Match of the day and ignorant/lazy punditry. It's about time we weighed in with our two penneth. This is IBWM. This is Iain Macintosh.
Poor old Alan Shearer. If it hadn’t have been for that pesky social networking, he’d have gotten away with it. Fifteen years ago, bone-headed statements could be uttered on late night live television and, unless someone influential had the video recorder primed and ready, they would slip away into the ether, forgotten forever. Not anymore. Within seconds of the not-entirely-surprising revelation that Shearer can’t tell his Ben Arfa from his Gamiero, the Twitter fail-whale was going belly-up and Facebook hate groups were rising like Amish barns.
With one sweeping statement, Shearer blew apart the floodgates, already straining after a World Cup that the BBC managed to dissect with all the enthusiasm of a fat child at Sports Day. Last summer, the MOTD producers took a pass on pre-match analysis and instead deployed D-list presenters into the heart of Soweto to blow vuvuzuelas at startled locals. Alan Hansen was visibly infuriated at the idea of discussing Algeria against Slovenia on his birthday. Mark Lawrenson seemed entirely unaware of who anyone on the pitch actually was and made jokes to hide his fear, like someone’s slightly dotty mother taking a token interest. In contrast, Shearer’s assorted inanities were, like Emmanuel Adebayor’s phone and Garth Crooks’ flop sweat, just part of the white noise. But now, thanks to Ben Arfa-gate, everything is up for debate. Just what exactly is ‘Match of the Day’ for?
In the aftermath of such mouth-breathing buffoonery, there is a natural temptation to run screaming in the other direction, to seek out the highbrow and rid the palate of dumbed-down swill. To choose James Richardson over Gary Lineker. To yearn for sensible debate, expertise, and for ’Lawro’ to be sealed into a barrel and pushed out into the Atlantic. Some even dared to suggest that perhaps footballers, men who neglected education in favour of football, might not be the finest analysts of an increasingly complex industry. All entirely understandable points. But all wrong.
‘Match of the Day’ is the flagship of the BBC’s football coverage. It caters to a wide audience, many of whom are occasional, fair-weather, there’s-not-much-else-on-is-there, viewers. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there whose interest in football starts and ends with their own team and whose wider knowledge would barely be enough to fuel a primary school essay. It’s an audience that the BBC cannot be blamed for trying to serve. Nevertheless, a line was crossed on Saturday night.
In any other genre of broadcasting, Shearer’s idiocy would be a sackable offence. If Andrew Marr admitted that he knew nothing of Diane Abbot, if Nigella Lawson went blank at the mention of chorizo, if Simon Schama confessed that he was bit rusty on ‘that whole Armada thing’, their careers would end in an instant. Hatem Ben Arfa is not some new up-and-coming starlet, known only to a handful of scouts and well-connected local hacks. He’s been playing top level European football for six years, he’s been linked with numerous English clubs and, as Tom Williams pointed out, it would have taken 15 minutes on a laptop to learn all about him. Even if Shearer didn’t know anything when he arrived, it was inexcusable not to find out something in the five hours that lay between his wonder-goal and the live broadcast.
But should we really go the other way? Is it wise to change the nation’s favourite post-pub show into something more cerebral? I admire the work of Jonathan Wilson more than most, but I don’t think my feeble brain could take his arrows and diagrams at 11pm on a Saturday night after six pints of Old Frisky and a bun full of offal. Likewise, with the greatest of respect to the leviathans of my industry, there isn’t enough Old Frisky in the pipes to make the sight of Brian Woolnough acceptable in my front room. At that time of a weekend I, like Tony Adams before me, just want to get on with the football and then get to bed without wetting myself.
I’m all for having a more advanced, ambitious football show, even on the national broadcaster. Lord knows today’s fans are more intelligent, more astute and more discerning than ever before. I’d happily tune in and watch good journalists, insiders, broadcasters and supporters go balls-deep on the pressing issues. But that doesn’t mean that everyone feels the same way. Perhaps instead of always going down the scale when an opportunity presents itself, giving us the worryingly Masonic ‘MOTD2’ or red button commentary from Chris Moyles and Comedy Dave, the BBC could go the other way?
All that I ask of MOTD, and all that anyone should ask, is that its producers show us a bit of respect. It’s not like ITV, we can’t switch off and hammer their advertising rates. Besides, they know full well that we’d watch Oprah Winfrey’s channel if it had highlights on it. That’s no reason to take the piss though. A lot of ink comes off the pages of ‘World Soccer‘, but I don’t see any of it on Shearer’s fingers.
‘Match of the Day’ isn’t irretrievably lost, it just needs to brush its hair, have a shave and pull its finger out. It needs to know more than the average viewer. It doesn’t necessarily need to demonstrate how much it knows, but it needs to have the information to hand just in case. If Shearer doesn’t like that idea, if he doesn’t want the hassle of trying to keep up with the global game, then he should step aside. There’s plenty of people out there who would do his job in a heartbeat.
Iain Macintosh is the UK Football Correspondent for The New Paper (Singapore). You can follow him on Twitter (@iainmacintosh)