TV Dog’s Dinner

Protestants, eh? They just won’t do what they’re told.

Before anyone gets asphyxiated by their underwear, let me explain. Having popped the question to the soon-to-be-Mrs-deiseach a mammoth 85 days after meeting her, thus creating much aggro for commitment-phobic men everywhere (“he proposed after three months, I’ve been waiting three years!”), the next hurdle was the wedding. For me, there always was a dream that was Rome. The plan was to save a packet by getting married in a quiet church in a back street of the Eternal City – assuming St Peter’s wasn’t available – and begin the honeymoon there. A perfect marriage (no pun intended) of practicality, spirituality and romance. When the subject of the wedding day came up, I triumphantly unveiled my masterplan.

It took days to put out the inferno generated by this suggestion. Get married in Rome? Was I mad?? Maybe I’d like to get her circumcised while I was at it!!! I exaggerate, of course, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. And it seems like an even better idea now, as the cost of our (Liverpool) wedding spirals inexorably out of control. How many string quartets does it take to change a light bulb? Dunno, but I’ll be sure to ask them on the big day.

There’s probably a technical term for it – nuptial expenditure creep, marital overhead buoyancy – but whatever spin you put on it, I’m broke. For months I’ve been frowning at Her Indoors’ habit of buying a match programme, £3 frittered away on a bundle that is too shiny to be even used as toilet paper, which is particularly unfortunate at a time when toilet roll looks scandalously expensive. So it was that a momentous decision was reached just before the game against Aston Villa: no more matches for 2003/4.

It may sound a bit convenient, like those urban legends of strangers being told not to drink Coca-Cola just before the terrorists put benzene in the spring. But if being there when they lose is bad, it’s infinitely worse when you’re not there. Watching the game on the TV or listening on the radio – especially the latter – is like a latter-day version of Chinese water torture. Disaster beckons every time the opposition cross the halfway line, the commentator’s voice rises a few decibels and the trained chimp beside him, AKA the analyst, makes repeated snide comments about the weaknesses in, well, just about every area of the Liverpool team. Satre said that hell was other people, but I’d much rather go through Hades with 40,000 like-minded souls than the cackling hyenas of the commentary world.

Still, to quote Bob Dylan – wow; Satre, Dylan . . . I’ll squeeze Descartes into a column before long – money doesn’t talk, it swears, and my bank account has launched into a stream of invective that would make Alex Ferguson blush – although how could you tell, ha ha? I’ve known for a long time that the prices of match tickets has outstripped the rate of inflation. In fact, if prices were determined by market forces rather than a muddled system of loyalty arrangements (both season tickets and the priority scheme) and the quasi-lottery that is the general sale, the average ticket for the ground would be £50 – £100. So this isn’t an assault on the ticket office – that would be repeating myself (never worried you before – Ed). Sometimes though, the hyperinflation can get upsetting. Back in the 1950’s, you could buy four match tickets for the price of a pint. Now, four match tickets (~£100) would buy you 46 pints (assuming a pint costs £2.15 – go into the Blob Shop and you’d get 87 pints, although you’d probably need to drink that many to forget about your surroundings). Faced with having to a few judicious cutbacks for the sake of The Best Day Of Her Life, the £60 – £70 a month you’d spend going to Anfield is one of the first things to go. Note that that figure wouldn’t include match programmes, not that it ever should.

Sitting down to watch the Reds play Levski Sofia at Anfield, it struck me that I couldn’t instantly remember when I had last watched the Reds in the box*. There once was a time when every game they played on Sky would involve trooping down to the pub with a motley crew of equally-deranged people who I bonded with like brothers but never even spoke to, let alone found out their names. How times have changed. Now I find it impossible to watch the match on television with company, the other persons every twitch and exclamation grating on my psyche like an infinite piece of chalk being eternally scraped across a never-ending blackboard. She had gone to choir practice though, so, for one night only, it was time to put some roots back into the couch.

The first thing that came to mind was how much Channel Five’s coverage has improved over the years. John Barnes is pretty bad, but not as bad as has been made out. He asks decent questions and kept a strictly dispassionate approach which, given his hilariously Redophile performances on ITV’s The Goal Rush last season was quite an achievement. Things only broke down when he looked at the camera. Rabbits have stared down pickup trucks with extra headlights with more conviction than Barnesy’s pathetic autocue technique. On the analyst side, it’s a mixed bag. King Kenny is his usual laconic self; he gives the impression that he doesn’t need to try because he could run rings around everyone down the pitch with his bootlaces tied together. Pat Nevin, meanwhile, is a slave of the corporate egghead at Five with the latest big idea. “This month, we’ll be reading emails and text messages out, all in the name on in-ter-ac-TIV-ity!!” It’s not as buttock-clenchingly bad as Andy Townsend’s tactics truck (or as Andy Townsend, for that matter) but you still feel a wee bit of sympathy for Pat. How long before we have him dressed in a costume determined by the mascots of the participating teams? Don’t laugh, it happened to Jeff Astle.

