On Television

Match of the dull

How Match of the Day needs modernising

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It was March 1989, the Berlin Wall was still standing and Albania was Europe’s most repressive Communist dictatorship. We were sitting in a hotel bar in Tirana, the capital, when three drunken English football fans lurched at us, raring to fight. I had travelled there on a trip organised by When Saturday Comes, a football magazine, to see England play Albania in a World Cup qualifying match. I had no interest in football, but I was very interested in Albania, which was then almost impossible for journalists to enter.

We travelled by coach from London for two and half days, down the Dalmatian coast and across the border into Albania on foot. Border guards went through our bags and confiscated our newspapers.

Three guys sitting around on comfortable chairs, dipping in and out of match clips no longer cuts it for many fans

There were two groups of England fans in Tirana. Several of the When Saturday Comes contingent were journalists, pretending not to be. The magazine had even printed T-shirts in Albanian: “Peaceful British football fans send fraternal greetings to our Albanian comrades on the occasion of the first meeting between our two nations”.

Some of the other England fans had not got the message. They gave Nazi salutes, got very drunk, called us “Commies”, threatened us in the hotel bar. Luckily, Tim Cooper of the Evening Standard managed to defuse the situation with some fast talk. The thugs asked me which team I supported. My mind went blank, but I had recently moved to Charlton. “Charlton Athletic”, I claimed, though I had no idea where the ground was, let alone who played for them.

Albania is a beautiful country, but it was then overlaid with terror. At the end of our trip some England fans handed out old match programmes in Tirana’s main square. An excited crowd quickly gathered, desperate for anything, new, foreign, colourful. Two men wearing brown plastic raincoats appeared and the atmosphere changed instantly. They looked around disdainfully and wagged their fingers. The crowd fell silent and dispersed. I’ve never seen such a chilling display of power. There were happy moments too, such as the flocks of children who followed us, shouting the names of English footballers, first among them Gary Lineker, who played that day.

Nowadays, when not tweeting about politics (latest cause Gaza/Palestine), Gary Lineker is the host of Match of the Day, BBC’s weekly flagship football programme. It’s nice work if you can get it. Last year Lineker was paid £1.75 million, since cut to £1.35 million for the next five years — which is still more than eight times the £161,401 Boris Johnson earns as prime minister. Lineker’s co-hosts, Alan Shearer and Jermaine Jenas, languish on £390,000 and £200,000 respectively.

Now, I’m no reflexive BBC basher. I have lavished deserved praise here on the superb documentary series Once Upon A Time in Iraq and the magical The Repair Shop. But there is no reason why any journalist, presenter or commentator working for a public service broadcaster should earn more than the prime minister.

Still, let’s not gang-up on Gary. Bloated BBC salaries are endemic. Numerous “stars” earn salaries in the multiple hundreds of thousands of pounds. Last year the doleful Huw Edwards took home around £460,000 a year, much of it for reading the news. Jeremy Paxman, the former Newsnight presenter, noted, “I don’t think it [newsreading] has any grandeur or skill or anything to it. Any fool can do it.”

Paxman might be right, but still, respect: not every fool can get paid £460,000 for it. The BBC says it needs to pay high salaries to keep what managers reverentially refer to as “the talent”. But if £161,401 a year is not enough, let the talent go to market. Much of it would likely find a rude awakening.

There are some entertaining episodes of Match of the Day’s Top Ten on the BBC iPlayer, where Lineker and his co-hosts discuss topics such as the Hard Men of football, the Worst Places to Go and Shocking Transfers. But the programme itself is tired and needs a new host.

Match of the Day’s only strength is that it is a national institution,” says one veteran sports commentator. “Lineker has been there so long that he is its familiar voice. But I don’t think anyone would stop watching it without him. It’s also a big mistake to have a presenter associated with one side of the culture war. Lots of fans are very unhappy.”

The format also needs modernising. Three guys sitting around on comfortable chairs, dipping in and out of match clips no longer cuts it for many fans. “For decades Match of the Day was how you watched football on television. But the programme desperately needs freshening up,” says the veteran commentator. “Sky sports and BT sports have changed the game. Nowadays fans are much more informed. They want in-depth discussions about tactics, details and the flow of the game.”

Try Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher on Sky’s Monday Night Football instead. The two ex-England players crackle with energy and insight. And for sharp, engaging football writing, pick up a copy of When Saturday Comes. Unlike Albania’s Communist dictatorship, the magazine is, thankfully, still going strong.

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