Football on the box: better than the real thing

The pundits may be too chummy or have hangdog demeanours, but at least TV cuts out all the boring bits.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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I love watching football on television, more than I do watching it in real life. Especially since I recently saw my Brentford throw away a two-nil lead against Oldham with five minutes to go to succumb to a two-all draw. Televised football is superior to real-life football because it negates all the tedium involved in actually watching games. Boring games are reduced to tidy highlights that suggest there was something exciting going on, while the commentators employ hyperbole to give the impression that football is an enthralling pursuit.

It is not. Football is a tiresome sport. Its protagonists are largely cheats, who feign injury and seek to con the referee at every opportunity. It is a poor relation to rugby league, which is the purest form of sport; a clean, manly game. On the other hand, perhaps spending my life watching Brentford has made me rather jaundiced. In fact, the best thing about supporting Brentford is that their ground is on the flight path to Heathrow, so whenever your mind starts to wander – as it invariably does – you can marvel at the majestic aircraft coming in to land.

Television coverage of football is wonderfully absurd, something that was made manifest during the recent Israel vs England game. How many Biblical metaphors could the telly people use? England, we were told, were going to ‘the promised land’, ‘the holy land’ or on a ‘pilgrimage’.

Then there was all the hype about the England fans potentially causing trouble. They were apparently worried about English fans creating ‘a dangerous environment’. Have the Israelis forgotten about Hamas, Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda, who are actually rather more dangerous than a bunch of boozy England fans armed with only drums and trumpets? I’m just surprised that the commentators weren’t predicting England were going to get ‘hammad’, or that the team would be playing in a newly-launched ‘Gaza strip’. Perhaps the press were on their own ‘Road to Damascus’, or too busy launching their own jihad on Steve McClaren.

The best telly show to do with football is Soccer AM (Sky, channel 401). Presented by Helen Chamberlain and Tim Lovejoy, it is basically a reinvention of the 1970s Saturday morning show Tiswas. It is chaotic, juvenile and unashamedly male chauvinist. It is superior to Football Focus on BBC One, which has always taken itself rather too seriously. Match of the Day is just as bad. Alan Hansen is forever complaining about defenders, Gary Lineker is competent but a bit too chummy, while Mark Lawrenson always sighs and has a hangdog dejected demeanour. Even when he is trying to praise a team, he looks morose and exhausted. Mark Lawrenson is football’s answer to Tom Paulin.

Still, Football Focus, and Match of the Day, have improved since the days of Jimmy Hill. You can catch old episodes of Match of the Day on ESPN Classic (channel 442, Sky), where you can be reminded just what an awful programme it used to be. Typically, you used to have extended highlights of Swansea vs Bristol City, then perhaps two minutes edited highlights of Chelsea versus Leeds, watched by an angry, miserable-looking, paltry crowd at Stamford Bridge, encaged by perimeter fences, only to be followed by an intolerable 10-minute assessment from Jimmy Hill. There was no room for argument in the 1970s, as football television shows routinely have today – only for a sermon from the man with the big chin.

If one is looking for football banter, than a fine place to visit is Gillette Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports 1 on a Saturday afternoon. It’s basically a rolling results service in which each new goal is deemed ‘major’, ‘catastrophic’, ‘breathtaking’ or ‘groundbreaking’. It is anchored by the ebullient Jeff Stelling, who is assisted on his panel by the likes of Gordon McQueen, Matt Le Tissier, Frank McLintock, Charlie Nicholas, Alan Mullery, and many other characters of yesteryear, the kind of characters who are the stuff of nostalgia. These are rough-at-the-edges personalities, who would never get married to famous popstars or start their own fashion outlets. Reminiscent of the footballers of old, they are the kind of sportsmen who liked a pint and a fight on a Saturday night.

Observing these personalities is akin to watching people in a pub, a place where grown men talk endlessly about football, and with a combination of vehemence and ignorance. It brings to mind a ferry journey I took from Liverpool to Belfast in 1986, which took 10 hours, during which time a group of men spent the entire journey talking about football. My mother was shocked by their mania for the sport, and for the unconscious philistinism and emotional repression that their obsession for the game suggested. Rather than talking to each other about real issues, or about themselves, they regressed into an infantile state, relating to each other through the neutral medium of a sport that will always be associated with childhood. As Paul Whitehouse’s Ron Manager wisely observed: ‘Football, eh? Jumpers for goalposts? Kids playing in the park? Marvellous.’

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