Thick & Fast: Football’s Weird Week-and-a-Bit

by | Mar 8, 2021

Mark Murphy has had some thoughts on football over recent days. Loads of them, in fact. A right stream of consciousness, you could say. Those prescription pain-killers are STRONG…

When BBC Radio Five Live football correspondent John Murray called Chelsea’s Mason Mount “a modern-day Kevin Keegan” at Anfield on Thursday, football’s weird week reached peak weird. Even a week with a Match of the Day (MOTD) at a quarter to midnight, free of studio content (there’s an idea). And a week when Sheffield United’s win left the Premier League’s (EPL’s) bottom club with better 2021 home form than near-future ex-champions Liverpool.

Until Murray’s explanation, his co-commentator, professional controversialist Chris Sutton, sounded as confused as most listeners who weren’t of a certain age (mine, 55) or older at the comparison between the silkily-skilled Mount and the silk purse out of a sow’s ear Keegan. And the 48-year-old Sutton was scarcely less confused after it.

Murray had seen a deodorant ad featuring Mount, who had just scored the evening’s only goal. Why this was visible around Anfield at a Chelsea game, he didn’t explain. And he only half-remembered the mid-1970s TV ad featuring Keegan and former heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper, not recalling the product’s name, Brut deodorant (Brut 33, to be exact), until every 55+ listener screamed it at whatever device they were listening to the game on. If you want to know, google “Keegan Brut ad” to discover 32 seconds of squeakily-voiced unintentional homo-erotica that you’ll never be able to unsee.

Anyway…EPL games are, we’re constantly told, coming “thick and fast.” And on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, there were six. Everton had a particularly thick and fast four days, as Sky’s ‘Monday Night Football’ hosts, before their Thursday trip to West Brom. And this thick and fastness has understandably affected the games’ quality. Apart from the eventual dismantling of a frightened Wolves at Manchester City on Tuesday, the results had an old-school Serie A look to them. But this quality deficiency sounded less obvious than it looked.

Having recently lauded BBC radio’s football coverage as inherently superior to Talksport’s, I heard a Talksportification of their output this week. Even Crystal Palace’s very 0-0 draw with Man Yoo on Wednesday was full of “big chances,” with co-commentators Seb Hutchinson and the normally hype-resistant Pat Nevin constantly amazed that the first half was scoreless. Social media, meanwhile, had been sent to sleep by the second-quarter. And the chastened Beeb duo were appropriately sheepish about the second-half’s fog-enveloped mediocrity.

“Wow” was Jermaine Beckford’s buzzword at Burnley/Leicester. We could tell he was having fun because he kept telling us he was having fun. And he was both example and explanation of the Talksportification. Beckford was a Talksportie when I lambasted the station (not particularly because of him, mind). This week, he was finding wow factors on Five Live, and outclassing the 874% too earnest Garth Crooks on BBCTV’s ‘Final Score.’ Mind you, Crooks started the afternoon pondering Arsenal’s “Dr Hyde” personality, so…

This punditry cross-pollination is necessary while resources are stretched by every EPL game being broadcast live. Even Talksport’s finest, Sam Matterface, sounded like he’d rushed from his Manchester City/West Ham radio duties to cover Newcastle/Wolves for MOTD. But apparently the MOTD mic-man was Steven Wyeth. And my confusion was due to my brain being frazzled by the thick/fast fixture schedule, rather than a Matterface tax dodge.

But even pundits are confused. Danny Mills, another Beeb voice over the years, refused to Talksportify Talksport’s coverage of Aston Villa/Wolves, making “a steward at the Holte End who hasn’t put a foot wrong” Man-of-the-Match. Mind you, he can ill-afford to put any punditry feet wrong. “Maybe an eyelash fell out” was his disdainful response to a Wolves player over-reacting to a clonk on the nose, casting considerable doubt over Mills’ future as a make-up artist.

No hype required, though, for EPL referees’ decision-making this week. Talksport’s Jason Cundy recently launched into a borderline-xenophobic rant about the low quality whatever phrase he used for “these foreign refs.” So, I’d have listened to Cundy for his views on that EPL refereeing (VA and on-field). But that would have meant listening to the slightly-misspelled Cundy. On purpose. So I didn’t.

Enough has been said and written (and drawn…by the Guardian newspaper’s David Squires) about Lee Mason’s Hawthorns brainfreeze. Suffice to say we knew that he knew he’d f***ed up here, especially when he wiped his left hand down the side of his face, as both were almost audibly sweaty on MOTD.

Offside controversies have also come thick and fast. And after Man City had a goal “chalked off” for a shirt-width offside on Tuesday, famous goalhanger Gary Lineker moan-tweeted that “level is no longer onside,” aware that he might not have scored so many if 1980s refs had video assistance. Of course, however you tweak the offside law, players will still be offside or on, with video assistance allowing no doubt to give attackers the benefit of, as pundits apparently want.

You could rid football of this turbulent debate by pulling technology out of it entirely. But if the ubiquitous Sian Massey-Ellis can get key offside calls wrong, as she did at Man City later on Tuesday, then mistakes will return with a vengeance. So, the debate is over which unsatisfactory situation we take forward, and whether this technology genie can be put back in its bottle.

