Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Match of the Day ain't broke

There is a lot of rubbish talked about football on television, I am well aware that I make my own regular contributions.

But the day that any television company finds a pundit or presenter or technical gizmo that provides more entertainment than the match action itself, he or she or it will really be earning their money. And the game will be in big trouble.

There is a healthy appetite among television professionals to continually freshen up their act and unveil different approaches to bringing football to your screens. Most of them can be filed under ‘Emperor’s new clothes’, but year by year better technology provides better pictures and analysis, and hopefully better enjoyment and understanding of how the game is played.

Familiarity should not be underrated as a television virtue, though. We can argue all we like as to why many more viewers watch the World Cup final on BBC than ITV, and many more watch the Champions League final on ITV than Sky.

Old habits die harder than you imagine in TV. Two years ago, my dear old dad (a Sky golf addict) inadvertently watched the Chelsea-United final on Sky and asked me next day if I had a cold. Most people just want to see the match.

With the greatest respect to many much admired friends at the Beeb, Peter Odemwingie and Darren Bent were the stars of ‘Match of the Day’ on Saturday.

I’ve read calls this week for the pundits to be given more time for analysis and even for a classic match from the video vaults to adorn the show. Another time, maybe. But ‘Match of the Day’ should do what it says on the tin. The action is the hook.

To harp on about Alan Shearer calling David Silva, David Villa is just silly. The greatest manager he ever served under rarely got a player’s name right and yet Sir Bobby Robson remains the most popular football figure of the modern era.

I got Jack Wilshere and Andrei Arshavin mixed up for the first 10 minutes at Arsenal last week. It happens. I think the issue of (the excellent) Andy Gray laughing off Dedryck Boyata’s cynical checks on Didier Drogba is a far more interesting debating point. When is the ‘professional view’ wrong?

Sound editorial values are important. I have a bee in my bonnet about a manager saying, ‘I haven’t seen the incident yet’ at 10:30 at night on MOD. Show him, then ask him. But the detail of the show must never get in the way of the moments that set the editorial agenda.

The best thing about football is the football. Gary and the boys all wish they were still playing. Their programme usually respects the importance of the action and remains true to its roots. Don’t fix what ain’t broken.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

No fudge for Steven Gerrard please Fabio!

Memo to Fabio: Don't! Do not go there! Do not even think about it! Don’t consider it, evaluate it or discuss it... not even with your interpreter.

James Milner will be suspended for next month’s game against Montenegro, but under no circumstances, on no account, in no way must Steven Gerrard be shoehorned into his position on the left of midfield. Ok?

Don’t get me wrong, if Frank Lampard is fit in time for the match I will be happy to see him back in an England shirt. I am one of the few people that believe he is actually underrated. But Lampard must only play if Gerrard or Gareth Barry cannot.

4-4-2 is still not my favourite ‘arrangement’ because it is essentially a system of square holes. But please, please fill it with square pegs.

England are playing well, certainly well enough to defeat the likes of Bulgaria and a surprisingly poor Switzerland. Fabio Capello has enjoyed a good week. Even some of the negatives may prove positive.

Joe Hart’s little wobble will remind him and everyone else that he is an international novice, a very good one. Wayne Rooney did just begin to indulge himself with some loose passes, as he is prone to do when he gets so much of the ball. We got one or two little reminders without suffering any pain.

Even Theo Walcott’s injury may prove a fateful ‘leg-up’ to Adam Johnson. Both bring something fresh and exciting to the party, but Johnson’s quiet confidence and constant goal threat maybe just give him the edge at the moment. He looks ready.

I don’t think either Johnson or Walcott had done quite enough by May to ‘demand’ a place in the World Cup squad, and missing out on South Africa probably did both (and England) a favour.

Two years ago, Joe Cole’s injury in the second qualifying game allowed a previously injured Gerrard back into the team. For the next match against Kazakhstan in the October, Capello actually fudged a kind of 4-3-3 to accommodate Gerrard, Barry and Lampard, pushing Rooney a little wider out to the left.

The fudge survived until half-time when England were booed off.

Please, please, please... no fudge on the menu this time.

Footnote:
If you have ever wondered what there is to my job apart from what you hear from me on the television, or if you have football commentary or sports journalism in mind as a career yourself, please visit: www.footballcommentator.org

Monday, September 6, 2010

Wondering about Frank Lampard

I wonder how much Frank Lampard enjoyed watching England’s victory over Bulgaria on Friday?

