Colin Murray and the sad decline of Match of the Day

The trouble with the BBC's football flagship is not the presenters, but the insight-lite pundits it has on.

Duleep Allirajah

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The world of football was reeling this week at the news that Colin Murray has been axed as Match of the Day 2 presenter. From next season, the Sunday highlights programme will be fronted by Mark Chapman. Murray’s diehard fans are planning to wave white handkerchiefs from their sofas next week in protest at the Beeb’s decision.

Okay, admittedly the world of football isn’t reeling. There have been a few raised eyebrows in pundit-land, but the departure of Murray is unlikely to be greeted with makeshift shrines or Facebook tribute pages. Whereas most sporting controversies are debated to death by Radio 5 Live’s expert pundits (and Steve Claridge) or, worse still, by a hysterical procession of trolls and dullards on 6-0-6, the ‘Murraygate’ affair is conspicuous by its absence.

Murray has been described as the ‘Marmite’ of sports broadcasters. You either love his cheeky, irreverent, laddish banter or you loathe the gobby, irritating, ‘whacky’ lightweight. For the record, my missus – who likes neither football nor Marmite – thinks he’s ‘quite cute’. I’m not a hater myself. Admittedly, he’s no broadcasting colossus. But if I wanted poetry or intellectual stimulation then I don’t tune into 5 Live. Man cannot exist solely on a diet of The Moral Maze and Melvyn Bragg. Sometimes, all I want is the undemanding, blokey banter of Fighting Talk, which hits the spot when I’m a bit hungover and buying the groceries.

There is speculation that Murray was replaced because his opinionated interjections didn’t play well with MOTD‘s ex-pro pundits. ‘It is understood that the Ulsterman had also irritated a number of BBC football pundits by the way he criticised players’, claimed the Daily Mail. ‘Alan Hansen sneeringly told Murray on one occasion that he should leave the negative comments to the experts.’

Mark Chapman is seen as a safer pair of hands who is likely to stick to asking questions and deferring to the expertise of the pundits. If this is the reason for the Beeb’s decision, it’s a victory for blandness. While Colin Murray isn’t exactly the Gore Vidal of sports broadcasting, his cheeky irreverence does at least represent a departure from the well-worn Match of the Day formula of chummy ex-professionals exchanging platitudes and golf-club banter. You know the sort of thing. ‘You wouldn’t have scored from that distance, Gary.’

To be honest, MOTD looked tired when Sky Sports changed the face of sports broadcasting in the Nineties. Today, it looks positively prehistoric. I’ve got no problem with retired footballers providing expert analysis. It’s just that the MOTD punditry barely meets the dictionary definition of analysis. Tell me something I don’t know. That’s what I expect from the so-called experts. I don’t want to know their opinions on diving or abuse of referees, which isn’t analysis either, but sermonising. Perhaps the BBC commissioning editors believe that Sky’s tactical literacy only works for a specialist sports audience. Perhaps they think that BBC1’s Saturday night audience prefers Hansen’s theatrical faux outrage or Lawro’s mannered grumpiness to an esoteric discussion about systems and tactics. (And, to be honest, I’ve never really figured out what Alan Shearer brings to the party.)

But MOTD isn’t a children’s programme. It’s aired after the watershed. Please treat us as adults. We don’t want anodyne, watered-down match summaries. We don’t need Lawro telling us that Fernando Torres looks ‘drained of confidence’. A four-year old child could have pointed that out. We want hardcore tactics-board action. Give me false nines, high pressing, three at the back and inside-out wingers. If the punditry is little more than a form of blokeish entertainment, then frankly I can live without it. I’d rather have no analysis and more match highlights than analysis-lite.

Admittedly, neither Colin Murray nor his MOTD2 predecessor Adrian Chiles particularly raised the post-match analysis bar. But the presenter’s job is to provoke and steer the debate. The real problem isn’t so much the anchor but the experts. Or as the Guardian‘s Barney Ronay puts it: ‘Clearly the axe is falling on the wrong side of the coffee table here. It is the leaden heavyweights of the punditry sofa who should be in the process of being swept aside in a long-awaited punditry annihilation.’

If you want astute, thoughtful analysis – and from an ex-pro to boot – the best exponent is undoubtedly Gary Neville on Sky. He’s picked up the baton from the disgraced Andy Gray with such aplomb that even the most hardened United-haters have grudgingly warmed to his straight talking and illuminating analysis. Pat Nevin and Stan Collymore are also capable of dissecting tactics without assuming the viewers are stupid. ‘Thursday Night, Channel 5’ might have been a jibe aimed at teams competing in UEFA’s less illustrious cup competition, but the punditry of Nevin and Collymore was streets ahead of the lazy vacuities served up on MOTD.

I’ve never really understood why the MOTD sofa on a Saturday night is the exclusive preserve of the ex-footballer. Why not professional journalists or broadcasters? People who earn a living from, you know, analysing and communicating. If I want to read something insightful about a game, the chances are that it will have been written by a journalist not a footballer. Gabriele Marcotti, for example, is usually worth listening to yet MOTD defiantly refuses to venture outside the old boy’s club. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the programme is hosted by Colin Murray, Mark Chapman, Bruce Forsyth or Oprah Winfrey, unless there’s a radical shake-up of the MOTD sofa then there’s only one winner and that’s Sky Sports.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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