Meanwhile, handball continues to mean a different thing on each day of the week, with Arsenal discovering that basketball in the box in Burnley is allowed on Saturdays. But though the handball law in goalscoring situations can be an ass, it is CLEAR, which is what pundits seem to want. It was clear even to its biggest victim, Fulham boss Scott Parker. So it should have been clear to someone on the Five Live team at Fulham/Spurs on Thursday and thus clarified to listeners. In football’s modern parlance, if a handball offence is responsible for a goal or an assist, the goal is disallowed.

There will be another new handball law from July 1st, seemingly because EPL refs have so loused up applying this one. But despite most media outlets linking this news to the Fulham decision, that part of the law remains unchanged.

Incidentally, when Jermaine Jenas suggested on MOTD2 earlier this season that issues with the law were damaging the EPL as a “product,” rather than football itself, it seemed like the sort of arrogance English football trademarked in the game’s early organised years. So it was double-depressing when Trevor Sinclair suggested that Saturday’s penalty sagas at Burnley damaged “the Premier League brand,” as if that is the prime concern here…or a concern at all.

Incidentally part two, it irritates me that the verb “assist” has been turned by into a noun. Not in the manner of ex-West Brom and Man Yoo manager and ITV pundit Ron Atkinson changing the grammatical status of “arrive” every time his pet player Bryan Robson made a trademark late run into the box (“fantastic arrive by Robbo”). But by what was once called “making” a goal being a points-scorer in Fantasy Football.

BBC cricket commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins once described the elegant West Indian batsman Jeffrey Dujon letting a ball through to the wicket-keeper as “a flowery leave.” That’s acceptable, even delightful linguistic misuse, for what my opinion is worth. “An assist” will never be anything but “an annoy.” Fantasy football is NOT football. Fantasy Football’s lexicon should not BE football’s lexicon. And that’s another big football issue addressed. You’re welcome.

The thick and fastness of things has led managers to rotate squads when they can, triggering a debate about whether certain supremos “know their best eleven.” Chelsea’s Tommy Tookle (and he will forever be ‘Tookle’ to me) is thought particularly ignorant in this regard, to which Calum Hudson-Odoi might readily testify. But surely the idea of “best elevens” is as outdated as Jose Mourinho’s coaching, or Mark Lawrenson’s…everything? The best eleven to face Burnley is surely not the same dozen-less-one for a trip to Manchester City.

Other things coming thick and fast recently were Romain Saiss goal-line clearances, even when Wolves were attacking. And in the EFL, late (96th and 97th-minute late) soft-as-f**k penalties to give Swansea two 2-1 wins. Without them, the Swans’ automatic promotion challenge would be more daunting, despite Brentford’s poor post-not-taking-the-knee form (disunited dressing-room anyone?). With them, Stoke City and Middlesbrough’s play-off hopes are more distant.

The Swansea City TV commentators’ momentary silence spoke volumes when they saw the replay of Kyle Naughton tripping himself up after Stoke’s Jack Clarke didn’t even make a tackle. And Boro’ boss Neil Warnock…well…guess. “I’m a little bewildered,” he said, entering the Guinness Book of World Understatement Records (bewilderment. little or large, was NOT the expression on his face in the photo above the BBC website’s match report). And he was already “bewildered” by the disallowing of a putative equaliser just after half-time, a decision met with unanimous incredulity on ‘Final Score.’

Still, no VARs in the EFL. So everything’s fine.

But the week’s highlight was Roy Keane exposure as the “actually a bit of an idiot” many have long-suspected him of being. His spat with Sky colleague Jamie Redknapp over Tottenham’s squad was more competitive than the game which followed. And even without Burnley playing like 11 white rabbits caught in headlights, presenter David Jones’ disappointment at having to “watch some football” would have been widespread. Indeed, kick-off was a godsend for the already-swearing Keane (“Mourinho knows the game better than bloody all of us”), whose indignation was so high-pitched that only dogs could hear it all.

Keane is a pure “football-was-better-in-my-day” merchant. And he over-reached on Sergio Reguilon, when Redknapp called him “as good a left-back as there is in the country” and suggested Keane had “got that one wrong,” like a red rag to a bull. “That’s why Real Madrid let him go,” the bull replied, sarky boots laced up. “Take a breath, Jamie,” Jones advised. And that breath let Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink explain why “Real Madrid let him go.” (to “free up money”). And, as Jones had twice told the now-psychologically off-line Keane, “they have a buy-back option.”

His poor research exposed, Keane pivoted semi-coherently towards another Real “reject”: Against West Ham “we’re (told) Bale came on and made a difference. What did he do? He put a corner in.” The possibly still-shaking London Stadium crossbar Bale thunderstruck, and anyone who watched the game, probably had a different view. But Keane was now a bully collapsing when being bullied back. By Jamie Redknapp. Is that Mick McCarthy I hear laughing?

All this thick and fastness means that by the time you read this, more weirdness will surely have ensued. Y’know, first-minute penalties for Man United setting up wins at the Etihad, or something equally preposterous. Just as well, really, over these last nine days. Because without it, we’d have been left with the football alone. And that’s been horrendous.