Ray Houghton provides some much needed bite in the co-commentator’s chair. The two most noteworthy sidekick’s are Trevor Brooking, with his impersonation of a growth of lichen on a fence, and Andy Gray, who should be allowed fulfil his dream of X-raying the players to see what effect their breakfast has had on their metabolic rate. Houghton provided a nice mix between the two, only speaking during the lulls in the action and keeping his comments to the point. He even sounded like he’d done some research into Levski, dropping the odd titbit about the Bulgarian players. It could all have been a massive bluff – was their star player only recently back from injury?; buggered if I know – but it gave the proceedings a veneer of plausibility.

The biggest surprise of the night was one J Pearce Esq. Back when I used watch all the football that was available, Pearce was the most useless commentator that had ever had a microphone glued to his gob. Confirmation of his former incendiary nature, the type of histrionics that would have embarrassed a South American commentator with Tourette’s syndrome, was later gleaned from a video of the trip to Bratislava a few years back. Each goal in a game that was almost a dead rubber was greeted like it was against Barcelona rather than Bratislava. He was still a bit prone to severe mangling of metaphors, but he generally kept it pertinent to the match at hand. Even the great Martin Tyler is prone to tiresome digressions about a ballboy’s family background or just how popular the Premiership is in AN African-Player’s home village. So God help me for saying this, but thumbs up for Jonathan Pearce.

Television was ahead of expectations on the presentational side at this stage, so it took a good half-an-hour for the feelgood factor to dissipate. This wasn’t directly related to the fact that we were bloody useless – you don’t need the camera to reveal that. The shocking part of the whole affair was witnessing the jeers and all-round disgruntlement coiling its way from the idiot box. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I never realised just how ghastly an occurrence it really is until I was removed from the middle of it. Sitting in the Kop, it seems as if you’re suspended in a bubble of your own making. You can contribute or withdraw from the ‘debate’ as you see fit and join those who (slightly moronically) insist on remaining cheerful. On the telly though, the crowd seem to speak as one voice, and this voice was one filled with resentment and bitterness.

This is not an argument against people booing. One acquaintance of mine phoned up to denounce Le Boss on a radio show that night (contacting these shows is in itself an act of boneheadedness, but that’s another story). Accused of not getting behind the team, he reminded the presenter that he had once driven to Russia to follow the Reds, so he wasn’t going to accept anyone questioning his credentials as a Liverpool fan. Gerard recently denounced those who heckled the team and / or himself as needing to look up ‘support’ in the dictionary, which is a cack-handed attempt to smear those who simply feel the time has come for a change. So people can boo all they want, if being unhappy is what makes them happy.

I still don’t like it though, and watching and hearing it in 2D against Levski only reinforced the feeling of dismay. Things didn’t improve much when Liverpool finally stamped their authority on the game. Had I been at the ground when Steven Gerrard lashed in the lead goal, I would have been cavorting around with delight. As it was, it was the cameras shaped my emotions. Stevie raced over to high-five with Gerard, which was assumed by the Five bods to be a really inspirational act of solidarity. My reaction was: big deal. The support of the players for the manager (and vice versa) means nothing. They’ve created this mess together, and the philosophy, much like all football people, is that they might as well hang together rather than hang separately. When the dust had settled from that goal, I then felt disgust that I had allowed such Machiavellian thoughts to contaminate the goal celebrations. Don’t blame it on sunshine, blame it on the telly.

Then, just to seal the anti-television deal, I nipped out to the loo just in time for Harry Kewell to lash in a stunning second. There’s no way I would have been away from my seat at any point if I were at Anfield, but the ease with which you can get to the can at home proved too tempting to my laden bladder, and a spectacular moment of pure football skill was forever reduced to a series of replays from angles that you would never watch the game for real from.

That was that then. It’s self-evident that television can never be as good as the real thing, but it was quite an achievement to distil all the good things from the match-going experience and leave only a foul residue of rancour and discord behind. I’ll be sticking with my roots from now on. Let’s all hear it for teletext!

* Celtic at Parkhead in last season’s Uefa Cup. So now you know.