Who won World Cup battle of the broadcasters in week one?

Date published: Friday 22nd June 2018 11:37

Johnny has been hopping from channel to channel and station to station, eating up World Cup broadcasting with a big spoon. But who was actually any good?


The first full week of the 2018 World Cup has been a rich gourmet meal, with games ladeled into our loving cups in copious portions. Keeping on top of all the live games as well as the highlights shows is a big task and one only someone who doesn’t have a job – or a life – can do. So apologies if I missed something good somewhere. I could only do so much without breaking the laws of time and space by being in four places at once.

ITV and the BBC have been pumping out an extraordinary amount of TV broadcasting; 5 live and talkSPORT are filling the airwaves pretty much all of the time with World Cup output, revolving around commentaries of games.

So let’s take the radio entertainment first.

I have yet to hear an explicit statement from either broadcaster on when a commentary is being done from a studio in the UK, even though quite a few of the ‘lesser’ games certainly have been. As I mentioned last week, this is a strange state of affairs. It appears they want to keep it a secret by not stating clearly how the commentary is being done. It’s not ‘cheating’ but they’re almost trying to pull the wool over listener’s ears. Very odd.

Anyway, this aside, it’s been a strong week for both of them. The commercial broadcaster commentaries have been consistently good, with Ian Danter the pick of the bunch. I like ‘Dantz’ a lot, both in a football capacity and on Planet Rock as well. He brings some blunt honesty to proceedings, as well as cheerful excitability. Mark Saggers has glued things together very well too.

When it comes purely to the football, talkSPORT are really good. The games are delivered in a professional way and without any glitches. Their coverage of Spain v Portugal was especially excellent. The problems come after games when callers are invited. The tone quickly drops to the lowest common denominator at that point.

They can do thoughtful programmes in their normal schedules but these seemed missing in the last week. Maybe I just didn’t catch them. I was trying to listen to the Sports Bar with Andy Goldstein and Jason Cundy on Wednesday night, but it wasn’t to my taste at all. Basically it was yet another Raheem Sterling debate with callers invited to contribute. I just couldn’t deal with it, partly because it’s all been said and done, but also because the tone is relentlessly confrontational and argumentative. I’m not sure who wants to listen to people arguing late into the evening, but it’s just not my preferred type of broadcasting. It feels like drinking the last can of white cider from the fridge of the all-night garage.

5 live has felt like being at one long house party, hosted by Mark Chapman and Kelly Cates. Early in the week, after 45 minutes of Dion Dublin laughing and joking his way through a game, commenting that he’d never seen an anti-clockwise Mexican wave, Kelly laughed and replied: “You were massively having yourself in that first half.” And he was. Dion has been sunshine for the soul all week. For the Mertens goal v Panama, he said: “There’s no swerve on it, just pure dip.” I’m not sure how dip can be pure, but I liked it anyway. In fact putting ‘pure’ in front of any word somehow gives it greater gravitas. “There’s no salt on this, it’s just pure chip.” Cheers Dion.

Also in the great value camp is Chris Waddle who was on England duty with John Murray and dispensed a fine tirade against VAR and FIFA officials, with real fire in his belly once again. As a Tunisian player collapsed to the ground, feigning injury, an exasperated Chris said: “They should use VAR for that! Off! 10 game ban! There’s another one falling down – a mosquito has run into him!” When it came to tactics, “they’ve got a backline of 28 now,” was Waddler’s analysis, God love ‘im.

It was also Chris on co-comms with John Murray for the Spain v Portugal game as Ronaldo lined up his free kick. “He never scores from free kicks …” says our man, adding, “watch – he’ll put it in the top corner now.” No better example of the commentator’s curse there. During the game he was snapped eating a local delicacy, which does look like it has passed through a small mammal. Look at their expressions!

Another fine user of words this week was the insanely listenable Tim Vickery who is called upon to cast the runes over South American sides. He said of an Argentinian defender that he “marks with GPS” and that not winning the trophy for so many years is “like a toilet seat hanging around the neck of this generation”, which seemed like a very specific, insanitary kind of burden. But his best phrase was “will Argentina’s defence collapse like an old man into a deck chair?” As I write, he’s on 5 live again being wonderful. He makes us all more well-informed and better than that, he entertains.

One of the best commentaries all week came from Ian Dennis on the Argentina v Iceland game. He’s a passionate bellower at moments of high excitement and his “They will not wilt! They will not bow!” after Messi had missed his penalty was spine-tingling.

