Friday, 18 December 2009

Nil-Nil, Jeff! A guide to the mystery world of live TV football without pictures!

I've reported football for radio and TV for twenty years and without being too arsey, it's a journalistic skill you hone: 

Always keep in mind to broadcast with economy of expression for the remote listener. To do it well takes commitment.

So why does telly use inarticulate, untrained ex-players on Saturdays? No one invited me to play midfield for Arsenal or manage Walsall, so why is Paul Merson any better equipped to do my job? If you've watched these shows, you'll know the answer.

Players use that strange present tense that can't be used in any other context. So Saturday comes around and Jeff shreeeeks something formulaic like:

"You've just heard Merse moooan watching West Ham against Villa... last time we checked in, West Ham missed a spot-kick but have Villa made them ruuue that (growls here) early chance, Paul?"...

..."...they haven't yet, Jeff!", anti-climaxes Merse. "Ashley Young gets it halfway, skins Matty Upson, it falls for Umbongalore who has a crack, Jeff, but Rob Green does well... turns it away for a corner; nil-nil, Jeff".
Of course, ex-player's "media careers"are pigeon-holed into a narrow range of tasks. There's not one ex-pro that could hold that live show together like the exceptionally live Jeff Stelling. Believe me, I did the same show: ITV's Football First. Four hours of non-stop updates, my brain agog with how many since Agogo scored and when Huddersfield last won at home.

And by the way, there's no recorded sighting of a commentator who used to be a player either. You get a guest summariser, that's only so the brilliant and thorough Alan Parry can have a glass of water!

I guess I resent the knock on the studio door by ex-players saying "I'm 36, I'll have some of that", without taking it seriously and doing the yards, the homework, learning the broadcast skills-set.

"We played the game, we know what we're talking about!", an Andy Gray-style rambling which divides the world up into two categories: "football people" and the rest of humanity.

It's a disdain for his fanbase as though we're watching him to be put right because we couldn't possibly understand having not been a pro.

Almost geraldratneresque, Andy. No wonder, he got the bullet. Pure hubris: pride came before the fall.

My message to ex-players. You're not necessarily blessed with extra knowledge! I bet you couldn't organise a live show in a brewery.
Let me tell you, Andy Gray: I've watched football, reported football and played football (with enthusiasm if not technical brilliance) long enough (by the way, I'm actually descended from "football people" too. Are you? Is it hereditary?) and therefore, your qualifications over mine must be tenuous at best.

Having said all of that, there are honourable examples of players who did make the transition:

I always admired Bob Wilson's attempt at on-air orthodoxy. He was functional on 1980 Football Focus, but he did resemble a broadcaster and he deserved his job.

Jimmy Hill too, an intelligent man who genuinely leveraged his "football people" knowledge into opinion and comment when MOTD was a single shot in front of tan wallpaper. But he never let it spill over into the shows raison d'etre.
It took Gary Lineker ages before they turned him into on-air quality; even now he's a one-trick pony. You know that iron statue of Saddam with the outstretched arm they tore down when he was overthrown? well, that's Gary on-air! He's not asked to do complicated - but he's fine.

Nope, they're not listening to me. Andy Townsend's fronting ITV, Mark Bright frankspencer's his way across droney local telly and Garth Crooks frowns through The Red Button like he's talking Iraq - not Stoke.

The trend's here to stay.

So I'm cleaning my boots and I'm going to get myself a professional game. Oh, I'll do the work alright. I'll go to the gym, shoot with my left foot for hours, give and go - and try to perfect the glancing header.
I'll find a game at my level too.

Now, who are Birmingham City playing Wednesday night?