By Karl Coppack
I love football. I like betting too. I’m no good at it and, to be honest I’m a bit alarmed that my local bookie knows my name but I don’t take it too seriously. I don’t lose too much and I win even less. Betting is a supplement to a mundane Saturday when we’re not playing. If I’ve got nothing to do I can spend a few hours in front of Sky and watch unguarded optimism wane into an acceptance that I won’t need to walk around the corner to collect my winnings any time soon.
Last night I gamely sat down in front of Sunderland- Swansea. It’s football and it was Tuesday so it would do for the time being. I was hardly agog. While the commentator tried to rustle up some excitement I found myself flicking around the channels when the ball went out and little by little I left them to it altogether. See, I had no money on it and you need money on games like that to make them even passably interesting. Now Liverpool are different. I rarely bet on us as there’s enough attachment and commitment there already. No, I need to gamble a few quid to watch any other football otherwise it becomes dull and staid.
I flicked over, hoping to hear that between them Pardew and Lambert had finally buried the ‘talented young British managers’ myth. There’s never any shit ones, are there? Except, you know, most of them.
I went to Sky Sports News and was greeted by Tony Cottee and Jimmy Bullard – the latter slowly morphing into a bizarre mix of Jack Wild and Paul Nicholas. If I wanted to hear about the other games, I had to go through these two. This got me thinking about Saturday afternoons with four such people. Gillette Soccer Saturday.
People seem to like Jeff Stelling. They like his easy delivery to camera and his Lynamesque charm. They like his association to an unglamorous club and his breathless ability to reel off facts about Peterhead’s third choice centre back and always delivered in a rat-a-tat style before slowing down at the end of a sentence for emphasis. ‘Itshisthirdstartoftheseasonandalreadyhe’sgivenawayapenaltyinonly…the…second…minute.’
If you’ve never seen Soccer Saturday before I’ll explain the format. Four ex-footballers sit behind screens that you can’t see and talk the viewer through what’s going on. Every now and then while Jeff is fascinating us with the latest goal at Huish Park you can hear a pained exclamation of sorrow or joy from the panel to his left. Jeff can see what’s going on too and if it’s interesting enough he’ll go over to a headset clad pundit who will stare blankly at his screen for a few seconds and wait for the replay before speaking, often for over ten seconds.
The important thing here is that you can’t see the action. Behind the ‘boys’ is a live image of the crowd to help boost the atmosphere and give the impression that you’re there too. The ‘boys’ act as interlocutor from the action to your screen.
Jeff also has journos and ex-players around the country at the games. Every now and then we cut to a frankly confused ‘Kammy’ with an alluring glimpse of a stand behind him. A real football stand, viewers! He’ll indulge in some banter with Jeff and tell us that he thinks it’s a pen but isn’t too sure and would need to see a replay but it’s ‘unbelievable’ and he’ll come back when they’re about to take it. Not exactly Walter Cronkite but Kamara is a personality rather than a journalist. For the real thing we cut off to people like Dickie Davies – a man who surely only got the job because he shares the name of another more famous sports journalist. I’m fascinated by Davies. His permanently blocked nose, his red eyes and utterly unappealing voice. Seriously, it’s like his mouth is trying to stop the words from coming out. It’s worth tuning in for him alone. How can someone with such an awful, awful voice get a job that relies purely on communication? I want to know more about him. I want to meet the people who thought that broadcast journalism was his metier.
Back to the boys again. They all have their traits which mix beautifully to make a beautiful football minestrone. The aloof Le Tissier likes to watch any game other than his own, Charlie Nicholas likes to frown and Thommo describes every game like it’s Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt revisited. Every now and then our man throws his head back, seemingly amid paroxysms of pleasure, and waves his mighty nose in the air before bringing it down on the second syllable of ‘Magnificent, Jeff’. He’s only a handclap and spin away from joining The Temptations.
Then there’s the doyen. The papa of all pundits. Jesus, I love Paul Merson.
I often find myself telling younger Reds that the sniffy cretin that sits next to Hansen on Match of the Day, with bizarre hair and curious shirts, was one of the greatest defenders I’ve ever seen. Were it any other club he would sit comfortably in the annual Club’s Greatest XI discussion. However, Mark Thomas Lawrenson is hell bent on pulling down this reputation brick by brick. If the good Lord had removed his vocal cords on his last playing day he would still be spoke of with hushed tones rather than wrinkled noses and a snort. Trust me, kids. He was better than most central defenders playing today. He was Agger with a tash and highlighted hair.
The same can be said of Merson. He was a magnificent footballer. I watched him rip into us time and again and wondered just how he could be stopped. Before the booze, coke and gambling got to him (just the two autobiographies about it so far) he was fantastic. Everyone knew he was thick, you can sort of tell without hearing him speak, but in that side with Thomas and Rocastle he was unplayable. A frightening talent.
Nowadays he sits nearest to Jeff and spends the afternoon with his eyes glued to the screen, almost frightened to look up in case his mind might empty when asked a question. He’s fantastic. His dedication and pre-match planning are second to none. His analysis is studious. Any player with a long foreign name automatically becomes ‘the Croatian lad’. Any enquiry from Jeff about how the game’s going necessitates ‘Merse’ moving his nose a little closer to the monitor. He is a picture of concentration. Eyes blinking furiously, bead of sweat on the brow and a hunching of the shoulders, Merse can tell you everything that’s going on from the scoreline to which sides are playing. Yes, that much detail.
Alright, I’m a miserable bastard and I know that they’re there to bring an insight into the unseen games that would ordinarily be lost on us viewers. These lads have played hundreds of games, won a fair few trophies between them and have a light-hearted approach to the game rather than a clinical and arid delivery that might be expected elsewhere. It’s harmless and we all like a bit of panto but there’s one thing that does the show no favours.
God save us from dressing room banter. Every slip of the tongue, every show of weakness and every minor piss take is greeted by howls of delight all round. Should Stelling’s Hartlepool go a goal down the boys are practically weeping with joy with collected schadenfraude. These boys are great characters, great to have in the dressing room and great to have…oh, sod off. It’s not funny! In-jokes fly around the set like moths around a flame. If Merson has to say the word ‘Pogrebnyak’ more than once the boys are giggling and nudging each other in the ribs like he’s just said ‘tits’ on national TV. Worse. It’s not just banter (or God help us, ‘bants’), it’s ‘quality banter’. Jesus, I like a laugh, I really do but this sort of tedious testosterone heavy shite can really take the edge off my afternoon when I’m imploring Ross County to get an equaliser.
I accept that this may not be a popular view. To many these lads are ‘legends’. ‘Kammy’s a ledge’. What? This is basically a televised game of ex-footballing golf with monitors instead of a course. And even then they’d be laughing at each other’s trousers with tired tedium. Bants!
I love football and I accept that four Charlton Hestons behind screens isn’t exactly what’s required but Sky have reduced something golden to a search for controversy in every corner (Cottee accused Balotelli of distracting his team with his controversy. This being the channel that spent an hour on Hazard and ten minutes on Swansea a week earlier) and the insight of people who struggle with polysyllabic words. Yeah, I’m miserable but I’d like to think that it’s us who should be entertained more than the people in the studio. They love it but I don’t. I’m considering giving Swansea –Sunderland another go.
The obvious answer is, of course, not to watch but that’s tricky when Sky own the game. Still, there’s always Adrian Chiles and Roy Keane. Jesus.