Football Column – Fleet Fox

As Match of the Day (MOTD) turned 50 in the last week it drew both praise and criticism; the eighties graphics were a highlight in the birthday edition, with even the right-back named before the left-back, taking us back to common sense basics. In fact MOTD’s many good points come from not throwing the baby out with the early-bath water, notably reverting back to its best theme tune from 1970 after playing about with it in the eighties, a mistake even the BBC’s otherwise superior Athletics coverage still hasn’t learned from.

Like Athletics, MOTD has an intelligent, natural broadcaster with Gabby Logan (also sometimes a stand-in on MOTD) and Gary Lineker perfect for their roles. More on Lineker to come, but MOTD’s weakness is inconsistency in punditry. Athletics give us Michael Johnson, Tennis offer up John McEnroe and Sky Cricket have a whole team of great analysts, but MOTD is only brought to life during international football. In the World Cup Clarence Seedorf was a breath of fresh air, and in the past Terry Venables and Trevor Brooking were the non-playing stars of Italia ’90’, having to explain to the slow-on-the-uptake Jimmy Hill that Chris Waddle and John Barnes were more dangerous having a bit of freedom in the final third than chasing back full-backs.

In the league though, the standard of punditry is variable. A good, but cutting piece by Jonathan Liew reflected Robbie Savage is effectively all populist bluster, changing his mind more than the August weather. Of course opinions do change in football: after Malkay Mackay’s texts suggested he was UKIP councillor in a tracksuit he is now only marginally less popular than the person who commissioned the Sky Sports brainstorm to re-number their channels in the most unintuitive way imaginable. But, as is constantly shown, not least with Luis Suarez, misdemeanours in football are soon shrugged off and Mackay will probably be back in the game being interviewed by Andy Gray about the prospect of signing Marlon King.

What has kept MOTD watchable for the last twenty years, and crucial for the programme now as less matches are played on Saturdays and goals are easily available to see elsewhere before the programme airs, is Lineker himself. Always a class act as a player, he is the same as a broadcaster and in particular he adds a different, positive dimension to live international coverage, be it asking Ian Wright if he fancied S&M (Serbia and Montenegro) or distinguishing that the skinheads with tattoos captured by the aerial shot before an England international were the players rather than the fans.

Most importantly, he understands the game, asking the right questions and when given the opportunity he can share his wisdom as well. He showed his tactical insight briefly again today in a piece for The Guardian, reflecting on options of how England could shape to get the best from Rooney and Sturridge (short answer: give Brenden Rodgers the manager’s job) while mischievously planting the idea in our heads that the England Captain should be a shop steward-like role (if only there was a Gary Neville elect in the dressing room.)

The BBC have shrewdly used his talent on other sports and it was to him we returned in the Olympic Studio in Stratford when Mo Farah won his second gold of the London 2012 Games, surely the greatest British sporting moment since 1996 (according to this writer anyway.)

In the recent World Cup Final, with Wright, Glenn Hoddle and Lee Dixon, ITV actually had better pundits than the BBC as well as a much less annoying co-commentator for the match. But Lineker meant the BBC would still be worth watching. While they have him, the rights to highlights of all the games on a Saturday and the 1970 theme tune, it will survive, unless it makes the mistake of becoming obsessed with audience participation and, like Sky Sports News recently, foolishly falls into the trap of thinking social media polls are actual content. But as Lineker has some editorial say, that is unlikely to happen.

MG

Mel Gomes is the author of the e-book Glory Nights from Wankdorf to Wembley which documents the escape of travelling to watch sport. It is available to preview for free and download in full from Amazon and Smashwords. More details, including photos and links to reviews, here.

Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley

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