Football’s Radio Daze

by | Feb 6, 2021

It seemed strange without an English Premier League (EPL) game on Monday’s TV and radio schedules. Maybe the games weren’t coming as “thick and fast” as the cliché of these “locked-down” times suggests. Then I saw Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s schedules…

Gladly lacking a BT Sport subscription, I have relied on radio football a LOT in recent weeks. And it has become a habit, even when my Sky Sports subscription comes into play. As I’ve written before, I far prefer BBC Radio’s football coverage to Talksport’s. So, Talksport’s interminable boast of their “live and exclusive radio coverage of all ten Premier League games” last week was down-heartening. Yet I could tolerate this coverage. And I suspect there might have been a hint of snobbery in my pro-Beeb leanings.

Only a hint, mind. If you weren’t fully aware of Talksport’s origins in 1990s sensationalist talk radio, you’d have thought the second half of Newcastle/Leeds was the greatest 45 minutes since the football equivalent of sliced bread. Commentator Mark Wilson found about 58% of it “unbelievable,” especially the Newcastle misses, all from players he was unable to identify at the vital moment. He found it easier to identify a non-existent (for now) five-point lead for Manchester City.

The duo had fun, though, which carried across the airwaves. A famous RTE radio commentator, Micheal O Muircheartaigh, was particularly talented at making games sound better than they were. He often inserted splashes of Irish into his commentaries, which was unhelpful when medium wave radio reception (ask your parents) wasn’t great. But his enthusiasm and wondrous turn of phrase was a joy. As he once said of Cork hurler Sean Og O hAilpin, “his father’s from Fermanagh, his mother’s from Fiji …neither of which are hurling strongholds.”

Anyway… Burnley/Aston Villa, on Wednesday, didn’t need a Wilson or a Muircheartaigh. But it did need someone aware of teams dominating first halves but paying for only being one-up at half-time, as Burnley’s second-half comeback blind-sided the whole Talksport team. Analyst Neil Redfearn sounded like Bullseye’s Jim Bowen with a head cold. So I spent too long after the game imagining Redfearn sneaking up on Villa boss Dean Smith after the game, whispering “this is what you would have won” in his ear and running off. Lockdown, people. Lockdown.

At the top end of Talksport’s range, Dean Ashton is a star analyst, an angrier one as the week progressed, especially given Tottenham’s ‘defending’ against Liverpool. He and Tottenham match commentator Sam Matterface (a young ITV veteran) are, dare I say, a good enough duo to be on the BBC. And Matterface certainly carries off the phrase “we buy any car dot com” better than any of his colleagues.

It was sad hearing Clyde Tyldesley trot out the ads, albeit with his usual consummate professionalism. Tyldesley’s reaction to ITV demotion last July, with Matterface becoming ITV’s number one, wasn’t so consummately professional, although his baffled annoyance might have been partly due ITV’s lack of explanation to him and to incorrect reports of his sacking. And he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea as a commentator. But his commentary on Everton/Newcastle was of the quality which made him ITV’s number one in 1998.

Talksport’s coverage will continue to be undermined by that which finances it, though. Give me a licence fee obligation any day over the half-time odds on, I kid you not, West Brom/Manchester City, which City were then winning four-nil, remember. I don’t know how many regular punters bet in decimal. So, informing us that City were “1,000,” while the draw and a West Brom win were “1” (or was it the other way round?) added even more nothing to our lives than if we’d been told that City were plenty-to-one on and the other results were plenty-more-to-one against.

BBC Radio passes such times way better. The other Sunday they set an anorak-satisfying quiz question (I was all ears, of course). Which 12 finalists never won the FA Cup? Analyst Don Hutchison knew one answer. And his clue to colleagues was that he played for the club. “Doesn’t narrow the field down much,” came the response, noting Hutchison’s multi-move career. Hutchison added that he’d had a bad time there. “Still doesn’t narrow the field down much,” came the response. Maybe you had to be there. But if you were, your licence fee was suddenly very worth it.

There’s a London local radio vibe about Talksport (regardless of on-air accent), and not in a good way. BBC Radio Sheffield has a local radio vibe because…well… And very much in a good way when your football show is called “Football Heaven.” All this for the licence fee…and joyous irony too. At least I assume that a cast with Rotherham/Derby as a major support act (before it was called off) is ironically entitled ‘Heaven.’ Although, to be fair, South Yorkshire people might prefer Rotherham to, say, Wimbledon just now.

“To be fair” was a catchphrase for Radio Sheffield pundit, Sheffield United 70s and 80s star striker Keith Edwards. And he was as gloriously biased at the Blades/West Brom game as you’d hope, even if briefly forgetting Oli McBurnie’s name undermined his Blades credentials for a bit. No such doubt about commentator Andy Giddings, whose screeching “Billy Sharp” when Sharp netted the winner woke the dead throughout the county. And he even fitted in a tribute to American rock band Blue Oyster Cult, referencing Black Blade beanie hats on Sheffield United dug-out heads (niche, I know).

We may be seeing the fruits of players’ media training, which remains intermittent but clearly improved (the day?) after Robbie Savage retired. On Wednesday, Charlie Austin began his punditry career, two days after scoring for QPR in the Championship. Impressively too. The Berkshire-born striker was a bit Talksport-cockney with his indignation, and convinced that Divock Origi was in Fulham’s team (Decordova-Reid, I guess). Otherwise, an impressive debut.

But the old school immediately re…gurgitated on Five Live, Mark Lawrenson highlighting the new breed’s quality and ability to NOT be relentlessly unfunny. Told that Southampton’s Jack Stephens is the “Cornish Maldini,” ‘Lawro’ replied “Cornish Pasty.” Out loud. And his old cynic schtick quickly descended into sub-Alan Green dreck on the vexed subject of delayed offside flags, about which EVERY other pundit is more constructively disapproving. Presenter Kelly Cates found him funny…unless she was laughing AT him.

Mercifully, there’s a conveyor belt of new voices. And hopefully Talksport won’t facilitate ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce’s return to their ranks after West Brom go down in a blaze of gory defending. In TV punditry’s early days in the early 1970s, articulate ex-players jostled with in-work managers for the few places available. Brian Clough and Malcolm Allison were TV pundits as young bosses. Even the famously un-natural Alf Ramsey had a mic at the 1974 World Cup for which he’d just failed to qualify England. But Eddie Howe was a rare new managerial presence, on ‘Match of the Day 2’ last Sunday.

So, football radio’s future looks like the new breed, regardless of station, as freelancing is the order of the modern day. And with TV the logical next rung on their career ladder, the future of football broadcast punditry generally is bright. Strange, indeed.