They may have recently moved into a new studio at Manchester’s Salford Quay but the level of punditry on Match of the Day each week is still stale and in drastic need of an overhaul. The BBC’s flagship football programme, to borrow a phrase from Alan Partridge, is “moribund”.
It’s very easy to take swipes at Match of the Day – it is often rounded on by both TV critics and viewers alike, and even writing this article feels like I’m kicking a man when he’s down – but after another Saturday night of foul patter, sterile analysis and a haugty air of indifference from the studio panel, I felt compelled to lay another dig into the show’s rotten belly. While the highlights are generally of a very good quality, the level of comment and analysis is quite shocking. The blame for this lies squarely with Messers Lineker, Hansen, Lawrenson and Shearer and the executives who continue to indulge them.
Lounging around on plush sofas with the ease of a group of lads chatting at the golf club on a Sunday afternoon, they appear to be too comfortable and complacent but most of all, utterly arrogant, like the whole affair is beneath them. At best, their punditry is lazy; at its worst, it’s downright ignorant. Ultimately, the football itself is far more is important than the analysis (something BBC producers perpetually remind critics when the show comes under fire) but surely viewers deserve something more substantial than a well-paid ex-professional simply describing what they can already see? Where’s the insight? Where’s the actual analysis? Match of the Day treats its viewers with contempt.
Gary Lineker may have graduated from a professional crisp thief to the show’s anchor, but all too often he is shown up as nothing more than a stooge to the inane patter from his guests. When one of them offers their lazy opinion, he does little to challenge or curtail them. There is no attempt to probe and press his colleagues or pull them up for their prattle.
In a recent Guardian article, Barney Ronay beautifully described Alan Hansen having “a wonderful ruined potency these days, his circuit boards dulled by repetition but somehow puttering away all the same like a much venerated hand-me-down petrol lawnmower still grandly chugging through its robot gears”. Hansen is still capable of producing the odd nugget of wisdom, but he rarely adds anything to the show other than surly quips. While his shtick was always his gloomy and dry demeanour, he is desperately in need of being put out to grass.
Mark Lawrenson, Hansen’s former Liverpool teammate, performs with reasonable competence on Radio 5 Live, but perched on the Match of the Day sofa, the man is the ultimate charisma vacuum. Like Hansen, his bone-dry personality has become a drag. Remarkably, he looks even glummer since he shaved off his moustache.
Alan Shearer, meanwhile, is the surely the programme’s worst offender. He may have been one of the finest forwards of the modern era, but his analysis never rises beyond audio description for Geordies. Each week, the man who begins to look more and more like Darth Vader in the closing scenes of Return of the Jedi, pitches up in a garish shirt, says nothing you can’t already see for yourself, mistakes David Silva for David Villa, then goes home. All at the expense of the license payer.
Yet no one at the BBC appears to censure or criticise them for their laziness or indifference. Shearer was rightly mocked for claiming “we don’t know much about him” after watching Hatem Ben Arfa’s Newcastle debut. It was utterly astonishing viewing. Ben Arfa had been capped several times by France and was, at one point, considered to be one of the most promising players to have graduated from the famous Clairefontaine academy. Had Shearer taken the time or the effort, he could have found out almost everything about the player’s career after five minutes of internet research. Failing to learn from this, Lawrenson also made a similar comment about Yohann Cabaye earlier this season. Both pundits were roundly jeered across blogs and Twitter, yet both continue to broadcast unashamedly.
It’s not just Match of the Day that deserves criticism – Match of the Day 2, the programme’s sister show, fares little better. From the presenter to the pundits to the inane cartoon graphics, it too is in need of attention.
Anchor Colin Murray is unarguably the show’s biggest irritant. He’s wacky! He’s zany! He’s wears glasses! The former presenter of failed Channel 4 breakfast magazine RI:SE resembles an irritating child trying to get someone, anyone’s attention. There is something desperate and cloying about the Northern Irishman. Even his guests often shoot him the odd look of contempt mixed with pity.
Lee Dixon, an almost constant presence on the show, is generally a safe pair of hands but, for the best part, he’s treading water in a sea of mediocrity. All too often his insight and intuition is completely undone by a revolving cast of characters that range from the dull-witted to the downright idiotic. Simply put, he’s better than this.
John Hartson comes across as a genuinely amiable guy but he offers little beyond the obvious. Martin Keown, the literal definition of the phrase “a face only a mother could love”, barely registers anything above the mediocre. Robbie Savage, meanwhile, must have been hired purely on the basis of his funny face and his willingness to play the court jester. After all, this the man who once took a shit in a referee’s toilet and claimed that Per Metesacker would fail at Arsenal because of a disappointing spell at Real Madrid (it transpired that he confused Metesacker with his international teammate Christophe Metzelder). Savage provides nothing more than hot air and it’s quite incredible to think he’s employed by both the BBC and ESPN.
In terms of pure punditry, the BBC is vastly behind their rivals. ITV deserve all the criticism they get for choosing to find gainful employment for the likes of Clive Tyldsley and Andy “Tactics Truck” Townsend, but their Champions League highlights package merits praise for utilising Gordon Strachan and Gab Marcotti. Strachan, the erstwhile Celtic manager, is erudite and analytical and a sorely missed presence on Match of the Day 2, while Marcotti is arguably the finest European football writer. Both pundits are intelligent and insightful and provide the perfect balance in the studio.
On Sunday evening, meanwhile, ESPN hired James Richardson and Marcotti to front their coverage of Internazionale against Lazio. Richardson, in my opinion, is one of the best anchors in football broadcasting. After developing a cult following presenting Channel 4’s Football Italia and the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast, he surely deserves a more mainstream audience. Sadly, the likes of James Richardson would seem a little too arch to appeal to the likes of the BBC.
As of writing, the best pundit on television is Sky Sports’ Gary Neville. Neville has blossomed into a genuine tour de force and his short tenure with the network has been an unqualified success. Devoid of cliché and banality, he has the intelligence to shed light on the most mundane of plays with a quiet authority.
On Sunday, for example, he offered a withering put-down of Arsenal’s Andrei Arshavin: “He looks the most disinterested player in the league to me. I think he wants to go back to Russia. Well, go back. The Arsenal fans don’t want him out there”. Most famously, he described Chelsea’s David Luiz as being “controlled by a 10-year-old in the crowd on a PlayStation” after a horrid performance against Liverpool in November.
Crucially, Neville provides a level of insight that any Match of the Day pundits simply can’t. Having played at Manchester United from 1992 to 2011, he understands playing at the very highest level and the psychology and mind-set of the modern footballer. Hansen et al, despite their decorated careers, appear either too out-of-touch or too lazy to offer their audience something similar.
There are dozens of quality pundits in the media. There are ex-players and journalists with knowledge, passion and wit and who bring a warmth and bonhomie to their role. Until Match of the Day producers realise the level of analysis they offer just simply isn’t good enough, we’re stuck with the Hansens, the Lawrensons and the Shearers of this world and their smug brand of inexcusable banter.
by Craig G Telfer