Red SKY at Night, the Referee was . . .

We all knew it had to come in the end, and when it came, it came with a sickening crunch. Our superlative record against the Gooners was beginning to verge on the preposterous. When I observed before the game to my cousin that our run had to end sometime, he agreed, “but just as long as it’s not tonight!” Further proof, if ever it was needed, that you’re only as good as your last game.

The idea for this article came to me in one of those blinding flashes of inspiration that hit you during a match. Or maybe that blinding light was from the bulb as I swung from the lampshade with frustration when Gary McAllister was sent off. Whatever it was, last night was certainly a momentous occasion. It was the first time in…longer than I can remember…that I have watched a match on Sky Sports.

Sky invoke the entire gamut of emotions in people, ranging from foaming-at-the-mouth rage at their theft of The People’s Game* to reactions which are much, much more extreme. Personally I’m rather agnostic about Sky. I wouldn’t pay good money to line the pockets of Rupert Murdoch, that dastardly purveyor of scum and villainy (etc.). But I’m honest enough with myself to admit that this is an ex-post rationalisation of the fact that I just can’t be bothered with Sky. I’m not interested enough in watching football. Euro 2000 was worth watching because it is uniformly high-quality fare, but much of the Premiership is dross. Paying a portion of my hard earned credits to receive eight Liverpool matches a year – if we are lucky – and fifty-two involving teams I couldn’t give a damn about is a clear waste of money.

Once upon a time, I used to go to my local to watch the matches. But as the Reds got worse, and the Team-That-Dare-Not-Speak-Its-Name got better, Liverpool matches became pure torture. You’d be sitting in the bar with a bunch of boozed-up Mancs for company, guffawing loudly at every Red cock-up, emitting toxic fumes from every orifice and endlessly reminding me what a class act Nicky Butt is. I wouldn’t mind if we were playing Man Ure, but we might be playing Derby and they would still be there! A potentially embarrassing incident involving half time, the men’s toilets, a broken lock and a crawl along a sodden outhouse roof ended the magic of watching matches in the pub.

The fact that my cousin, who is equally devoted to The Cause, has Sky Sports finally lulled me back into the Dirty Digger’s dubious embrace. At least I knew I would be among friends. It initially looked as if Sky had learned some restraint in their dotage. The unnecessary irritant of Nick Collins/Generic Football Bird inspecting the pitch has been dispensed with. This one had me hooting with derision many moons ago. It was like Geoffrey Boycott running his pen along the Trent Bridge wicket, although to the best of my knowledge, Nick Collins was never done for beating his partner. All that pointless swooshing and swishing of the graphics has been reduced. I remember that night when we hauled our carcasses back from 3-0 down against the Mancs to draw 3-3; Sky has LIVERPOOL 3 MAN UTD 3 emblazoned across our screen in twenty centimetre high lettering. As if we didn’t know! Incredibly the pre match verbiage was kept to a minimum and as they handed over to the commentator I thought that Sky had rid themselves of their more tedious, OTT tendencies.

Predictably I had thought too soon. The swishing graphics were all present and correct. In the right light you might be afraid they would fly off the screen and decapitate you. We were brainwashed with all the paraphernalia of Sky Digital such as Fanzone and Player Cam and Widescreen. What is the point of Widescreen at Highbury? The ground is so small that you might be able to pick up a view of White Hart Lane at the corner of the screen if you look hard enough. And Trevor Francis…the man is a grade A, triple X dipstick. He might be useful for the blind who can’t see the action (“Lauren is very pacy”; “that’s a goal kick”; “the match is being played in London”), but if you actually want analysis of the game you might as well ask your geriatric granny.

I shouldn’t give the impression that the commentary was all bad though. Alan Parry is a crap orator, with a voice that sounds like a parrot being drowned in a bucket of soapy water. But throughout the night he maintained a relentless pro-Liverpool slant in his commentary. Every refereeing blunder – and there were many, as we all know at this stage – was carefully scrutinised and condemned if it didn’t go the ‘right’ way. Why bother with Fanzone (or whatever it’s called) when you have Alan “Red ’til I die” Parry on our side?

Half time arrives, and perhaps Sky’s most objectionable habit rears its ugly, bald, Scottish, Blueslime head. I would genuinely prefer Jimmy Hill as a pundit than Andy Gray, although that might be my way of expressing solidarity with a fellow member of the Brotherhood of Big Chins. Andy certainly believes it’s a simple game. So simple that every goal conceded is the fault of the defence. Every incident in the first half is analysed with almost forensic detail. Andy really wants an X-ray machine so that he can study the players innards and suggest that that extra cup of tea the player had before the game reduced his potassium levels by 0.5% upsetting his equilibrium to the extent that his lateral rotation was three picoseconds slower than normal…

I mean, to say that Westerveld should have cleared the ball is one thing, but Baldy Gray suggested that someone should have been marking Lauren. What could this phantom marker have done? The ball bounces to a player’s leg, straight in front of the goal, six yards out. Even Long John Silver would have hit the target, although Andy Cole might have struggled. I probably should be grateful that it was Monday night and I didn’t have to endure him for the entire game.

The second half meanders through its farcical course, Trevor Francis continues to act like it’s Birmingham City v. Wolves in the Nationwide League, Alan Parry struggles to maintain some semblance of neutrality and the ref is losing his grip on reality. The full time whistle leads to the most attractive, and simultaneously sinister, aspect of Sky’s coverage. Sky appreciates that football is more than sport. It’s also soap opera, and if they can’t write the scripts, they can at least influence them. The Kevin Keegan debacle of a few years ago (” I will love it if we beat them!”) typified their policy of putting overwrought managers and players in impossible positions. Arsene Wenger and Gerard Houllier certainly rose to the occasion, giving Graham Poll both barrels. GH is particular wound up. I was expecting him to accuse the referee of handing Jean Moulin over to the Gestapo in 1943. Both managers were gleefully egged on by Gray and the shaved ape that is Richard Keyes. It made for great television, but even if both managers escape censure from the FA, they both ended up looking marginally more foolish than they had been before the game.

So ended my reacquaintance with Sky Sports. It isn’t that bad really. Many of the innovations that we have come to consider commonplace, such as the score in the corner of the screen, had their genesis with Sky. The multitude of cameras at the game has increased the feeling of being there. But ultimately I can’t be bothered with it. It’s overblown, hyped beyond belief and it costs me money! The era of Sky will always be associated with the abject failure of successive Liverpool teams. Give me the banality of the BBC, the silliness of ITV and even the bias of RTÉ any day.

*”The People’s Game is now a registered trademark of News Corporation, holding company of BSkyB. News Corporation is a legitimate business with its offices in the Cayman Islands. Any similarity between Rupert Murdoch and any number of mass murderers, living or dead, is purely intentional.