From the phone-in to the moan-in
The football phone-in show has provided the ideal showcase for that most tedious of species: the professional whinger.
Moaning fans: the sequel. Last week I suggested that Spurs fans were whiny. Some of you have taken issue with me. Yes we moan, admits one disgruntled Spurs fan (if that’s not a tautology), but so too do Liverpool fans. True, Spurs fans don’t have a monopoly on moaning. Also true, Liverpool is the Capital City of Self-Pity. It would be a close run thing if both sets of fans took part in a Moan Off.
To recap: my thesis was that Spurs fans are moanier because they suffer from ‘Massive Club Syndrome’. Years of underachievement combined with green-eyed resentment at Arsenal’s place in the Premiership’s Big Four have helped to foster a moaning culture at White Hart Lane. It’s louder and shriller than your bog-standard whinging. Supersize Moaning, if you like.
I’ve levelled similar charges at Newcastle fans before. Cue floods of complaints from Geordies. But one ex-pat Newcastle supporter I know made an interesting observation. ‘We don’t all think Newcastle is massive club’, he said. ‘We don’t think we’ve got a god-given right to win trophies. It’s a few idiots on football phone-ins who say stuff like that’ (or words to that effect; there might have been the odd ‘why aye’ and ‘canny lad’ thrown in for good measure).
This particular deracinated Geordie makes a fair point. Perhaps it is the fault of the phone-in shows. This week a Brentford fan left a Facebook message: ‘The fundamental fact is that to be a football fan is in essence to complain all the time. Every fan thinks their team should be higher-achieving.’ Another reasonable point. We Palace fans can moan with the best of them. The usual gripes are about the style of football. Too much long-ball stuff. Not enough passing. But, after last weekend’s 0-0 draw at home to QPR, fans were complaining about over-passing; that we weren’t direct enough.
This got me thinking. My perceptions about the levels of whinging at White Hart Lane have been largely shaped by listening to phone-ins. Every Monday night I get a lift home from playing football from a Spurs fan. Every Monday night we listen to the football programme on BBC London 94.9 FM. And every Monday night there are Spurs’ fans moaning. Maybe there’s a broadcasting bias at work. Maybe, ‘Palace fans unhappy’ is just not a big enough story for the programme editors. We expect the little people to moan. But when disgruntled Spurs or Newcastle are in crisis and their fans ring in to whinge, that’s broadcasting gold.
The sad truth is that football talk shows have become dull, predictable moanathons. We’re not talking the Dumbing Down of the football phone-in here. Football talkshows were never on a par with the Moral Maze or Any Questions. But I do think that standards have been slipping. I was reminded of this when the legendary Danny Baker returned to Radio 5 Live’s 606 programme recently on Tuesday nights. Baker pioneered the art of the football talk-show back in the early 1990s. However, like many edgy broadcasters, he fell foul of the BBC suits. He was sacked in 1997 after a memorable tirade against referee Mike Reed. ‘Most of them (referees) need a good slap round the face’, he thundered. ‘Hacks should doorstep this man like he’s a member of Oasis.’
How did the old Danny Baker phone-ins differ from today’s pale imitations? Well, he was funny for a start. He was also outspoken and, more importantly, concentrated his fire at the right targets. Whereas Alan Green tends to fulminate about inflammatory goal celebrations or players feigning injury, Baker preferred to have a pop at the football authorities. But the crucial difference between Baker and today’s phone-in hosts is that he gave short shrift to moaners. That’s the fundamental flaw with most talkshows today. Driven by the current broadcasting obsession with interactivity, phone-in programmes have become a platform for sad whingers to vent their bitterness and frustration. More moan-in than phone-in.
Now, as I’ll freely admit, all football fans – myself included – can moan for England. But, while it’s fine for consenting fans to whinge about their own club on internet forums, it’s quite another matter to inflict this on the listening public. There’s nothing more excruciatingly dull than listening to fans of other teams moaning about their own clubs in public. This isn’t just ordinary run-of-the-mill moaning. It’s a form of exhibitionism: Conspicuous Complaining.
Most callers are not representative of the ‘ordinary fan’. They’re professional moaners. Just listen to 606 on a Saturday evening (for my sins I tune in every week purely in the interests of journalistic research). After a while you’ll detect a pattern: the same complaints are aired over and over again (‘Alan, Spurs were awful today. Ramos has lost the plot. He’s got to go’). You’ll also notice that many callers are repeat offenders (‘Alan, you might recall I spoke to you last month. I told you then that Ramos had lost the dressing room. He’s got to go.’).
Listen to Danny Baker’s Tuesday night 606 programme and you’ll immediately notice the difference. He has mellowed with time, no longer raging against the powers-that-be. ‘There might once have been a period of taking on the FA blazers. But I’m very aware of cliché and I don’t think that would be entertaining anymore’, he recently told the Independent. Thankfully, however, the absence of parochial moaning lives on. Baker simply doesn’t indulge fans who want to moan about their own team. He’s been known to cut callers off mid-whinge if they tried to talk about a game. As he told the Independent: ‘My only interest in football now is as a theatre, a kind of shared experience. Football and football supporting are two completely different worlds but it has been suffocated by people who think it’s all about 4-5-1.’
Baker’s format is simple. He picks absurd themes and invites listeners to call in with their weird and wonderful stories. It works because it’s not All About Me. This week, for example, he asked listeners for anecdotes of strange situations in which they had heard important football news. One woman was taking part in a school sports day during the 1966 World Cup when a group of dads, who’d gathered around a car radio, let out a huge cheer. Another caller was in Dulwich on the same day and only realised something momentous had happened when she was nearly hit by a television set thrown from the seventeenth floor of a tower block. Beats listening to Newcastle or Spurs fans moaning doesn’t it?