And talking of tingles. Terry Butcher, who has been a source of much humour from tales of ketchup-based arguments to old war stories from A Time That Is Not Now, declared he’d got his tingle back after England’s late winner. That is a terrifying thought.

Alistair Bruce-Ball has been on comms with Chris Sutton, who has been wowing everyone with his extensive homework and research. However, fans will be pleased to know he’s lost none of his powers of curt dismissal, saying of a Swiss centre-forward: “He’s a carthorse!” Lovely old school word.

Then there was a very amusing debate about when a shrimp becomes a prawn, which seemed to go on for the whole game. I still wasn’t sure of the answer by the end of it. ABB was also using the translated-from-Russian phrase: ‘Can Iran get the goat into the vegetable garden?’ during the Iran v Spain game. Maybe he’d eaten some funny mushrooms.

But this is the beauty of great radio: you don’t just get the action, you get a lot of extraneous chatter and diversion.

I could write a novella about 5 live this week. It’s been fantastic. Really, really fantastic. Like having a lot of funny, characterful, well-informed people round your house for a drink and to watch some football. Gold.

Now onto the TV. Well, it’s been quite a week. On ITV, Patrice Evra has been lolling around in his chair, looking louche, as though ready for a night out. On Thursday he was wearing a red crew-neck sweater with a black bow tie, which I expected to start rotating at any moment. Possibly the only time a jumper and a bowtie has been worn together ever. I’m all in favour of bizarre clothing choices, but this did leave one to think that Pat had arrived in a disintegrating clown’s car.

In truth, it looks like he doesn’t really care much for this punditry lark, which might be just as well. His applause for Eni Aluko’s excellent dissection of Costa Rica’s tactics looked a lot like a ‘gosh it’s a woman who knows about football’ moment, especially the second time he did it when she was talking about the Serbia player Sergej Milinković-Savić. But Jacqui Oatley, well-used to dealing with the whiff of sexism, defused it all nicely, after maybe three awkward seconds. Great to have a real pro in charge.

Aluko has got a lot of fans this week for her clear, detailed and enthusiastic performances, bringing the same articulacy to TV that she showed in court and when dealing with the FA potatoes.

She was alongside Ryan Giggs for Morocco v Iran. The contrast couldn’t have been greater. Giggs wore the expression of a boy whose been told to report to the headmaster and is standing outside the office, fearing he’s about to get a caning, like the little lad in Kes. That look. He often struggles to do much beyond state the obvious, whereas Aluko was sharp and spoke without waffle or resorting to footballing defaults.

Roy Keane has been sitting very upright and looking professionally annoyed all week. Some of the most awkward moments have been witnessing Roy’s discomfort at anyone laughing – and especially if Slaven Bilic touches him. I always assumed this is a persona he’s playing, but it does sometimes feel like Roy only has one colour to paint with and it’s all got a bit limited and unthrilling. That being said his “…should’ve ripped his head off” comment about Carlos Queiroz was a standout. Not so much for that per se, but for his follow-up comments of “… good coach, though”, as if to show how reasonable he was.

Ian Wright has been wearing some brightly coloured and patterned shirts to the amusement of many. I’ve never known why brightly coloured clothing is funny and deemed worthy of jokes. Oh look, your shirt has got green on it. Ha ha. Why is that A Thing? I mean, it’s not like it’s a black bow tie worn with a red crew-neck jumper, is it?

Anyway, without Wrighty this week, between Roy’s staring and Evra’s slumping, it could’ve been a bit dull. Bilic summed up the vibe well when talking about whether there was a push for a Swiss goal, he looked from side to side, shrugged and said “I don’t care”, much to the amusement of all in the studio and at home who were feeling the exact same way. Sometimes things are talked about far too much.

ITV’s Argentina v Iceland commentator Sam Matterface’s introduction for sub Cristian Pavón was a classic of the genre. “He’s only 5ft 5in tall which is the same height as Kirsten Dunst, or Mel from Mel and Sue.” Ha ha. Thanks for that, Sam.

Their best comms team is by far Jon Champion and Ally McCoist. Indeed Coisty has been on sparkling form, ever quick with a quip and some repartee. They both sounds like they’re really enjoying themselves. I’ve praised Coisty on his radio work before: he brings the party every time.

Jon Champion is much-missed from his 5live days. ”Ally’s painstaking research into the role of the Teutonic Knights in Kaliningrad paid off,” is a typical JC dry comment. He’s such a good foil to the Rangers man’s comedy. I think this shows how much fun the boys are having.

