By Louis Chilton
Match of the Day is a British institution. The venerable football “highlights and analysis” programme is older than most of the population, has a theme tune more recognisable than Doctor Who, and has taken up prime Saturday night real estate in BBC One’s weekly schedule for nearly six decades. Unlike many legacy series of its ilk, Match of the Day has remained quite enduringly popular across people of all age groups, with football’s resilient place in the nation’s heart ensuring a constantly replenishing fanbase of the very young and old alike. The only problem? Take out the football itself, and the programme is simply dismal.
Ideally, a sports series like this would strike a deft balance between being entertaining and informative, dissecting what’s really happening in a game of football in a way that’s accessible for the everyday fan. Match of the Day, however, exists in a No Man’s Land between these two points. The patter, between two ex-footballer pundits and a host (usually Gary Lineker, with Mark Chapman fronting Match of the Day 2 on Sunday), is uniformly banal and humourless, while offering little to no specialist analysis into the matches themselves.
The absolute dearth of wit or cleverness becomes even more farcical when you consider the amount of money the BBC invests in it. In 2018, the broadcaster paid £211.5m to retain the rights to the Premier League highlights for three years, up from £205m in 2015. It seems strange to suggest that the BBC’s highest-paid personality is best described as a “safe pair of hands”, but that’s exactly what Gary Lineker is. His blandness is feature, not flaw; he keeps proceedings ticking over with mechanical reliability, but fails to coax any real repartee from his co-stars. (And contrary to what some of his detractors might say, there’s little chance of him instigating a communist revolution any time soon.)
We do not treat any other genre of programming with quite the same small-minded preconceptions as football shows. Just because an athlete is able to express themselves eloquently on a football pitch does not mean they are suited for show business. Often, they are wildly anti-charismatic, media training having merely sanded off any hint of quirk or idiosyncrasy. By limiting the pool of personalities to ex-footballers, we are depriving football punditry of many of the qualities we associate with good television: wit; originality; the ability to surprise. Even Question Time lets comedians on once in a while.
It’s not like there’s any shortage of celebrities who are knowledgeable about football, who could bring some conversational flair to the show; you can’t tell me swapping Danny Murphy for Frank Skinner wouldn’t have viewers tuning in in droves. Or, if the aim is authority rather than entertainment value, Match of the Day should be bringing on managers, analysts, statisticians – people who can tell you something about the game that isn’t obvious to every pub bore out there.
Over on Sky Sports, the ex-Manchester United right back Gary Neville made a name for himself as a TV pundit par excellence, breaking down what’s going on in a match with a specificity seldom seen on British television. This notion of Neville as sagacious professor figure was tempered somewhat by the arrival of Jamie Carragher, reframing the Monday Night Football segments into more of a spectacle of barely supressed hatreds. But as both education and entertainment, it’s got Match of the Day beat.
Criticising Match of the Day is nothing new, of course. It’s been more than a decade since Stan Collymore condemned the series as “stale, clichéd, smug pap”, characterising the presenting team as a “golfing clique with a passing interest in football”. In 2010 The Guardian’s James McMahon also described the series as “predictable”, noting that it was “talked of as boring, unintelligent [and] ill-informed”. Since those days, little has changed. Mainstays Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson have respectively retired and accepted a reduced role; Lineker remains, dug in like a unusually well-compensated tick. Some of the newer pundits have been better than others (Ian Wright is an affable and sincere presence), but the format’s broader shortcomings remain as entrenched as ever.
Match of the Day’s monopoly on the eyeballs of Premier League fans cannot go on forever. Its primary competition is no longer paid-for TV rivals, Sky Sports, BT and Amazon, but the massive force of the internet. Free match highlights are available to watch online, allowing viewers to pick and choose which matches to watch. The discerning fan need sit through clips of a mealy nil-nil between Newcastle and Burnley no longer. The internet has also revolutionised punditry, such that it is: social media, YouTube videos, specialist websites and subscription newsletters give people access to in-depth tactical breakdowns and analysis far beyond what is ever discussed on TV. Obsolescence is coming for Match of the Day from pretty much every direction.
Longevity in and of itself is meaningless. But Match of the Day is still a tradition worth saving. There’s a purity to its format that ties into much of what is great about football – the comforting, near-religious ritualism of it all. Unless it shakes up its ambitions, however, it will eventually find itself beyond saving – going out not with a bang, but a whimper that’s lasted for years.
Personally I record MOTD and then fast forward between the actual footie matches - and then settle down to EFL on Quest with it's 36 matches and an average of around 100 goals - often twice a week. No comparison - the BBC have a bit of work to do IMO.