Is the match on the telly? It was once the kind of question that could at least bring some sort of certainty to your day.
You knew how you were fixed.
It would be wrong to call them simpler times, or better times. Since more often than not, the match wasn’t on the telly, which was always a setback.
And of course there were much darker times when the match was never on the telly, when you never even considered the possibility, and instead spent the evening twiddling dials to coax updates from Peter Jones at 909 kHz. Or hit page 316 on Ceefax.
No, those weren’t the good old days.
But as recently as six months ago, we could at least make a reasonable fist of answering the big question. We instinctively seemed to know if the match was on the telly, and where on the telly it might be found.
Somehow, that kind of clarity has got away from us.
Instead, there is confusion and often there is worry; a nagging feeling that the match is probably on the telly if only you knew where to look, or how to tell your telly where to look.
The match might be on RTÉ or Sky or BBC or ITV or BT or Eir or Virgin. Or possibly Eleven or Amazon or YouTube or Facebook.
The new normal was in play on Wednesday night during the quest for Carabao Cup highlights, which could eventually be found, suitably, on Quest.
This confusion arguably took hold a few years ago when Sky moved Sky Sports 1 — traditionally, the spiritual home of the match on the telly — from channel 401 to 402.
It was a small, ceremonial gesture, which sensible people railed against at the time, but which we can now interpret as an attempt to prepare us for the life of uncertainty which lay ahead. An effort to give us the foraging skills for the quest.
Now, even your telly no longer seems entirely sure of itself, in this complicated arena.
“Check if your subscription allows you to receive this channel”, it instructs us, when we land on a channel that is ostensibly showing the match, but not showing us the match.
And while there were once people fortunate enough to be shown all the matches, you would now need to be playing in the matches to earn the wages to watch them all. And those lads probably have better things to do.
So we are in a state of some disarray at the moment, with some giving up on the matches altogether, or at least on paying for the matches.
And others giving up on the telly, at least until they can figure out how to plug the ‘unofficial’ source of the matches into the telly. And others who haven’t seen a telly in a long time, or a match, and ‘follow’ a club via viral clips on their phones.
This ‘fragmentation’ of the market is still bringing in more cash for the clubs playing in the matches, though as more ‘customers’ drop out, that is hardly a sustainable state of affairs.
Just this week, HBO said goodbye to boxing matches, ruling that too many fights were being distributed to too many places.
All of which seems to suggest another shake-up is around the corner. Maybe the clubs will soon be taking back the matches, that you will soon go to Manchester United directly if you want to see all the Manchester United matches on your telly.
Or, as United vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who wants to take on Netflix and Amazon, whatever about Liverpool and City, put it: “Whichever way the rapidly evolving media landscape unfolds, content generators are uniquely placed to be the beneficiaries.”
That’s been United’s business model for some time, to be a provider of “original compelling content”, to be, in managing director Richard Arnold’s words, “the biggest TV show in the world”.
That will require more than football matches, of course. It will require viral bantz from lads like Lings. And it may even suit Manchester United’s purposes to have fans following the club who don’t necessarily watch the matches.
Though it will perturb Woodward and Arnold to find that, even on the one day their club bested its neighbours last season, it was Manchester City that generated the most compelling content from that match.
The best bits of the Amazon All or Nothing series chronicling City’s title-winning season follow that 3-2 defeat by United.
If Fabian Delph can’t quite nail down a place in midfield or at full-back for City, he may have a bright future at the club as a content provider.
“Fuck’s sake, fucking shit, fucking useless, fuck me, fucking hell,” was Delph’s initial, incisive reaction to that derby disappointment, before providing a more thorough debrief to his gloomy teammates.
“I know what you mean,” replies Pep Guardiola patiently, with the air of a man used to waiting until the loudest voice has finished before pointing out things mightn’t be as simple as all that.
“It’s not about running. When you lose you think we didn’t run, that is bullshit guys. Running is not the point. No guys no. Football is so complicated in high level, guys.”
It was an entertaining glimpse of dressing room reality.
And yet, when the Sky cameras arrived at Manchester United’s training ground this week, Jose Mourinho was able to show once again he’s the right man for a club anxious to take on Amazon, providing compelling viral reality TV content without even the use of an audio feed.
Despite their evolving spat, United have since indicated neither Paul Pogba — who undoubtedly outperformed Quest broadcasting his own Carabao Cup highlights to his 28 million Instagram followers — or Mourinho will be departing any time soon.
And why would they? After all, however the season unfolds, content generators are uniquely placed to be the beneficiaries.
As I walked round a shop the other day, Ronan Keating was asking Baby Can I Hold You.
As always, I thought of Dave Whelan, a colleague from days working in the bank in Dublin.
Dave was always singing it at work, giving it absolute socks, Keating style.
I didn’t know him too well, but he enjoyed the noble sport of office chair spinning and he was always smiling.
He was taken shockingly early, but I’m sure there are many people walking around shops all over the country and beyond who randomly think of his smile, five years on.
Working on the Liam Miller match over the last few weeks, that’s what struck you too; the number of people ready to testify about those treasured little memories he will gift them.
From his friend Graham Barrett recalling those feeds Miller made up for both their sons in the middle of the night, to his old athletics coach Mrs Hinchion, who cherished the memento he gave her until she died.
You could tell this was a young man who deserved a special day.
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