It is hard to imagine now, but as lately as 16 years ago it hadn’t crossed the fine minds at Sky Sports that people would watch men watching football.
So Jeff Stelling — in turn with Paul Dempsey — presided instead over Sports Saturday; a bit of everything and mainly nothing. It was the kind of setup that broadcast horse racing on ice, or where a synchronised swimming troupe would arrive in studio to perform their full routine, only to find the scarcity of water make them look like, as Paul Merson would later put it, a fish up a tree.
But in 1998 somebody had the big idea and the terrible beauty of Soccer Saturday was born. Even then, nobody was convinced this could work. So George Best, Frank McLintock and the lads would chat about the upcoming matches until around ten-to-three when they would hide from view somewhere else in the studio and ‘phone’ in their match reports — as though they had been teleported to the grounds.
It wasn’t until a little later that the fine minds felt we were ready to move beyond this paper-thin deception and actually look at George and Frank, watching and yelping.
As Jeff recalls, in his book Jelleyman’s Thrown a Wobbly, he knew something remarkable and a little disturbing was happening when he read an interview with Patsy Kensit — who had to, let’s remember, put up with a lot in those days — describe her husband Liam Gallagher’s weirdest habit; watching four ex-footballers in bad suits watching football on the telly.
Despite ourselves and our revulsion for what we had become, people were tuning in. And as they realised we would watch this, TV producers and radio producers and newspaper editors and magazine publishers were buoyed by what we have come to recognise as “unbelievable belief”.
A fresh avalanche of football talk was triggered.
At first, these were heady, exhilarating days with wild, incessant discussion of mind games and flashpoints and conspiracies and grudges and, yes, controvassy. And it can be no coincidence English football’s great modern rivalry came out of those times.
But somewhere along the way, maybe all the football talk became a bit much. And maybe it all led us to this week and a moment Patsy, with limited patience for husbands, surely could not have tolerated in her own house.
On Wednesday night, we watched RTÉ’s football men analyse ITV’s football men’s own analysis of their football careers. And somehow you knew we had finally gorged ourselves sicker than Kagawa on football talk.
Before I am tempted to analyse RTÉ’s analysis of Keane & Vieira: The Best of Enemies (Billo found Roy very engaging) and set off some kind of infinite loop that brings us all down; let’s tie a knot in this right here.
But as we become tearfully nostalgic over events that have slipped barely a decade into memory and as we wonder why Vidic v Drogba or Yaya v Scholes or Lampard v Fletcher never got the juices flowing like Roy v Paddy, perhaps it’s worth considering that we just talked ourselves out.
Eventually, perhaps so many talking points piled high every day, we could no longer join the dots and focus on the big picture.
From here, all we can do is begin the scaleback operation. And thankfully, a potential hero has already presented himself. Mike Ashley wants to charge the media for talking to Newcastle players.
The big man has already done his bit to stem the tide of football talk by banning several newspapers from his club.
Now his people have devised a scheme where they will grant, for an appropriate fee, bronze, silver or gold access to outlets interested in shooting the breeze with Geordie heroes.
We don’t know yet how it will work; perhaps bronze entitles you to ‘Taylor Relishes Challenge’, while silver will earn you ‘Debuchy Hits Out’ or gold might entitle you to ‘Cabaye Lifts Lid’.
However it works, you can only admire Mike’s gumption in entering what is surely a buyer’s market. And while you can’t see his entrepreneurship having too many takers, it is high time somebody put a price on talk.
Because it has become cheap enough.
Failing to deal with sins of the past
We all know a couple of nearly men footballers who still wrestle with regret because they never made the trip “across the water”.
But perhaps a few thirty- and forty-somethings are finding it a little easier to let go recently, as they begin to realise what a young hopeful would have endured in English League dressing rooms in the 80s and 90s.
We have already heard a little about the ‘naked torment’ Manchester United’s ‘class of 92’ faced at the hands of senior colleagues.
This week, there were ugly — and yet unproven — allegations in court about alleged goings on at Stoke City in the 80s.
You can read about the murky details elsewhere, but let’s just say that, knowing footballers and their love of the bantz, it is a small surprise that nobody in court roared: “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.”
But really, even in different times, some of the bullying that happened is no laughing matter.
And even if Stoke denies the more serious allegations, there was something depressingly self-serving about the club’s attempts to stop this case proceeding.
“If one is taking the lid off Pandora’s box, it is not likely to be an isolated event,” argued Stoke’s barrister Nicholas Fewtrell.
“This practice of punishments, pranks and initiations will have been common at clubs in all sports.”
In other words, never mind the rights and wrongs, if this goes against us, we are all going to pay.
Football, even at times like this, never looks far beyond the bottom line.
GAA’s unholy show
You have to suspect, had Dermot Morgan been spared and Father Ted returned for a fourth season; Linehan and Matthews would have had to consider the comic potential in restructuring the Craggy Island Gaelic football championship. You could well imagine Ted, chain-smoking and furious, working long into the night at the head of a committee that has been given just one instruction — when restructuring the championship, everything is up for grabs except one small detail; you must not actually restructure the championship.
Eventually Dougal would come up with the goods.
When you’re beaten in Craggy Island North, you transfer to Rugged Island South, where you’ll be expected to lose again ASAP to keep the Rugged Island crowd happy.
Ted, ebullient, in one of those fleeting moments of exhilaration: “I think it might work, Dougal. I know it’ll work. It will work.”
“It won’t work, will it Ted?”
“It won’t, no.”
Is there anything to be said for saying another Mass?
HEROES & VILLAINS
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
Diego Maradona: It’s a fanciful story from the Argentinean tabloids and it would be harsh on poor old AVB, but Diego at Spurs; that would justify a whole new wave of football talk.
Barcelona’s commercial department: ‘Intel Inside’ printed inside the shirts. €15million. Hats off – and shirts over the head at least ten times a season.
John Mooney: And colleagues. While their English counterparts have been busy undoing any chance they had of recognition at tomorrow’s SPOTY shindig, our own cricketers can feel aggrieved they have been overlooked for next weekend’s RTÉ Sports Awards.
HELL IN A HANDCART
MLB Rules Committee: Collisions at home plate are set to be outlawed from next year. No word yet on when they will ask the lads on the mound to stop throwing it quite so hard.
Formula 1: Double points in the final race to keep people interested? Why not throw in picture and music rounds too?
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