Saturday 17 March 2018

Warning: Banal 'Friday Night Football' banter may turn you into your dad

Sky Sports missed an opportunity in their new slot by dumbing down coverage and targeting viewers with short attention spans

Paul Pogba
Paul Pogba
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

"I used to be with it, but then they changed what 'it' was. Now what I'm with isn't 'it', and what's 'it' seems weird and scary to me. It'll happen to you..."

Abe Simpson, menacingly, to his son Homer

There was a survey in Britain among 2,000 men a couple of years ago which suggested that there was no point fighting the fact that all men eventually turn into their fathers.

A desire for a 'man-cave' in the shed, being irritated if somebody sat in 'your' chair, and falling asleep in front of the TV were the tell-tale signs, and this development, the survey suggested, starts around the age of 38.

For anyone watching Friday Night Football on Sky Sports, the process accelerated dramatically in the 90-minute pre-match inanity where, finally, I understood how my dad felt when I used to watch Soccer AM, the Sky Sports Saturday morning show which mixed in the occasional good interview, goals and laughing uproariously at things that weren't funny for three hours.

To my teenage mind, it was entertaining but, every Saturday morning, my dad's facial expression never wavered from disgust as he walked out of the room with Tim Lovejoy about to embark on another escapade in the name of banter.


The show gave Lovejoy a platform to talk and write about football as well as a book which did, at least, spawn one of the great book reviews by Taylor Parkes in When Saturday Comes magazine.

"His new book is not just ­tedious in the extreme, it is utterly vile," wrote Parkes. "Chopped into 'chapters' that barely fill a page, in a font size usually associated with books for the partially sighted, Lovejoy on Football is part autobiography, part witless musing, and one more triumph for the crass stupidity rapidly replacing culture in this country.

"Hopelessly banal and nauseatingly self-assured, smirkingly unfunny, it's a £300 T-shirt, a piss-you-off ringtone, a YouTube clip of someone drinking their mate's vomit. Its smugness is a corollary of its vacuity. I hope it makes you sick."

It's not as though Sky Sports can't produce good football discussion, as Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have shown, but Friday night seemed like a regression, best summed up by the moment Jamie Redknapp cackled "we're going to have some banter on here tonight".

It must have felt like a shame that Manchester United playing Southampton was coming up to get in the way.

Perhaps there are people out there who enjoyed Redknapp, Thierry Henry, Ryan Giggs and Jamie Carragher managing to fit on one sofa while Jeff Stelling asked Rachel Riley what posters she had above her bed as a child.

Her answer was Giggs himself, which made for an awkward couple of minutes that mercifully ended when Stelling revealed his poster was Olivia Newton-John and everyone seemed to have a moment of wondering how the conversation started.

If anyone was writing a 'Five Things We Learned' article, the topic of the 61-year-old's teenage crush was certain to be part of it.

As was the case with Soccer AM, there were some good segments to Friday Night Football where four people who used to be professional footballers managed to pass on some expertise to those watching who hadn't. When viewers are interested in the sport, that's a pretty good place to start.

There aren't many opportunities for exclusive interviews with Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba, and FNF got both, but it was as if somebody decided that Friday night wasn't the time to go anywhere beyond the superficial.

As a result, Riley and Stelling interviewed Mourinho while all three stood around looking like a father and daughter who had got lost on a foreign holiday and were looking for directions.

Henry then interviewed Pogba which should have been interesting but the elder Frenchman seemed almost permanently doubled-over laughing at nothing, in the manner of somebody suffering from severe stomach cramps.

In normal circumstances, an interview with one of the best known managers in the world and another with the most expensive player in the history of the game would be two cornerstones on which to build a quality programme but both were aimed at people with short attention spans.

As Nick Hornby put it, the vast majority of football fans are actually capable of reading without moving their lips.


Then there was Chris Kamara, whose excitement levels never dipped below that of a dog who has just spotted his lead and realises that he's going for a walk.

Kamara, like Soccer AM, is reasonably entertaining in small doses, such as the ones he delivers while watching games during Sky's Soccer Saturday coverage where his catchphrase of "unbelievable Jeff" is almost uttered for a decent throw-in.

On Friday, however, he charged around the bowels of Old Trafford with the sort of access that would leave most journalists envious while adding virtually nothing to the conversation.

Maybe somebody decided that people want to be entertained rather than educated after a hard week of work when they sit down to watch a match.

Nobody wants football to be discussed with the seriousness of a political debate, but the dumbing down of coverage insults the intelligence of those watching.

Even if they are watching from their man-cave.

Irish Independent

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