Viewers of the BBC’s flagship football programme Match Of The Day were treated to a somewhat extraordinary sight last weekend when presenter Gary Lineker launched into a somewhat bizarre impersonation of the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger complaining about refereeing decisions going against his team during their match earlier that day against Stoke City. Whilst this behaviour could arguably be described as offensive and certainly wasn’t funny, it also shone a light on the slow, drawn-out decay arguably British football’s most venerable television institution.

Match Of The Day will be fifty years old in two years time, and we can reasonably certain that this is a birthday that we will hear a considerable amount about. There is little that the BBC seems to enjoy more than eulogising its own heritage, and there can be little questioning its historical importance in the development of the televising of football in this country. It was the first regular, nationally broadcast programme dedicated to the national game (after a brief sojourn at its inception when it was shown only to viewers in the London region in BBC2) and it has been, barring a couple of brief intermissions when rights to broadcast matches were, somewhat inconveniently, lost to other companies, a mainstay of the winter schedules since then.

For many, many years the  format remained largely unchanged. There would be extended highlights of one match until 1969 (and two matches thereafter), brief interviews with those that had been involved in the featured matches, a brief round-up of the news of the day, a look at the league tables and the football pools information. And that was it. There was never any need for greater embellishment, the assumption on the part of the producers presumably being that people tuning into a television programme about football would be sufficently entertained by, well, watching the highlights of a couple of that day’s matches and a brief round-up of what had happened elsewhere.

Over time, however, the programme came to evolve. Manchester United played Tottenham Hotspur in the first live league match to be shown on the BBC in December 1983 and for four years from the start of the 1988/89 season an exclusive contract between the Football League and ITV meant that the programmes was limited to more sporadic matches covering only the FA Cup. Since the coming of the Premier League in 1992, however, Match Of The Day has returned to being a regular fixture in the schedules apart from the three seasons between 2001 and 2004, when ITV won the rights to the highlights package made available by the Premier League.

Since 1992, though, Match Of The Day has changed. Pundits – exclusively former players – have been incorporated from live matches, while from the very first episode of the revamped show all of that day’s goals have been, and this has morphed into brief highlights of every game. At the other end of the spectrum, however, extended highlights now seem to be a thing of the past, with the time formerly given over to the featured matches now being spent with the programme’s regular panel of pundits, while the programme has also spawned offspring in the form of Match Of The Day 2, which covers matches played on the increasingly important Sunday schedules.

As it approaches its fiftieth birthday, though, the old warhorse is showing signs of middle-age spread. The studio may be glitzier than ever, but underneath this facade of youthfulness the grim truth of the matter is that it is on danger of becoming the one thing that no television programme can afford to be any more: irrelevant. In the multimedia age, anybody with an ounce of nous knows how to access a feed of any of that afternoons matches on the internet. Those looking to put their feet up and watch a match of an evening can tune into Sky’s Football First of an evening, whilst those after rambunctious debate have the opinion of Goals On Sunday the following day. The biggest single criticism that can now be levelled at Match Of The Day is that it is difficult to say what purpose it serves.

There is no great pleasure to be taken in saying this. After all, free-to-air television needs a strong Match Of The Day, if only to serve as some sort of counterbalance to the relentless march of pay TV in English football. The BBC has been shedding its sports coverage left, right and centre over the last few years, enfeebled by a combination of the bulging wallets of its commercial competitors and, more recently, cuts forced upon it by a government that seems to be ideologically opposed to the very concept of a national broadcaster. This means that the corporation has to get its coverage of the remaining slivers of sports rights that it does still hold right, and the unfortunate truth of the matter is that the 2012 vintage of Match Of The Day does little to fill the license fee payer with much confidence that it should be entrusted with more money to spend on expanding this portfolio. Whether we like it or not, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that if the current incarnation of Match Of The Day is indicative of what the BBC would produce if it did have more sports rights, then perhaps it is for the best that its stock is dwindling.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this decline is that it shouldn’t be overly difficult to set it right. Perhaps the BBC has little or no idea of the extent to which its over-reliance on the lack of insight of its panel of ex-pros, with their stultifying mateyness and jokes that fall as flat as ten day old lemonade, debases any authoritativeness that the programme may have held or that most people tune into it to watch the football rather than four middle-aged men sitting on a sofa and cracking jokes that Little & Large would reject as being beyond the pale whilst offering a level of insight that could alternatively (and more cheaply) be sourced by hanging around a town centre pub on match days with a microphone and a cassette player. If the BBC has the common sense to return Match Of The Day to the reason why viewers tune in to start with – the football itself – then there is a chance that its reputation can be revived. Until it does this, though, it will continue to resemble a middle-aged man in a night club at two o’clock in the morning – slightly ridiculous looking and looking considerable more tired than it thinks it does.

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