season we grazed on the lush uplands pastures of football broadcasting. Occasionally, we should stop, take a look around and enjoy the ride and the view. It’s pretty spectacular.
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