Media Week: Buses and Fake Brickwork - The Football League Show
“I’ll just watch the main game… well, our goals as well too obviously… oh, and I quite fancied watching Morecambe’s 4-3 win over Accrington too… to be honest I might as well watch the whole thing… erm… are you snoring?” – The Football League Show is our window into the lives of all the other clubs unfortunate enough to be scraping around the lower reaches of professional football in this country. We forced Glen Wilson to stay up until dawn to offer a critique of the Beeb’s much-maligned nocturnal highlights package.
Recently, walking through Doncaster, I watched a man end a phone call by jabbing repeatedly at the screen then hurling his handset at the wall of Nat West. Though there’s a chance I was witnessing a very personal protest at the financial downturn (or indeed just a normal day in Donny), it is more likely I was party to the denouement of man’s frustration with technology. We’ve all been there. That moment we forget the many remarkable tasks the machine in front of us is performing, and focus instead on the one thing we currently demand of it which it frustratingly cannot do. What does this have to do with The 72’s media week? you ask, well, after trawling through twitter posts and messageboards, it appears this is also how the majority of us watch The Football League Show.
Yes, the FLS is to sports highlights programming what a laptop highlighting Error 4016, or a text message that won’t send is to our embrace of technology. Never mind that they have, in the few hours since full-time, managed to package up and deliver us highlights of up to thirty six matches from the length and breadth of the country, they neglected to show that corner we should have had in the 76th minute, an unacceptable travesty that we cannot let lie. If it were an office printer we’d kick it, but as it’s a television show we get our instant gratification instead by tweeting irrational complaints about their anti [insert own club here] bias. The rights to the Football League are televised sport’s poisoned chalice, a highly prized accolade which enable the holder the unique freedom to receive scorn and derision from seventy two different social groups.
And all this despite trying so desperately hard to be inoffensive, not least in the appointment of Manish Bhasin. A presenting machine; Manish’s timbre displays neither regional dialect nor class background, whilst his range of emotion spans a spectrum no longer than the gable end of a fiver. He is more neutral than the manila painted walls of a Swiss rental property. Stoical, reliable, ever-present, Manish is the presenter equivalent of the hallway table you keep your post on; you simply accept its unwavering presence, but the one moment it’s not there you’ll find yourself walking in perplexed circles, the assuredness of your world, blown off its axis. There is just one single irritation which underlies Manish’s presence on my Saturday nights that I feel the need to voice. Why the continued inflection of surprise in his weekly opening gambit on how it’s been “a busy afternoon in the Football League”? It’s a Saturday Manish, they tend to be so.
Not even Manish’s innocuousness can save The FLS from its most notable crime aganist humanity; ownership of the worst title sequence ever brainstormed. The perfect television themes tune into the tone of the ensuing programme; its rhythms and melody evoking the emotions of what it is you are about to see. Indeed Ronnie Hazlehurst made an art of the television theme tune, the FLS however sits squarely at the opposite extreme. Its creators having seen fit to deliver us a directionless thudding dirge evocative of nothing except perhaps a one legged man walking up a gravel pathway to a panel-beaters. The base drum beat may as well be Keith Mansfield banging his head repeatedly against a brick wall. It is so monotonous it doesn’t stop, it just ceases.
The only saving grace of the theme is that it is impossible to get it stuck in your head, and so is long forgotten by the time Manish greets you, from a balcony to which there is no apparent access (trust me, I’ve checked, no stairs, nothing). Here Manish perches, master of his kingdom, one of lighting rigs and fake brickwork as far as the eye can see. One day all this will be Steve Claridge’s, but until that day comes Steve must bide his time tethered to a high desk, laden with unnecessary microphones, whilst Manish makes a tame joke about the number of clubs he played for. Behind said desk you can still glimpse the room in which Lizzie once read our texts and emails, now dark and vacant, I half expect to see milk bottles accumulating by its door as the season progresses.
The disposal of Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes marks a thankful departure from the patronisation which permeated the initial two years of the Beeb’s Football League coverage. Suggesting the FLS had taken its cues from Newsround rather than Match of the Day, Lizzie brought us what television executives refer to as ‘interactivity’, or as its more specifically known, reading out banal emails about Team X going up, and Team Y always being overlooked. As interactive media goes, it was as entertaining and thought-provoking as the tannoy ordering system at a McDonalds drive-thru. The other more insulting facet of this CBBC approach to football was the Potted History section in which Clem would move around a football ground, popping up in front of camera like he’d escaped from the hand of Matthew Corbett, and read us extracts from the club’s Wikipedia entry.
Potted History may have gone – the BBC perhaps acknowledging that those staying up past midnight on a weekend to watch a show about the Football League, already have something of an understanding of its clubs – but Clem remains. The sort of man who you suspect facilitated his own nickname, one who will stand in the middle of the field eating a pie as the teams come out behind him. The enthusiasm he displays toward those he interviews is too often mis-placed, meaning it comes across as the sort of faux-jocularity displayed by someone you vaguely know as they lead up to asking for a favour or reimbursement of that tenner they once leant you; “Here he is… Gaffer, the Gaffer, eh? Look at you, check the suit out. How you settling in? Yeah… hey, look… mate… you couldn’t give us a hand shifting this wardrobe could you?”
In Clem lies the crux of the FLS’ failings, in that it endeavours so earnestly to please it ultimately disappoints. Clem’s cheery inside look at teams would be ideal for a Football League magazine show, but on a highlights programme, which is of course what the FLS is, it just grates; to all intense and purposes Clem is The Texan from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a man so happy and good-natured that ultimately no-one can stand him. His presence just reminds us that The FLS is simply trying too hard. By this time, post midnight on a Saturday, and with any sense of perceptiveness already dulled out of us by Alan Shearer, we don’t want whimsy, nor do we want to think. We just want goals and red cards. Nothing more.
Gradually over two seasons, the BBC has thankfully trimmed some of the fat. Along with Lizzie and Clem’s Wiki-History has gone Manish striding across the studio to deliver the league tables as if they were the closing slides of a regional board meeting. Yet, appendices still remain; the token bus disembarkation footage that prefixes highlights of Championship games, a second main game, and tedious post-match interviews could all be banished without ever being mourned. Indeed the emptiness of post-match questions was deftly highlighted by Nigel Clough in this exchange; “I’ve heard you didn’t think it was a penalty, what was your reasoning for that?” “There wasn’t a foul committed in the penalty area”. In short, you can read interviews in the following day’s papers, you can’t read goals.
And so to poor Steve Claridge. Tasked with possessing an in-depth knowledge of every one of the League’s seventy-two clubs, and yet regularly criticised on Twitter in the early hours of Sundays for “constantly looking at his notes,” he is a man who can never win. The truth is, Steve does know football, as shown when deconstructing last weekend’s main game between West Ham and Portsmouth. Having watched the game in the afternoon Steve was able to make salient points regarding West Ham’s choice of formation. It may be fleeting, but its two minutes more insight than Alan Shearer or Mark Lawrenson have thus far brought Match of the Day audiences.
As the programme winds on and Claridge is asked for his opinions only after having watched the goals of an entire division, his responses tend to edge increasingly toward sound-bite and cliché. But how can they not? Claridge is not omnipotent. He may be all playing for, but alas is not all seeing. How can he be reasonably expected to provide expert insight into 36 fixtures when he has been able to watch no more than two? Let him leave after the first game, when he has served
his punditry purpose rather than retain him for the remaining hour solely as an object for Manish to rebound off. After all, there’s enough fake brickwork knocking about the studio to serve that purpose.