Here’s a fun game. Next time you go watch a soccer match in a bar, pub or somewhere else in public, just spend a moment and try and catch some of the conversation flying around. Not the endless droves of ‘banter’ thrown between groups of hardened males but specifically the talk concerning all things soccer. For in amongst the noise and cackled laughter you will hear the nuanced take on recent events across the soccer nation, perhaps even the globe.
Within this very environment live experts, mighty footballing tactician experts, only too willing to offer their (not so) humble opinion on the latest stories and score lines weaving through the top tier. And the pub is their domain. Perhaps you don’t even need to take part in this game Maybe your mind can stretch back to a time not so long ago that you were in said establishment and your ears couldn’t help but pick up the feint but distinct sound of a well versed English football expert opining to the crowd before them. At least you thought they must be an expert. They were using all the correct terminology; ‘two banks of four’, ‘pressing high up the pitch’, ‘midfield triangles’, perhaps there was a football pundit in the crowd, out of sight but well within earshot gifting locals with his rare but reasoned take on yesterday’s games.
But all of a sudden you realize these murmurs. These sentences have already been heard and not so long ago. It wasn’t Steve down The Dog and Duck who first concluded that what Manchester United were missing was a creative central midfielder ‘you know, someone to replace Scholes’ but a more familiar source. More often than not they came from those esteemed fountains of football knowledge leaving their considerable imprint on the Match of The Day sofa provided by the BBC.
It is little wonder that the 90 minute programme on Saturday night (an institution in Great Britain) wields so much influence over the casual supporter. This year marks the show’s 50th anniversary. For much of that time, it has been solely entrusted to bring football to the masses, entertaining and informing us along the way. In the process, it’s turned us all into second-hand experts of sorts. Their sentences, turns of phrase and observations have seeped into our lexicon to the point of cliché, ready to be spouted by anyone with a passing interest in the English top flight. You’ve probably uttered a few yourself. For many Brits, we’ve grown up with a version of Match of the Day as a mainstay of Saturday television, often the only way to access any sort of English football coverage and now providing the nation with a selection of talking points, appointed themselves, to take out into the world and share at will. It is the forum that dictates our view of the Premier League, determining which stories matter, which managers are under pressure and what clubs need ‘a Makelele’ (turns out that’s pretty much everyone apparently).
Last season the programme lead an outcry at the ‘horror’ tackle committed by Callum McManaman at Newcastle, leading to a routine and national lambasting of the young Wigan winger. Similarly late or high challenges went unnoticed, overlooked by the MOTD select committee and subsequently ignored by the public. The brutal centre-half pairing of Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross at Stoke have an alarming habit of crunching tackles, career-threatening lunges and an array of bruising ‘tricks’ while defending set-pieces, all of which escape the scrutiny of the Saturday pundits and therefore the condemnation of the viewing public. Even Huth’s cynical and outright thuggish punch landed on Phillipe Senderos’ face managed to avoid the kind of finger-pointing and tutting reserved for the likes of McManaman.
The popular narrative surrounding the Tony Pulis-era Stoke was that they somehow embodied an honest, old-fashioned type of football to be praised in today’s ultra-sensitive minimal contact game. The lack of focus by the MOTD pundits on their questionable tactics was reason for the lack of public outrage. Instead it was Arsene Wenger being mocked for accusing them as a team more at home on a rugby field.
Knee-high challenges and elbows to the jaw may be one thing that Pulis condoned but he certainly draws the line at going to ground a little easily. He was far from alone in this respect. The diving debate rears its head at least twice a season but the blaming and culprit-seeking is a game led by those on the armchairs of the TV studios. Last season’s agreed targets were Luis Suarez and, momentarily, Ashley Young. One particular Match of the Day episode saw Mark Lawrenson chastise the Uruguayan in no uncertain terms for his disgraceful attempts to win a penalty. Fair enough you may imagine, although when looking back at the Tottenham game a matter of minutes later it was the same Lawrenson who thought it amusing, comical and not at all cynical when Gareth Bale swan dived over an opponent’s leg and received a yellow card for his efforts. Out into the public went the perception that Suarez was a nasty, cheating diver but Bale (incidentally the recipient of most yellow cards for diving) was merely trying his luck with no harm done and little scorn attributed.
With the advent of the Premier League, emergence of Sky with all its fancy graphics and strong punditry line-ups, and finger-tip ready tactical master classes on the Internet, Match of the Day finds itself looking increasingly outmoded, out of fashion and a source of derision among those requiring a more insightful analysis than a repetition of choice phrases.
For all its faults, it remains the singular terrestrial output of Premier League action and will continue to guide our take on the weekends matches for years to come. So if you find yourself unable to catch a few episodes, fret not for there will inevitably still be the famed pub pundit reciting everything you missed next time you’re in the bar.