Offside, 19 August
Time to blow the whistle on Match of the Day.
This week Match of the Day (MOTD) returned to its Saturday night slot after a three-year absence.
Do you get goosebumps when you hear the first bars of that familiar theme tune? Has there been a gaping void in your Saturday nights without Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker? If you answered yes to both those questions then stop reading now and get a life.
The brutal reality is that Match of the Day is well past its sell-by date. By my calculation its sell-by date was some time in the early 1970s when the programme, anchored by Jimmy Hill, regularly attracted TV audiences of 12million. By contrast, last Saturday’s programme was watched by only 3.4million viewers. Although these ratings are broadly the same as for ITV’s highlights programme The Premiership, it is clear that MOTD no longer occupies the same place at the centre of the nation’s cultural life.
Like all good anachronistic institutions MOTD has even had a nostalgia programme made in its honour. Match of the Day at 40, which was broadcast a couple of weeks ago, was a mawkishly sentimental jumpers-for-goalposts hagiography. Various celebrities reminisced wistfully about the good old days when policemen used to clip you round the ear without fear of litigation and families would religiously huddle around their TV sets on a Saturday night to watch MOTD. There were also clips from vintage programmes, though sadly no footage of Jimmy Hill ending one programme with the legendary words: ‘Goodnight and don’t forget to put your cocks back.’
Des Lynam recounted the BBC’s ill-fated attempt to introduce a new version of the famous Barry Stoller theme tune. ‘The viewers stormed the barricades. They nearly burned the place down. They hated it’, said Lynam. MOTD, the programme makers seemed to be telling us, is more than just a TV programme. It is an integral part of the social fabric and we meddle with its format at our peril. But we didn’t storm the barricades when the BBC lost the rights to Premier League highlights three years ago. We simply flipped channels and watched The Premiership instead (unless we subscribed to Sky Sports, in which case MOTD had long since been dispensed with).
Personally I don’t particularly care which channel I’m watching, whether the theme tune is any good, who is commentating, or what colour the studio is painted. The only thing I’m interested in is the football. Last season I even put up with the chronically dull punditry of Clive Allen, a man with no discernible trace of personality, just to watch Division One goal highlights on ITV’s Soccer Sunday.
Match of the Day was important once, but not because it was at the cutting edge of sports broadcasting. It wasn’t. It was essential viewing because there wasn’t any other football on TV. Indeed MOTD was the epitome of lazy, formulaic sports broadcasting for many years until Sky came along and revolutionised football coverage. It was only when we started watching live Premiership football on Sky Sports that we realised what we had been missing all those years. Sky introduced pitch-side cameras at every conceivable angle, whizzy analytical gizmos, and thoughtful post-match analysis. Okay, so the commentators shamelessly talked up the dullest of games, but you had to admire their chutzpah.
Highlights packages can never compete with the drama and unpredictability of a live televised game. But even Sky’s new interactive football highlights programme Football First makes MOTD appear positively antediluvian. Football First enables viewers to watch 55-minute extended highlights of the game of their choice. For supporters of less glamorous Premiership clubs, coverage of whose games tend to be an afterthought on programmes like MOTD, this is great news.
The only novel thing about MOTD is that we now get second helpings on Sunday evenings. This week’s debut outing for Match of the Day 2 was presented by Adrian Chiles with assistance from the spiky Gordon Strachan and a sheepish-looking Gerard Houllier, who is evidently no more suited to TV punditry than to football management. It was reasonably entertaining even if it did feel like Grumpy Old Men Talk Football at times.
Will Gordon Strachan’s barbed wit revive MOTD? I can’t see it myself. MOTD’s big problem is that, like its famous theme tune, it has stayed the same while football has progressed. And, like the antiquated video recorder that I use to tape MOTD, it will eventually be rendered obsolete altogether.
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