It is one of the natural laws of football that whenever you are injured, you look a great player if the team loses without you and a disposable player when they win. It may all be different come tomorrow night.

Exactly three years ago, Lampard missed England’s opening qualifier of the season having scored against Germany at Wembley in an August friendly. Gareth Barry was drafted in to partner Steven Gerrard, and England duly reeled off three successive 3-0 wins over Israel, Russia and Estonia. Lampard became an England substitute.

The episode is largely forgotten – partly because England subsequently lost dramatically decisive matches to Russia and Croatia, and partly because all of Steve McClaren’s successes have been selectively wiped from the popular records in a rather Orwellian manner.

Lampard will play many more times for England, but another victory in Basle tomorrow may delay his next appearance for longer than he would like.

Two years ago, England famously won 4-1 in Croatia. The central midfield partnership that night?... Lampard and Barry. Gerrard was injured, and only an injury to Joe Cole let him back into the team.

Readers of this blog will know that both Fabio Capello and 4-4-2 have bigger fans than me. I admit that it was to my surprise that Friday’s variation on the system worked such a treat for the manager.

If the balance of the team can be maintained, it may well be the best formula for qualification. But Lampard should only play if he is replacing Barry or Gerrard.

The biggest conclusion to draw from the World Cup experience could be that you need one ‘team’ to qualify, and another to excel at the finals. Goal-getters like Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch may fit the bill when you are in need of men to snap up the bountiful chances England should create against lesser-ranked teams.

I think tournament football requires a more grown-up approach to winning games.

Footnote:
If you have ever wondered what there is to my job apart from what you hear from me on the television, or if you have football commentary or sports journalism in mind as a career yourself, please visit: www.footballcommentator.org

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Beckham exclusive

Fabio Capello’s decision to cut David Beckham adrift was an ITV exclusive. Well, bully for us!

Getting ‘a good story’ is so much a part of the psyche of journalism that we sometimes lose sight of the content. At 35, Beckham was never realistically going to make a contribution to the European Championship qualifying bid, but ITV’s Gabriel Clarke was the first reporter with the gumption to put the question.

Now, it’s a bigger story than the players who are going to make a contribution.

There is understandable surprise that Capello didn’t broach the subject with Beckham privately. Gabriel’s interview was conducted on Monday, and he fully expected the news to be ‘out’ before it was broadcast in the run-up to the Hungary game. But it seems that nobody at the FA thought to warn the Beckham camp that Capello had taken the decision.

In the era of 24-hour ‘rolling’ news, these tales quickly develop into issues, then controversies, then affairs or ‘gates’. Beckhamgate will probably now lead to demands for apologies and resignations and public executions. Thankfully, Beckham himself has enough dignity not to turn it into a war – and enough media savvy to realise he is being retired with the moral high ground, and probably a farewell match at Wembley.

The ongoing concerns for the FA are the continuing repercussions of their manager’s broken English. So little of any significance comes out of Capello’s interviews that the media are feasting on the few comprehensible morsels. Steven Gerrard and Joe Hart spoke superbly in the wake of Wednesday’s win, but their boss is becoming a liability.

Maybe Beckham should be retained as an official spokesman.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In defence of Fabio Capello

I have been a Fabio Capello bore for a year or more now. Ask the people I work with, and they will tell you they’ve long since tired of me questioning his tactics, his approach and his utterances.

But, as somebody who wanted him burnt at the stake when most wished him knighted, let me be the first to defend him.

The turning of the tide against him reminds me of the reaction to Europe’s Ryder Cup defeat two years ago. You can’t appoint Nick Faldo as captain, then expect him to be as charming and garrulous as Sam Torrance. Capello is Capello – cool, distant and single-minded. The moment he panders to public opinion, he is lost.

Let me put my case against him first. Despite the impressive results, I question how often England played well enough in qualification for Capello’s favoured team and system to be good enough to make an impression at the World Cup finals. I think he wasted the nine months between qualifying and arriving in South Africa.

I believe his failure to master the language made the need for a respected Italian-speaking go-between like Ray Wilkins an essential.

We hired a strategist with no relevant communication skills. Worse still, he couldn’t do what Bert van Marwijk did and handle the egos within his camp. He didn’t know how to knock heads together in English.

The farcical day that the seven players cut from the original squad received phone-calls from Capello and Franco Baldini betrayed his lack of man management. They should have been told to their faces.