Also good on comms has been Clive Tyldesley, Clive (hopefully wearing his Keef Hartley Band t-shirt). He was on fine form making snidey little political points such as “I think it’s still okay for women to watch football in America, but I haven’t checked for an hour,” during Iran v Spain. Good old Clive, Clive. He’s had Glenn Hoddle alongside much of the time, who seems determined not to get any better. Why didn’t they take Danny Higginbotham instead?

Over on the BBC, one might say the same thing about Danny Murphy, who seems determined to turn being Murphonic into an act in itself. I’m not one for lots of happy clappy fluff, but it does sound like he’s commentating on a funeral much of the time. Even when put alongside the human fireball that is Jonno Pearce, he didn’t cheer up, indeed, he seemed to dim the commentator’s normally irrepressible flame.

I have to admit to not listening to many BBC TV commentaries. I did give Guy Mowbray with Martin Keown a go for the first ten minutes of the England game, but it was like drinking flat beer in comparison to the 5 live broadcast champagne, so bailed out. This may just be because you are required to say less. But even so, who wants to be where the party isn’t?

I left them to it but not before Keown had already defaulted to one of my pet hates of referring to the unfancied, lower-ranked team as though they’re expected to be hopeless at football. “They can play, they can pass the ball,” he said. Yes, well, they’re at the World Cup, Martin. Of course they can. What did you expect? That sort of subconscious patronising needs slapping down hard and then harder still. Then, as the ex-Arsenal mauler said, “they’ve dropped into a 1-5-4” I just had to exit stage left. The famous 1-man Tunisian defensive tactic was the straw that broke this camel’s back.

However, Matty Upson has been excellent on the pundit sofa and on 5 live too. His point that Portugal have used Ronaldo really well, and Argentina have used Messi terribly, was very good. Also his love of Gareth is huge: “He’s decided how to address the situation from past failures. I think it’s smart.” He’s right to think that.

I’d say that Matt is a Big Pundit waiting to happen if he wants it. In the last year he’s been a breakout star. A lovely voice for radio; he’s got lovely eyes for TV too.

More encouragingly, for the Portugal v Morocco game, Vicki Sparks did the commentary and in doing so became the first woman to commentate a World Cup match broadcast live on terrestrial TV. Obviously, some reacted predictably badly, but this is a war that is being won almost week-by-week and those critics have never seemed more isolated and marginalised.

Some have said Alex Scott has been the BBC’s stand-out TV performer. Indeed the Guardian ran a piece with the headline: ‘How Eni Aluko and Alex Scott became the breakout stars of World Cup punditry’. Sadly, it didn’t actually say ‘how’ they had, but hey, it had a nice headline.

The ex-Arsenal full back brings a really bright, educated energy to the gig. Like the best contributors, she makes you glad you tuned in. Plus, just looking like you’re having a great time is always cheering to the viewer. Why wouldn’t you? Her performances, as with Eni’s, are changing things via the time-old tradition of just being any good.

So who is this week’s winner in the Battle of the Broadcasters?

ITV have not had the best week, Aluko and Wrighty aside, after a strong start on the first day. The chemistry between guests just isn’t right. Gary Neville seems subdued. Lee Dixon, normally so good, looks a bit uncomfortable and they’re relying on Bilic and Wrighty to make it amusing. I wonder if four pundits is simply too many when you’ve got ad breaks to accommodate. Too often they all seem islands unto themselves.

BBC’s regular team of Gary, Alan, Rio and Frank are far more knitted together. I noticed also, that when England scored their winner and they showed the footage of the lads in the studio, Frank’s first reaction was to make a note. I thought that very interesting. Swot.

However, the BBC’s TV commentaries just lack something, or at least the ones I’ve heard. They’re just not fizzing the way I want them to. ITV’s comms have been largely better.

I suspect talkSPORT are serving their demographic very well (Robbie Savage’s World Cup breakfast show on 5 live really should’ve been put on talkSPORT), but this week’s award must go to 5 live for consistently being a brilliant mix of reporting, discussion, entertainment and commentary. Their teaming up of comms and co-comms is working brilliantly.

The funniest moment of the week came after the Spain v Portugal game. I don’t know who said this, his voice wasn’t familiar to me and I forgot to note it, but there was an engine revving in the background as he spoke. “David De Gea’s taxi there,” he said, quick as you like. Excellent.

So, the gold star this week goes to 5 live for their 24-hour non-stop party.

John Nicholson


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