The pantomime season may have only recently just kicked into gear, but at the BBC’s Match of the Day headquarters, it seems to have been in full swing for what feels like, well, an eternity.
Indeed, while the shirt offerings on MOTD might have always had a touch of the Widow Twankey about them, for many supporters indulging in English football’s flagship highlights show, that mock panto feeling is beginning to apply to the punditry on offer, too.
While no medium of broadcasting is safe from critique – none more so than within the cutthroat opinions cultivated in the beautiful game – the grievances that supporters air in regards to Match of the Day feel a lot more toxic and a lot more frequent than simply a moody old groan.
Archaic, uninformative and out of touch are just three of the politer terms that are regularly wheeled out on Twitter and the like to depict the now 48-year-old highlights show. It’s the BBC’s finest sporting relic – yet it’s the other three relics sitting in the pundit’s chair every Saturday, which appear to be jeopardizing its place in supporters’ affections.
The Premier League has of course changed immeasurably since its formation in 1992 and perhaps none more so than within the last couple of years. The rise of social media has seen the likes of Michael Cox’s superb Zonal Marking site rise in prominence and supporters have access to a whole raft of analysis, dissection and opinion like never before.
Furthermore, Gary Neville’s meteoric ascent from recent retirement to the king of Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football format, has seen the ex-Manchester Untied defender become something of a media darling in punditry terms.
Richard Keys and Andy Gray often resembled a couple of Dads trying to put up flat packed furniture with a claw hammer when it came to using Sky’s cutting edge technology. Neville has utilized it to educate the viewer and the plaudits he’s currently receiving is testament to the respect that supporters place upon that.
So in light of the wealth of articulate opinion that’s currently out there for football supporters to soak up, it’s perhaps no surprise that Match of the Day currently finds itself in the firing line.
After the best part of two decades uttering the word diabolical, it seems that Alan Hansen’s black book of defensive adjectives is running low. Alan Shearer’s credibility as a pundit all but went out the window after claiming that Hatem Ben Arfa, who’d long been regarded as one of European football’s brightest prodigies, was something of an unknown quantity before his move to Newcastle United.
If Mark Lawrenson could stop the perpetual moaning and actually explain what was going on, then maybe he’d be considered the best of a perceived bad bunch. As of yet, that’s not happened for several years now.
Yet while there will be many who have always held a lingering disdain for the aforementioned trio (as presenter, Gary Lineker is being left somewhat exempt from critique, for now) there certainly feels like there’s something of a bandwagon developing in terms of the anti-MOTD sentiment. The show’s never been critique-free, although it’s difficult to remember a time in its history it’s faced such a massive backlash from the general public.
The License Fee-shaped elephant in the room here, is of course the fact that Match of the Day is publicly funded and given the extortionate salaries that messrs Hansen et al are currently receiving, viewers undoubtedly entitled to demand the very pinnacle of punditry. Even after a pay cut this year, Alan Hansen still rakes in an estimated £1million per annum.
And on the balance of opinion we’re currently being offered, especially given the wealth of informative analysis available both online and with rival broadcasters, it’s hard to see how the public are really getting their money’s worth with the current set-up. But where as many are calling for a drastic overhaul, a new lick of paint could be a more fitting solution.
Even if Hansen and Lawrenson were continuing to churn out world class punditry, nothing lasts forever and after being in the job since 1992 and 1997 respectively, the BBC simply need a change of face as much as anything else. Everyone has a shelf life and even though Gary Neville may well be a superior pundit, if he’s still on our screens in 15 years time, it’s a safe bet he might not be quite as popular as he is today.
The show needs some fresh perspective and something resembling a new outlook, but there has to be more thought put into it than simply cherry picking an ex-player in the assumption he’ll make a good pundit. The programme’s flirtations with Michael Owen in recent weeks would have given the neutrals some real cause for concern.
Ex-Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi famously once said, “I never realized that in order to become a jockey, you have to be a horse first,” and it couldn’t be truer in terms of punditry. The likes of Michael Cox and Guardian contributor Jonathan Wilson have proven you don’t have to have played the game to be able to understand it and explain it with both thought and clarity.
And that’s what the audience are crying out for – they want a pundit to dissect the events and tell them something they didn’t already know. Because more than anything, Match of the Day seems to offer little more to us at the moment than passing observations and tired clichés.
The glitzy iPad chic of Monday Night Football or the tactical theses of Zonal Marking won’t work for Match of the Day. It’s a publicly funded programme that will always have to cater to a far larger spectrum of tastes and overloading it with a 10 minute package on the false nine simply isn’t going to be viable. But all fans are asking for is a little more considered punditry and a bit of knowledgeable information. The current chummy old boys club falls some way short of that.