The botched appeal to Paul Scholes and the mixed messages to the goalkeepers were symptomatic of the problem. And as for coach Beckham and the Capello Index....

But what I’ve always actually liked about Capello is the distance he has put between himself and the rest of the English game. He has no favourites in management or media, he has been the perfect antidote to the ‘pally’ style of Steve McClaren, he won respect and a healthy fear from his millionaire charges. He doesn’t do TLC.

Sadly, his serial stubbornness has led to his biggest mistake of all. Last weekend, he said a belated sorry without shouldering any blame. The Rafa Benitez school of management. He has done things his way, and yet it wasn’t his fault. It was the players – well, try telling them that, Fabio.

So now we are invited to boo him. No, he didn’t actually say that... but then he says so little that is wholly comprehensible in his interviews and press conferences that we cling onto every identifiable word and try to attach some intelligence and significance to it.

It’s a mess, but it’s a mess you either trust the original Fabio Capello to clean up or you fire him and get someone different.

We have made our bed...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Watch this space

All kinds of people want to be football commentators, and no wonder. Ok, so 17 days after the World Cup final, I am beginning preparations for my next game, but it’s not a proper job, is it? And it is the only one I’ve ever wanted.

My notion to start a website for those interested in commentary and sports reporting has already identified a number of issues and attracted a variety of thought strands. There are those that have got their eyes on my job already, but there are many who simply have a view on what makes for good and bad broadcasting – most of it constructive!

I have contacted various Further Education and careers bodies. There are all kinds of debates going on about the value of media courses, and a lack of work experience opportunities in the industry for anyone who’s not ‘connected’. The site will hopefully provide a forum for these debates and more.

All I ask is that if you feel as though you have something to contribute when we are up and running in the next few weeks that you do so. Use the blog in the meantime. This project is not for me. I’ve already got what I always wanted. It’s for you to make of it what you will – you and your friends, fellow students, lecturers, careers advisors, whoever. Tell them.

I’ve received mails from people aged from 14 to 40 – from people already in broadcasting and those who dream of being employed in the business – the qualified and the unqualified. One of the most fascinating things about sports commentary is that nobody’s opinion really counts for more than anyone else’s (Well, perhaps my boss’s does!).

But one of the best of many pieces of great advice I got from the late, great Reg Gutteridge was "don’t try to commentate to the England manager – your grandma counts as one viewer, just like him – don’t look to impress, just inform."

There is a democracy about a website, and you’ve all got a vote. Use it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What do we do next?

Bear with me while I recount the major sporting event of the summer so far – (err, in my opinion).

So, I’m playing the 18th at Vilasol in Portugal on Wednesday, holding a 2-point lead over my 15-year old son (and, I might mention, a 3-point lead over Gareth Southgate, but that would only be name-dropping).

Paddy has ripped it 290 yards down the middle, and I’ve squeezed one down the left into a corner where only an heroic 5-wood over a considerable tree gets me anywhere close to the green. I opt for a low running mid-iron for safety, chip (rather well) to 25 feet and 2-putt for a winning 5.

My boy shakes my hand graciously and mutters the congratulatory words, “you’re gay, dad.” Now, putting political correctness to one side for a moment, the inference is not actually that I am homosexual, but that I’m chicken.

I committed the cardinal sin. I played safe. It comes from a combination of modest ability and age. It breeds a healthy fear of risk.

And so to avoid reducing this proposal for a commentators’ website to something too safe to be of any value, I’m asking you ‘what do we do next?’

The initial response (for which I thank all that have responded) has been encouraging without touching tumultuous, but now that me and my peeling forehead are getting back to work, I need your input to move it on.

If you’re sweating on GCSE results, how could media courses in further education become more relevant and beneficial to budding sports reporters?

If you’re now looking for a career in the industry, how easy is it to find worthwhile and rewarding work experience? Where are the traffic jams in the system?

For this idea to amount to anything, it needs you guys to discuss and dissect the problems and possible solutions.

If you think the ‘word’ is worth spreading, spread it – to fellow students, teachers, lecturers, contacts within the industry.

Tell me which doors to knock on. As you may have noticed, I’ve got a loud voice.

It’s my intention to contact universities and colleges – community, hospital and local radio stations – free-sheets, local and national newspapers – in an attempt to construct a forum for networking and audition.

But, as my son will tell you, I’m old and safe and (apparently) ‘gay’. You can hit that 5-wood over the trees. I can’t.

Show me the way.