The gentrification of football over the last fifteen years or so has been well documented. Buying a season ticket nowadays requires a complex system of vetting and credit checking, and that’s just the start of it. You will also be expected to fork out on merchandise, food, drink and so on. It’s a rich man’s game, now. The other cultural shift that happened within the game was the rise of the “lad”. This was a broader social phenomenon, but it manifested itself within football with the rise of “Fantasy Football League”, the Friday night BBC2 TV show that ran from 1994 until 1998. The programme was a reasonable enough way to spend half an hour, but “lad culture” (and there’s a contradiction in terms if ever I saw one) left me largely baffled. The worst thing about “Fantasy Football League” and the “fan culture” thing that sprung up around it was that it strangled the emerging fanzine culture that it aped, and turned it into a load of unfunny chants (Jason Lee might not have been a Premier League quality footballer, but he didn’t deserve the vile heaps of abuse lavished upon him in about 1997), whilst giving celebrities the chance to (yawn) expose their “football credentials”. The game was fashionable again, and there was no way that the rich and famous were going to miss out on that bandwagon.
Almost ten years on, though, it’s back back back, in the form of a new programme on Channel Four called (deep breath) “Fanbanta”. And it’s terrible. Dreadful. And worst of all, they’ve got plans. You see, “Fanbanta” isn’t just a television series. It’s a website and a message board, too, as well as a nascent social networking site. And the thing about “Fanbanta” is this – it treats you as if you are an idiot. It’s produced in a studio which has been constructed to look like a big, empty pub. Each week there is a guest host who acts as the “landlord” of the pub, standing behind the bar and distributing pints to the hosts and “bantering” with the hosts, Joe Mace and Kirsten O’Brien. The “celebrity” guest was Shaun Williamson (who might like to think that he’ll be best remembered for his part in “Extras” when everybody knows that he’ll have the name of Barry from “Eastenders” engraved on his tombstone), who proceeded to tell his hosts that he only started supporting Fulham because everyone else he knew liked football. He went on to give a damn good impression of someone that still doesn’t really give a toss about the game.
Elsewhere, they put together a fake press release from Roman Abramovich (with the voice done by someone pretending to be Borat, of all people) followed by Avram Grant’s wife making a fool of herself on Israeli television. There was some barely masked homophobia in inviting the braying audience to laugh at Faustino Asprilla’s (somewhat brave, if you ask me) decision to pose naked in a gay magazine, a fat man called Jeff Winter reading an excerpt from Rio Ferdinand’s autobiography in the bath, a sub-YouTube clip of a man taking a penalty and doing a somersault as he did it, and a shout of, “what’s the worst thing in modern football?” which was answered with a shout of, “FOREIGNERS!”, from a neanderthal in the audience. Seemingly running out of material to fill their twenty-four minutes, they then “exposed” David Mellor as having switched the club that he supported from Fulham to Chelsea. Never mind the fact that Mellor hasn’t been in government for over ten years and that this is news only to supporters that have been living under a rock for the last fifteen years (I remember it being mentioned in “When Saturday Comes” in about 1990). The saddest thing about it is that we were expected to be surprised by this “revelation”.
Worst of all, though, was their campaign to bring John Sitton back into football. Sitton, you may remember, was the, shall we say, “vocal” in his criticisms of his team whilst managing Leyton Orient in the 1990s in the BBC documentary “Club For A Fiver”. Never mind that, on one level, it’s simply unnecessary to drag Sitton (who is reportedly now a London taxi driver) back into the limelight for something from thirteen years ago – it was also a shameless attempt to create an air of authenticity about a programme that is about as fake as it comes. The other “campaign” on their website, by the way, didn’t warrant a mention on the programme – to allow pubs to show illegal Norwegian feeds of Premier League football on Saturday afternoons. Never mind that true supporters should, if they are going to watch a match on a Saturday afternoon, perhaps actually go to one rather than sit on their behinds in the pub watching Manchester United or Liverpool. Consider this, from the Fanbanta website: “They [the Premier League] claim it is illegal to show Premiership football in a UK pub unless the publican has a valid commercial agreement with BSkyB. The landlords and ladies across Britain have jumped cleverly through this law by paying foreign broadcasters about £800 a year for the access to 3pm games. In any case, the FAPL refuses to sell rights to these Holy Grail matches”. Well, yes. It is illegal, as it goes, and (before anyone starts on about me putting copyrighted material up to download – I make no money whatsoever from this site, you’ll be unsurprised to hear) landlords don’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it to make money. The Premier League doesn’t sell the rights to all of its matches as one of its last altruistic acts – they could do in theory (and I’m certain that they will in time), but they don’t because of the drastic effect that it would have on crowds elsewhere. Fanbanta doesn’t care about this, though. It cares more about the rights of the fans of big clubs to sit in pubs on Saturday afternoons and watch illegal feeds on the television.
Channel Four are complicit in this wretched car crash of a programme. They’ve sold the name of it to Fanbanta (to be exact, they’ve effectively sold them a thirty minute long advertising space), and allowed them to dump a steaming load of crap on our screens. I don’t like the Fanbanta web site, but I can ignore that. I inhabit a separate universe to these people, and never the twain shall meet. That’s fine. However, there is (as ever) a dearth of quality football programming on British television at the moment, and this programme offers nothing at all that anyone that cares about the game can”t obtain in about a million other places. Channel Four, however, seems to think that we are all idiots, though. Looking at their schedule, this doesn’t much surprise me, but it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be profoundly unhappy about it.