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Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Match of the Day Live: West Brom v Newcastle, BBC1

To paraphrase Fantasy Football: Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Lee Dixon talk about the Championship as if it’s important

Fifteen years ago that mocking ditty encapsulated ITV’s hapless efforts to validate and elevate the mediocrity of the second tier of English football into some sort of addictive gladiatorial spectacle that would enrapture and entertain, doing so through the declining brows of Iain St John and Jimmy Greaves, who would, as FF deliciously exaggerate, ignore absolutely the existence of a higher division like a corporal who thinks he’s in charge of an army.

And while the BBC isn’t quite grovelling in the same befouled trough as ITV in 1994 – after all, it still retains the Premiership highlights – then the boot is firmly on the other foot now.

But the other foot now, more so than back then, is encased in a Sky boot, a granite monstrosity that the gods once used to stamp out heretical civilisations, crushing the ornate marble edifices and gleaming architecture leaving only a dim impression of a scornful Australian megalomaniac in its wake. Domestically speaking at least, ITV isn’t even a foot anymore; it’s now more akin to a livid stump that used to steer an active limb but that now only suffers the periodic crimson blush of the FA Cup that it shared with the late Setanta.

Setanta’s demise is relevant to the BBC’s coverage of the Championship because it, more than anything, illustrated that the public’s ostensibly inexhaustible gluttony for football, any football, had been sated. Only a few folk outside fans of Bolton and Wigan could tolerate a match that was absent of the ‘glamour’ of the odiously named ‘Big Four’ and made up a large proportion of Seanta’s inventory, and so the company struggled to reach the necessary subscribers, and capitulated utterly when it lost the rights to half of its games.

Leaving aside the fact that, as an altruistic gesture, men who salivate in lap dancing clubs should be summarily sterilised, it was rather akin to trying to seduce the grunting oafs with writhing squealing pigs and cattle with shuddering udders rather than the brazen strippers they’re used to.

A similar blight afflicts the Championship and the rest of the lower leagues. These matches can be entertaining but aside from the most fervent fans, few people can withstand such an inundation of the sport. Newcastle’s goal by Damien Duff was heralded like the second coming, “a moment of Premiership quality” amid the mire of blasted, shell-shocked players staggering about the alien surroundings of a lower division like people emerging from a tube station after a Blitzkrieg.

Oddly, in such strange environs, there was some comfort from the analysis of Mark Lawrenson. He’s rather like a chronic back condition you have learned to live with rather than forlornly try and ignore, and have gradually come to accept his querulous banalities in the knowledge that he will never, ever change.

The analysis in the studio was pitiful, not least because of the scant time afforded. While we often drown in the stodgy build-up of Sky’s ‘Super Sunday’ presentations, compounded by the irredeemably appalling soundtrack, 10 minutes wasn’t long enough, and at the end barely had the goals been replayed than Gary was being harried by Old Father Time to wrap up else he cut into the sacred Total Wipe Out (It’s A Knockout for people with ‘water coolers’ for brains).

Although such an abbreviation may have been a blessing given the inanity of Messrs Shearer and Dixon, each was equally as insubstantial and inconsequential as the residual background radiation that still lingers around Christmas Island; a distant, wordless chatter.

At the root of this is one of the Ten Commandments of football broadcasting: Thou Shalt Endeavour To Offend No One. This results in bland insights; players who, unless they’re foreign, “will be disappointed with that”, not rubbish; and an overbearing will not to utter any comment that could be perceived as a slight against a side.

One team, of course, is far, far more sensitive to these imagined insults to such an extent that we, even in our little corner of the internet, dare not mention their name else they will boil euphorically in their own indignation. But every team has their own boorish jeerleaders.

In the past, such vitriol was marginalised to the occasional chorus of “Jimmy Hill is a wanker”; but at least Hill had an opinion – which in those days stretched beyond an eternal echo for former professionals to become referees. Now any view that could incur the illiterate wrath of a messageboard is neutered and chopped up into burnished, plasticised soundbites that would clog up the bargain bins of the English language were such things for sale, or starve on street corners dressed in grimy, unwashed clothes wearing an expression that speaks of mystification of why they’ve even been born.

Sky won’t be worried, largely because it is sprawling organism insensitive to pain, but also because today, the ‘real stuff’ starts as Manchester United and Chelsea parade in a meaningless match that will send many football fans into a state of blissful oblivion, liberated of the nasty, unclean trenches of the lower leagues, something that the BBC will find impossible to remedy.


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