North Americans don’t get much in the way of involving chit chat shows covering the Premier League. Sky’s CNN talking-head-over-ticker-tape style sports news is good for watching endless loops of Steven Gerrard looking forlorn as Liverpool’s title chances evaporate into thin air, but it’s hardly the sort of thing that makes you feel glad to be a part of the game.
But for those of us lucky enough to get Setanta, we do have Football Matters, a show hosted by former Football Italia presenter and current Guardian Football Weekly podcast host, James Richardson. It basically consists of Richardson punning his away through the weekend’s highlights alongside the not-hard-to-look-at Rebecca Lowe and a couch full of managers and ex-footballers, usually some variation on Alan Curbishley and Ray Parlour. The studio audience is also central to the action, a dubious mix of gangly supporters wearing replica shirts whose canvassed opinions range from “Tottenham need to pull themselves up in the league,” to “Ronaldo is going to help Man United do the Quintuple this year.”
The show isn’t knee-slappingly funny, although hearing the audience’s slow crescendo burst into a roar as Richardson spins off some dreadfully wonderful pun will at least put a smile on your face. Equal parts amusing and heartwarming is the sedate look the host puts on whenever a prepubescent audience member mangles his (usually) way through some half-cooked observation, usually overwhelmed by the mothering Lowe seated next to them, microphone in hand.
Yet the show’s most winning quality is its unforced irreverance. Sky tends to present football as if it were American Gladiators, all overwrought graphics and hopelessly hyperbolic similes. Setanta has at least opted for some measure of comic relief. Richardson’s banter makes the guests—some caricatured endlessly in the English broadsheets—seem banal, like soap actors discussing long-forgotten plot lines. He’ll get Curbishley to speak candidly on his unemployment only moments before making Curb’s adam’s apple bobble through his unbuttoned collar with an off-hand quip. Even so, Richardson never gets credit for his extraordinarily journalistic instincts; his casual knowledge of the game would be impressive if he ever drew attention to it.
And yes, the audience is great too. Hearing these boys speak, you remember that football really is for kids—sometimes the deepest ruminations from a seasoned journalist can’t match the eloquence of the fifteen year-old boy, who “never thought Keane got a fair shake at Anfield.” After a weekend of thundering excess and unrestrained egotism, its nice to have an hour and a half of children’s television to cut it all down to size.