Poor old Gus Poyet. The former Brighton boss must feel like somebody’s been sneaking into his world and pulling threads with the way his career has been unravelling lately. Since his side blew their favorites tag to go crashing out of the Championship play-offs to a Crystal Palace team in wretched form on May 13, the Uruguayan has been the football media’s number one fall guy, suspended from his job and panned by his club for failing to attend a disciplinary hearing into the undisclosed charges hanging over him. So when the BBC elected to broadcast Gus’s sacking as part of their coverage of Spain’s Confederations Cup match against Nigeria, it’s fair to concede that the look of child-like bewilderment that swept across his face as presenter Mark Chapman’s questions rained down on him was well warranted.
It’s an interesting new direction for the BBC, spearheading their summer schedule with live and exclusive prime-time sackings of people who presumably have bills to pay and would just as presumably rather receive such news without the glare of a nation bearing down on them. But who are we to question the producers at the Beeb when there are viewing figures at stake, especially at a time of year when big stories are thin on the ground. And let’s not forget the first rule of reality TV – the suffering of the star is only relative to the entertainment value generated.
At the game’s apex, there has always been a certain contract that demands access to private lives, and the reach of public curiosity, as well as the media’s capacity to satisfy it, is growing fast. But the BBC’s handling of the Poyet sacking marks a watershed in the changing landscape of football coverage. What until recently could be laughed off as a voyeuristic peep-show is beginning to feel more like a thinly veiled rendering of vulnerable people into slap-stick figures of fun.
Football audiences are greedy – inevitably really when you stop to consider the deluge of coverage that has poured out of our screens since the Sky revolution, but the dramatization of the game has seen us arrive at a place where the sport itself no longer satiates our demand. There is a craving to understand the game in its micro form and since Andy Gray’s stop-start machine with all its colored lines and thick-rimmed circles allowed us to pick apart every detail on the pitch from 1993 onwards, fans and media alike have plumbed deeper and deeper to locate the beating heart of the game off it.
Whether that’s what we found during the BBC’s coverage on Sunday is a matter for the conscience rather than the critic. Whether a man deserves more than 45 minutes to digest the news of his termination notice having had it delivered by a virtual stranger before being grilled for his reaction in front of a live TV audience all depends on how personally you respect the right to quiet introspection in times of crisis. But then football doesn’t do much quietly these days. And as the game’s movers and shakers take a more influential role in the moulding of a national culture there’s a school of thought that says personal space is a luxury left behind in a forgotten age.
So goes the theory. And yet Gus Poyet was, at the most basic level, a working man carrying out his duties as defined by a confidential contract – a condition of which must surely have been that changes to that contract be carried out by the involved parties before the world is invited in to poke its nose around.
There’s room for a wry smile here, not at the expense of Poyet but at the spirit-crushingly two-dimensional approach taken by the BBC these days towards its journalism. Poyet’s face is a study in incredulity as the same questions roll again and again off Chapman’s vidi-printer and glance limply off the tired Uruguayan’s increasingly lifeless brow. If Poyet states his intention to appeal the decision once he states it a thousand times, before Chapman rather curtly informs him with barely a hint of sympathy that it will be very difficult for him to manage Brighton again after this. One would hope that Poyet is keeping his options open when it comes to seeking legal advice.
It’s difficult to know exactly where the presenter expects his policy of circular questioning will lead him and his audience, but it seems a fair bet that there is a certain level of frustration as his guest stubbornly refuses to break his composure and submit to the kind of histrionics that would kick this back-breaking anti-interview up a notch. Not known for displays of stoicism, it’s tricky to say whether Poyet is humoring his tormentor or just plain exhausted by his banality.
The real nonsense here of course is that there isn’t even a story to tell in the first place. Somewhere within the creaking bureaucracy of the relationship between a club and its manager there has been a breakdown in communications, the memo that was to inform the outgoing manager of his fate presumably lost somewhere in the thick, greasy membrane of lawyers, agents and the people who deliver quill-written messages on horseback pressed with a wax seal. Or something. But in its relentlessly desperate scrambling to find something to fill the close season emptiness (presumably the match we were all supposed to be watching at the time wasn’t considered worth the production costs alone), the BBC have taken a pot-shot at a ‘real life story’ and struck Poyet squarely between the eyes.
But then maybe that’s the problem. The football media has seen the success of the reality genre and is rushing to fill a perceived gap in the market, but in doing so it is careering straight into a brick wall, with Poyet as its passenger an early casualty. A situation that could have been settled with a minimum of embarrassment and publicity by the relevant parties has been whipped into a tabloid frenzy by producers who want real life stories but without sticking around to deal with the human consequences.
And poor old Gus? The two-times Championship manager of the month is left to pick up the needle and begin the fiddly process of preserving a career that is suddenly becoming unpicked, only now there will be the complications of Sunday’s publicity night knotting the yarn. He never was a great one for controversy in his playing days. That may not be the case for much longer if his misfortunes continue to be treated as fodder for a lazy and opportunistic media circuit.