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I gave them a fortnight. But still they didn’t get to the point. After Stan Collymore’s anti-Match of the Day rant, the great, the good and the Mail’s Martin Samuel all had their say, with full advantage taken of the opportunity to stick the boot into Alan Shearer for his overwhelming blandness. Yet the one thing missing from just about everyone’s comments was a reference to what ought to have been an important point of a debate concerning broadcasting skills. And that was… er… broadcasting skills.
There was one reader-comment on the issue in the Mail, in response to the afore-mentioned Samuel’s contribution to the debate. Or there would have been, if the paper had published my – entirely reasonable – comment. I sense Mail censorship, personal paranoia, a future article, or all three – make good your escape while you can. This weekend afforded the opportunity to take in the broadcasting “skills” of many of the debate’s protagonists. This included Collymore himself, as Talksport, the national sports radio station for whom he currently works, had nationwide exclusive live coverage of the Manchester City/Newcastle Premier League fixture, as we were reminded about every six seconds throughout the commentary. Indeed, we were told this at least four times more often than we were told the score. And I know this because – yes – I started counting, having heard “live and exclusively on Talksport” for the umpteenth time.
Collymore acts as match analyst, a role in which he has had some years’ experience. When he was on BBC Five Live Collymore offered a fresh perspective on events, and often told you stuff you hadn’t already worked out for yourself. The best example of this was during an Aston Villa/Birmingham derby at Villa Park. Birmingham’s keeper, I forget which one, was struggling to deal with corners early on. But instead of the usual platitudes about the keeper not being very good on crosses (Mark Lawrenson would have cited Dracula by this point), Collymore noted that it was a midday kick-off and that “for about half-an-hour” the sun would be shining in the gap between the stands, causing a blind spot for keepers and defenders.
Interesting, informative and helpful – exactly what you’d want from a pundit. Unfortunately for Collymore, this isn’t exactly what Talksport wants from a pundit. They want their punditry and analysis to be more, shall we say, direct and combative. So at Villa Park, their studio anchor (insert your own rhyming slang joke here) Alan Brazil would have gone straight into ‘Dracula’ mode, live and exclusively on Talksport, and the game would have moved on. Collymore can do direct and combative, though. Debate raged (if there is debate on Talksport, it rages) over Nigel De Jong’s leg-double-breaking tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa. It was a tackle which gave scope for both the “straight red”, “throw the book at them” brigade and their “you just can’t tackle anymore”, “its health and safety gone mad” counterparts.
Collymore was firmly in the first brigade. But his response was quick-witted and concise. He was too quick-witted for my note-taking/shorthand skills, so I couldn’t get the exact quote. But he basically said he wasn’t anti-tackling, just anti-tackles that leave bones sticking out through socks. It was an image which had the right shock value for Talksport. And it made his point very well indeed. These are his broadcasting skills. All Talksport punditry is too (combative) for my taste. But their pundits are clearly under orders. And, in addition, Collymore had a show to fill after the City game finished. So his occasional descent into rage was excusable. While pretty much the entire footballing world transferred their attention to Stamford Bridge for Chelsea against Arsenal, Talksport, who were live and exclusive at Eastlands but not West London, had “Call Collymore,” (their version of “6-0-6,) as we were reminded on a mantra-like basis throughout the commentary.
I transferred my attention to Stamford Bridge, too. So I can say nothing about “Call Collymore” with any conviction, other than Collymore probably treated his callers with more respect than Alan Green ever has. So, even if Talksport isn’t your bag – and it isn’t mine – Collymore fulfils his remit and does it to time, the major broadcasting skills required for the seat in which he sits. Often, there isn’t that much new or exciting to say about a game. England’s recent win over Bulgaria was a straightforward match to analyse. England were one-up but playing scrappily until a pivotal second-half minute where Bulgaria nearly made it 1-1, a matter of seconds before England made it 2-0. Analyst Danny Murphy didn’t have much more to work with than that. But he was concise and listenable in a way that Shearer probably couldn’t manage and Andy Townsend, ITV’s Shearer-equivalent, didn’t manage.
