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Is The Quality Of BT Sports's Football Coverage On The Verge Of Eclipsing Sky's?

Is The Quality Of BT Sports's Football Coverage On The Verge Of Eclipsing Sky's?

The defection of a man with a limiting, prehistoric view of women to a nation with a limiting, prehistoric view of women has done much to improve the quality of football coverage on English television.

As Richard Keys and Andy Gray literally moved abroad to take up a job in which they mostly bemoan foreigners taking British jobs, Gary Neville and then Jamie Carragher arrived at Sky to prove that football fans want a programme that analyses more than just the referee's performance.

Their quite brilliant Monday Night Football straddles the precipice of the current cultural tussle over the game. First, the game was given mass entertainment appeal by Sky's gleaming commercialisation, and then the intellectuals tried to wrestle back some control by using the game as something worthy of intellectual interrogation, in which tactics and style can be broken down and from which history and sociology can be extruded.

The intellectualisation of the sport, and the respect paid to its fans, is a good thing, even if the jargon of some blogs and specialist sites occasionally lapses into meaningless. But The Blizzard, Football Weekly, Football365 and myriad others have proved to be a very useful bulwark against the heedless blatherings of the former players who disregard the opinions of those who have never played the game.

But Neville, and Carragher, and Sky have hit upon the perfect mix for both.

Not to labour it too much, but Monday Night Football is the adopted child of The Football Man and Opta Joe.

But of late, The Great Show has had a couple of problems. To start with, the new studio offers an uncomforting glimpse at the dystopian future in which the DUP collapse the Tory government over failure to deliver on Brexit, and, capitalising on the power vacuum between the dithering Tories and the curiously power-averse Labour Party, Sean Dyche finally snaffles the big job he felt his work at Burnley deserved and creates a hard-running, well-organised autocracy.

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Secondly, Gary Neville is no longer a regular fixture on the show, and thirdly, it's not on every week. Further to that, when it is on, it usually makes do with a pretty average game (usually either Brighton, West Ham, or Brighton v West Ham) as the top sides' involvement in Europe precludes them from featuring so late in a weekend's fixture list.

Aside from MNF, Sky's coverage has lost something this season. Friday Night Football's device of having Gary Neville conduct interviews and deliver analysis from random bits of a stadium doesn't work, while the punditry line-up outside of Carragher, Neville, and Graeme Souness is uninspiring. Thierry Henry is bland on most topics aside from perhaps strikers, Jamie Redknapp is simply bland, and the best that can be said for Alan 'Pards' Pardew's contribution is that it is now over.

And now, BT Sport are finally catching up. They are helped, perhaps, that their Premier League broadcasts are generally focussed on a single night: the 5.30pm kick-off on a Saturday, meaning they can roll out their big guns together. The improvement in their coverage has been belated, but it's finally here. They have had a quality of commentator to rival Sky since they started - Darren Fletcher is behind Martin Tyler but ahead of all others - while the indecipherable whooping and hollering of Steve McManaman was the perfect score to United and Arsenal's thrilling slugfest on Saturday.

Where the biggest improvement has come has been their post-game show, Premier League Tonight. Up to the last couple of weeks, this has consisted of host Jake Humphrey asking some A-List pundits (Ferdinand, Scholes, Gerrard, Lampard) to read out the "three-word match reports" tweeted to them by fans, who were also invited to give their post-game reaction to the quivering camera of their phone.

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It seemed oddly obsessed with making the show about the viewer, beseeching the viewer to "get involved" in the sport that the channel have snatched off them and put behind an expensive paywall.

This was a waste of the expensive talent at their disposal. Have a look at this clip from last season, and Paul Scholes' heroic disinterest in the nuanced analysis of @FinancialBear.

This has finally changed, however, and now the show are finally giving their studio guests space to breathe.

Rather than crowbar in a symbolic word for West Brom, much of last Saturday's show was left to Rio Ferdinand and Martin Keown to discuss the glory days rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal, with Frank Lampard reprising his role as a very interested - and interesting - bystander. Heck, even Graham Poll offered something to it all.

It uncovered a few nuggets, particularly this from Martin Keown.

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To give you an idea as to Alex Ferguson's influence: with England, we would land back from away trips in Luton. Ferguson said no, he wanted us to land in Manchester, and we landed in Manchester, because he felt there were more players in the north-west.

That man had his foot in every camp.

So when it was my turn to play against him, I made sure after the semi-final of the FA Cup when he really got in the referee's face, I made sure that he would never get that comfort again.

So whenever we played them, at half-time I made sure I was first in the tunnel, looking for Alex Ferguson. Making sure that I could block his pathway to the referee.

I wasn't going to beat up an old man, I was just going to ferry him away from the referee.

I didn't necessarily have to ever do it...but I was keeping an eye on him.

The referee that day [in the Cup semi-final] had fear in his eyes, and I could not believe the fury with which he went after this referee. So I thought I couldn't let that happen again.

The trigger for this new approach seems to have been a fabulous, ten-minute conversation between Ferdinand, Lampard, and Gerrard on the failures of the England set-up during the supposed Golden Generation the week previous, as all three pondered how their internecine club rivalries festered unconsciously during international duty.

Ferdinand is hewn from the blithe attitude of Alex Ferguson, and his no-nonsense approach is fierce without lapsing into the 'footballers these days' attitude that sometimes detracts from Graeme Souness' musings. Frank Lampard is a deeply intelligent and erudite man, and even Steven Gerrard adds a certain compelling, grim-faced existentialism when not talking about Liverpool. (He seems to bring baggage everywhere, and here is no different, as he can't comment on the club objectively for as long as they are guiding his coaching career).

Problems remain, with host Jake Humphrey not yet adept at bringing the best out of his panel. He seems to wish to be taken as one of the boys, and rather than sit back and listen to footballers with unrivalled experience speak about something they know best he reverts to an infuriating habit of trying to relate to them through b****r, with one gag on Saturday night about Keown threatening to get in Ferdinand's face as he did to Van Nistelrooy all those years ago particularly painful. Also, Humphrey is still instructed to read tweets, and while rightly not using them to direct the conversation to wildly off topic, he is compromised into reading nauseating, self-congratulatory praise.

Were Humphrey to realise the role so perfectly carved by the late Bill O'Herlihy, that it is the host's job to convey that they essentially knows nothing and the answers lie with his guests, BT will be onto a winner.

It's a different show to Monday Night Football, but now, BT's offering deserves to be held in high esteem when it comes to offering intelligent, informative debate on football.

And the production minds behind the show are greater than you may assume: they've managed to successfully accommodate Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the same side.

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

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