The Last Defender: Bias in football

As someone who tends naturally to eschew emotion and sentiment, I sometimes have to be mindful that not everything someone says is intended purely to convey factual information. There’s a place for that, certainly, but if you treat every conversation that way you end up coming across like Lieutenant Commander Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation. You may be right, you may be intelligent, you may even be interesting, but you’ll lack the human touch, and we all remember where that got Data in season 4 episode 25, ‘In Theory’.

This applies not just in social life, but in all TV and especially football coverage. Pundits and commentators have a responsibility to convey not just the bare facts, but also the human side of the game. We complain when football clubs and stadia are cold and sterile, but that’s exactly what a commentator would be if he (why is it still always ‘he’ by the way?) were to stick rigidly to pure objective observations. Which of these two pieces of commentary is better?

1) 93 minutes and 20 seconds. Goal scored by Sergio Aguero from deep inside the penalty area to the bottom right corner of the goal. Man City 3-2 QPR. Assist on the goal came from Mario Balotelli.”

2) “AguerooooOOOO!”

In football, particularly moments of pique (the state of arousal, not the Barcelona defender, though the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive), we don’t want the objective facts. In broadcasting, one word spoken with emotion can tell the story better than a blow-by-blow account, and you can’t have emotion without subjectivity.

Those who have accused Martin Tyler of being biased towards Manchester United are missing the point. My Liverpool-supporting dad is convinced Tyler shoehorns in references to Manchester United at any given opportunity, but to me, it’s simply a reflection of the fact that United have been such a significant club over the past 60 years that there’s almost no subject in English football in which they won’t arise. Like it or not, Manchester United are a big deal because of their history, especially the past 25 years, and concomitant with that is that more of what they do is significant. There is nowhere that Manchester United could finish in the table that isn’t worthy of comment in this or any other season, and therefore every result and thus every major moment of their every game is far more amplified than it would be for, say, West Brom.

When Tyler gets excited and tries to cue up a big moment with a feed line, like he did every time Wayne Rooney got the ball within 30 yards of the Liverpool goal on Sunday, it’s not because he wants Manchester United to win: it’s because a late equaliser for Manchester United in a derby game they can’t afford to lose is pretty big, particularly if it comes via their Everton-supporting captain coming off the bench to break the 47-year-old all-time goalscoring record of one of the biggest clubs in the world. Yes, it became a bit wearing, and yes it sounded like Tyler was trying to force a piece of verbiage for a highlight reel; but to a great extent, that’s what he’s there to do. If he risks underselling the moment for a second, he’s neglecting his duties to both his employer and his viewers.

Is that biased? In that moment, yes: he’s ignoring the Liverpool fans’ perspective and the sadness in their eyes. But crucially, his bias is rooted purely in which perspective is the most emotionally vibrant, and that’s a good thing. On other occasions, that will put him against the Manchester United perspective too: “AguerooooOOOO!”

Anyway, even if he were biased – even if he turned up to every game singing Glory Glory Man United and kissing his prized autographed selfie with Quinton Fortune – so what? He’s not presiding over hearings at The Hague, his presence in the booth has no impact on the result, and he does the job better than practically anyone else – at least until Lieutenant Commander Data offers his services. Now that’d be good telly.

Steven Chicken – accuse him of bias on Twitter