Pun-soaked platitudes? You just got muted

Why is the general standard of commentary so underwhelming?

New Statesman
"The Fan" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

In the early Noughties when broadcasters still bothered to find new uses for the interactive red button, the Beeb began offering viewers of live football three audio options – the TV commentary, the Radio 5 Live commentary or the sound of the crowd. Public service broadcasting at its best and, naturally, I chose the crowd.

Now that there’s no such choice, I press mute instead. Anything to escape the reverse alchemy that invariably results when middle- aged men with lip mics share commentating duties. Tell me I’m not alone.

It’s certainly not this column’s role to do anyone out of a job – especially in these recessionary times – but surely football-watching would remain undiminished if we did away with the odd commentator or co-commentator, sometimes laughably referred to as the “expert summariser”.

Where we crave insight and analysis, we get platitudes and pre-prepared, pun-soaked soliloquies to fill the dead air. (Really, what’s wrong with dead air?)

The latter is one of the commentator’s many sins. Another is the inclination to base every comment about player or club on a preconceived notion, many of which survive for years despite all the evidence to the contrary. There’s one Sky Sports commentator –more fanboy, in truth – who covers every Barcelona or Real Madrid game in this way. If, say, Lionel Messi is having a stinker, rather than simply describing what’s going on – or better still allowing the pictures to do the work – he’ll say, “Remember the date. Messi just misplaced a pass.” Great player but if he plays badly then call it as such. We used to get the same breathlessness every time the Brazilian Roberto Carlos lined up a free kick, even when the weight of evidence of so many kicks missed was overwhelming.

And when commentators do say something vaguely controversial – as ESPN’s Jon Champion did in relation to Luis Suárez’s tendency to fall over in the penalty area – they are censured by their employer. Suárez has since admitted that he dived to win a penalty earlier this season, so the ESPN lawyers can stand down.

Sky’s reputation is partly restored by the quality of its pundits, notably Gary Neville and Graeme Souness – both ex-players (Souness an ex-manager too) with tribal pasts who have proved unfailingly fairminded on telly and happy to take on conventional thinking. Take a bow, sons, as one of their predecessors might say.

There are exceptions on the BBC too but the general quality – on both TV and radio – is underwhelming. Take the reaction on the day that Southampton sacked Nigel Adkins and replaced him with the Argentine Mauricio Pochettino, previously manager of Espanyol. Adkins was unlucky to lose his job (consecutive promotions, two defeats in the last 12 games etc) but to disregard the new manager out of hand – as Radio 5 Live pundits appeared inclined to do –was a display of ignorance. For the record, Pochettino took over at Espanyol four years ago, halfway through the season, keeping the club in Spain’s top division when relegation looked more likely. For the next three years Espanyol – one of the financially weakest teams in the division – finished mid-table.

Only this season has he failed. Pochettino’s record compares to Roy Hodgson’s at Fulham, Harry Redknapp’s at Portsmouth and Tony Pulis’s at Stoke City. Pretty good, in other words.

What 5 Live offered was an uninformed (or under-informed) instant reaction. Fine in the pub, at work or on the same network during the interminable 606 phone-in. But from expert summarisers and established commentators? On the “home of live sport”? No thanks.