Listenability is a skill that is hard to quantify. It’s a distant cousin to comic timing, I guess. It is about being coherent and grammatically correct at least as much as being controversial, having an exciting delivery as much as having an exciting opinion. And maybe you’ve got it or you haven’t. Danny Murphy has it. In the middle of the broadcasting skills spectrum, we have Mark Lawrenson and Colin Murray, both of whom can be good broadcasters, but aren’t always. Having lauded Murray in advance of his MOTD 2 debut, I must admit he has so far lived down to his critics more than he’s lived up to my expectations. Nervous and stilted on MOTD 2, his jokes haven’t worked and his sarcasm has come across as smart-arse rather than just smart.
Yet last Sunday, literally hours before MOTD 2, he hosted Five Live sport in his usual smooth, authoritative and knowledgeable style. The jokes worked and the witty asides retained their wit. Lawrenson is genuinely quite relaxed and funny on the radio, and not just when he’s alongside the execrable Green. His problem on the MOTD sofa, isn’t that he is too “cosy” as the critics would have it, more that he’s trying too hard to live up to a reputation for being a bit of a wag. And he ends up coming across like a complete wag. Bizarrely, even John Motson fails to irritate on the radio, probably because he’s too busy with actual match action to come up with any unfulfilling statistics or rehearsed pun-based analogies. If one person is suffering from being too cosy on MOTD, it’s Hansen. However much the game has changed since his day, the basics are much the same. And he potentially benefits from the fact that defending in the top-flight has got demonstrably worse in recent years. Yet where he ought to sound angry, he just sounds bored. This is not helped, it must be said, by what Gary Lineker has turned into since he moved from pundit to presenter.
Another weekend programme, Can England win the next World Cup?, showcased his broadcasting talents infinitely better than the restrictive format of a Saturday night, which has reduced him to the blandest common denominator – a pun machine with no spark. The programme was a good deal more enlightening than a mixture of Harry Redknapp, Henry Winter and Richard Scudamore had any right to be. It was essentially a series of linked interviews, with Lineker providing the links, the interviewers’ questions. He rounded the programme off with a short opinion piece to camera which was sharp and concise and came across as a logical conclusion from the programme’s evidence rather than any pre-judgements or controversy for its own sake.
And particularly during the interview with Scudamore, Lineker’s short-interview skills were to the fore. Regular readers will know that I think Scudamore is an idiot. And Lineker showed that up beautifully within seconds. Scoo asked rhetorically whether there was a list of other things that the Premier League could do to help the England team, expecting a consensus that there wasn’t. Lineker, quick as a flash, and with more than an ounce of comic timing, started off on his list… fewer games, better scheduling winter break…
Scoo interrupted to say he wasn’t sure of the merits of a winter break, to which Lineker replied with the thought going through many minds – you wouldn’t know until you tried. If it was chess, Scoo would have been in check. Then Scoo asked, idiotically: “When in the calendar would you have the winter break? The winter, perhaps? Checkmate. Lineker got thoughtful views from just about everyone, even little Englanders like Redknapp and Samuel. Well, Redknapp anyway, who made the valid point that the winter break would soon enough be full of foreign games for commercial reasons.
Samuel bleated on about how England failed to qualify for World Cups in the 1970s, when the league was full of English players (which would have been news to Pat Jennings, George Best, Denis Law, Liam Brady, Johnny Giles, Leighton James… you get my point). If Lineker couldn’t extract any coherence from Samuel, that wasn’t Lineker’s fault. On MOTD, Lineker shows little of these skills. If he did, the only blot on the MOTD landscape would be Shearer. He simply sounds boring even when he’s saying something interesting…so they tell me. That is the key skill that he lacks, not his inability to distinguish between expensive Spanish forwards called David, or his supposed reluctance to be controversial. He is a broadcast journalist, as they all are – even Garth Crooks. And without both journalistic and broadcasting skills, no football pundit on TV should be a football pundit on TV. That is the point. And sadly, the debate about MOTD, and punditry in general, has so far failed to make it.
No-one really escapes this article without an appreciation of their knowledge and indeed their skills – even Motson (I have to agree by the way, an irritating presence on the telly, far better on radio) What I’m getting from this is that it’s the format of televised football (and its radio equivalent) that’s to blame more than the talents of the individuals that populate it. Which begs the question – how to improve that? From the above it seems to be to stop this boring bigging up of the games the stations decide to show and the endless self-promotion, shake the roles of the individuals up a bit more – but is this enough? Even someone as talented as James Richardson often found it difficult to make Italian football coverage watchable, because of the football itself. How about less football – go back to two games on MOTD and a round-up of the goals, some kind of article beyond coverage of community projects included. Any suggestions?