With its relatively recent descent into chest-beating populism, the BBC has left itself fairly open to criticism over the last few years in terms of its football coverage. This reached something of a nadir at the 2006 World Cup when England were knocked out by Portugal, and any pretence of rational analysis went out of the window. Ian Wright, sitting glumly in the studio, almost completely lost for words, was the most potent symbol possible for the crushing contradiction between expectation and the reality of the England team’s limitations. The news that he has been released by the BBC comes as no surprise to those of us that have been keeping a close eye on the BBC’s descent into ITV-esque tabloid broadcasting.
You could learn about much as you need to about Wright from a telling interview with Jim Rosenthal for Channel Four’s “100 Greatest World Cup Moments”, which was broadcast on the eve of the 2002 World Cup. Rosenthal related a story about the match in St Etienne in 1998 in Argentina. He was watching the match when it became apparent that the ITV team was being targeted for extraordinary levels of abuse by the section of the Argentine support sitting immediately below them. When he turned around, he said, there was “Wrighty”, with a flag draped around his shoulders, goading them for all he was worth. The story was relayed as a symbol of Wrights “passion” but, considering what the English supporters had been up to in Marseille a couple of weeks previously (turning the French efforts to be welcoming hosts to ruin by rioting on the beach during the England vs Tunisia match), it struck me as being the crass behaviour of the worst sort by someone that, ultimately, was in France to be paid to to a job.
Wright has not sought to blame the matter of his race on the issue, but that’s not to say that there haven’t been others to do so on his behalf, such as The Guardian’s very white and middle class looking Martin Jacques, who effectively accused the BBC of being racist in getting rid of him. He chose to overlook Wright’s glaring shortcomings as a football analyst in favour of one quote from Greg Dyke, made seven years ago (in which Dyke, recently appointed as the Director General, described the corporation as being “hideously white”). I don’t recall the BBC being particularly racist at the time (though there have plenty of occasions in the past when even their football coverage has been), and their reaction to his outburst has been one of general bemusement. “He was a freelance who only wanted to do England matches. We have lost England matches, so his role does not exist at the moment”, a spokesman said.
It is possible that the BBC is feeling rattled by the almost total loss of live football from its schedule. They have lost the FA Cup and England’s home international matches to ITV, leaving just 10 live matches from the Championship and the finals of major tournaments. Considering this, it was inevitable that they would have to trim down their football staff and, although the decision making process has been kept secret (and is more likely to do with allegations made by non-footballing programmes such as “Panorama”), it’s just possible that the FA were unhappy with the way that they were showing matches. Clearly they are doing something wrong, or these tournaments would still be being shown by them.
It seems to me that the BBC have taken the decision to retire the court jester. Where Wright has woefully missed the mark is in suggesting that his removal is down to some sort of shirt and tie mafia within the BBC’s football department. He seems to be so lacking in self-awareness that he doesn’t even understand that football supporters tend to want incisive and articulate analysis – something which he normally appeared incapable of offering. I don’t hold out too many hopes of the BBC’s coverage improving dramatically in the future (and, with England’s matches to be shown in ITV in the near future, the prognosis for increased levels of jingoism look bleak), but the replacement of Ian Wright and his “man in the pub” persona – and, personally, if I wanted the views of the “man in the pub”, I’d go and watch football in the pub – is a step in the right direction for thoughtful analysis of football on the television. A small step, but a step nevertheless.