Frank Skinner can do no wrong in the deiseach household. Even his allegedly calamitous performance on whatever awards show he was supposed to have performed calamitously on only enhanced his reputation. Is it not written that awards shows are the work of Beelzebub and to wreck them is an act worthy of being beatified, perhaps even being canonised? Frank, with his Popish ways, would appreciate that. Even if he were a complete beaut, the work of genius that was Fantasy Football League would elevate him to the pantheon of legends – on the other hand, being a complete beaut disqualifies David Baddiel, who has since gone on to such lowbrow tosh as selecting the Booker Prize.
FFL, for those who don’t remember it, was a half-hour long programme on BBC2 on Friday nights which ran for the first three seasons of the Premiership. The premise was to get a bunch of Z-list celebs who would sneer at appearing on Celebrity Big Brother to select fantasy teams to manage, bring them on to talk football and fill in the gaps with sketches, knob gags and clips of comic football moments. All the old favourites were present and correct, such as teams chasing the referee out of the stadium or strikers managing to spoon the ball over the bar from underneath the crossbar – that one had to be seen to be believed, as did the South American (naturally) goalie who raced from his own box with the ball, charged down the wing into the opposition half before unleashing an unstoppable shot which flew to other team’s net. They broke the mould when they made Fantasy Football League, and we shall not see its like again, no matter how hard pale imitations like Soccer AM might try. Even the name is wrong. Soccer, for Chrissake!
Skinner knew how important FFL was to certain losers. I mean football fans. One day, a vicious rumour swept the nation that FFL was about to up stakes and move across to ITV. A man approached him in the streets and implored him not to allow this to happen. “They’ll ruin it, Frank”, said the man. “They ruin everything”. Frank assured him that he had no intention of moving his baby to ITV, although they did produce a bastard offspring for the 1994 World Cup which we won’t speak of, thank you very much.
It’s true. ITV ruin everything. That’s a little unfair. Clive Tyldesley was always a knobhead. His nauseating/hilarious worshipping of Man Utd existed on the Beeb as much as on ITV, but it somehow seemed less noticeable when he had the panache of Match of the Day on his side. Stick him on ITV and his cheerleading of the Mancs suddenly seemed that bit more noteworthy, mainly as a stick with which to beat them. Nauseating when Man U won the European Cup in Barcelona, hilarious when Bayern got their revenge the following season.
(Despite his protestations that he would endeavour not to mention the previous years final, Football365 counted twenty-three occasions on which he mentioned the previous years final. Funny that.)
It’s not all ITV’s fault then, some of it is down to an entrenched perception among the punters of plain naffness. Was Match of the Day really that much better than The Premiership? People get all misty-eyed about the halcyon days of that venerable institution, the theme music guaranteed to evoke sighs of nostalgia. Dig a little deeper though, and MotD has its own patented brand of uselessness. Trevor Brooking sits so vigorously on the fence that he is in danger of getting splinters. The onset of dementia is clearly beginning to affect John Motson, with one recent clanger giving the impression that he thinks Czechoslovakia still exists. No one ever seems to question the bizarre switch of Gary Lineker from pundit to presenter, a change that if ITV had brought off would have produced hoots of derision from the entire football world. Give a dog a bad name . . . and ITV Sport is a particularly maligned pooch.
Having said all that – you didn’t really think this was going to be a defence of ITV, did you? – there is much wrong with ITV’s coverage of football, and that’s before we start with the clownish caper that was ON/ITV Digital. All those problems were writ large across our screens in the last week. For a start, there’s a degree of luvvieness that is endemic to their coverage. The manner in which Des Lynam polished Terry Venables’ posterior with his tongue after the Arsenal game last Tuesday would have made a eunuch blush. “You were really unlucky on Saturday [against the Reds]”, smarmed Des, “you should have won the game.” Such a statement might have carried some weight had (a) there ever been a possibility that Des would ever have told Tel that Leeds had been rubbish, and (b) it been true. As it was, even the most pessimistic of observers (yours truly) was confident throughout the game that the slick passing and unruffled demeanour of the Redmen would win the day. But that would have interrupted the orgy of back-slapping and mutual congratulations on each man still having most of his own hair. Never mind Terry, there’s always a seat for you here at ITV, even if making a complete bags of things at Elland Road should disqualify you from ever being taken seriously as a football analyst ever again.
More serious is the appearance that ITV doesn’t like football. This is the network that has inflicted a myriad of pop horrors on the planet in the name of ‘entertainment’, that ups Corrie or Emmerdale to eight days a week in the name of ‘entertainment’. Last Saturday’s edition of The Premiership led with the boast that it was the most exciting day of the season so far. Indeed it was, with the previously invincible Gunners losing their unbeaten run and being skittled off the top of the table by the Red juggernaut. This isn’t what they meant though. They meant that a sixteen year-old wunderkind had emerged whom they could spend thirty minutes giving the broadcasting equivalent of fellatio to.
Fair dues to Wayne Rooney, it was a cracking goal, and it was a fantastic human interest story. Bluedump from Croxteth made good. Watch any news programme and they’ll always have a cute story about a water-skiing cat or how little Timmy O’Toole was rescued from a well he had fallen down (with apologies to The Simpsons). But note that these charming good news segments are always slapped at the end of the show. Not for the producers of The Premiership, for whom tales of celebs, or embryonic celebs, are much more important than the real news.
It wasn’t just Liverpool who were rudely shoved down the pecking order, although the three minute segment and terse observation from Des that Liverpool had gone top was outrageous enough in itself. The fact that Arsenal had been beaten and that an outfit as mediocre as Everton had pulled off the shock of the season was irrelevant. For ITV, stars are more important than teams, celebrity more valuable than talent. Top names are drooled over relentlessly, so Juan Sebastian Veron’s inadequacies are glossed over and he is lovingly referred to as ‘Seba Veron’ at every turn. Robert Pires is sprung off the bench against Auxerre and every touch is acclaimed to the heavens, even if it were a backpass. And lest we be accused of bias (perish the thought) Michael Owen is the only Liverpool player of any import. It would never be suggested that we might miss Stephane Henchoz because he’s a nobody from . . . where is he from again?
ITV might point to the ratings as proof that concentrating on the day’s star man was a success. It seems that last Saturday’s show was the most watched edition this season. No doubt this will keep the bean counters at Carlton and Granada happy, and it’s not as if they’ve had much to shout about recently. But this appeal to the lowest common denominator is depressing. There’s more to football than what haircut David Beckham is sporting at the moment.
I’d be disheartened if Liverpool were not top of the table. Happily they are top of the table, and finally beginning to gather up ahead of steam in Europe. Not even ITV at their most buffoonish can take the gloss off that.