BY GLENN BILLINGHAM

Match of the Day is an institution, and Gary Lineker is the latest in a long line of agreeable hosts who provide the heavenly gifts of goals and action from all of Saturday’s football matches. Even in these modern times of ours, where there are sometimes only five or six matches actually played on a Saturday, and all shown live somewhere and somehow, MOTD hasn’t lost its appeal or magnetism. Which, thinking about it, is quite miraculous.

Gary Lineker exudes a certain ‘cool’, beard or no beard. Image from here.

As a re-cap, or an introduction if you’ve never heard of MOTD, here’s a brief synopsis of the show. The wonderfully nostalgic title sequence and theme tune cut purposefully through the Saturday night air. For those in the immediate vicinity of a television, this awakens them from the depressing slump of watching both the national and local news. For those who aren’t near a television, the legendary theme tune is a calling, which summons the masses back home from the pub, and stumbling towards their sofa. Gary, looking a bit too healthy, and wearing a freshly ironed shirt, will introduce his two expert pundits,and provide a sneak peek of the pulsating action to come. After each game, Lineker invites the two expert pundits to talk through the most controversial moments featured in the highlights reel. Usually these consist of; dubious handballs, borderline penalty calls, rash tackles, very minor handbags and disputable red cards. The experts, decked out in plain coloured, and often tight-fitting shirts, which lend the suspicion they’ve come directly from a Next sale, then delve into the fine art of stating the bleeding obvious. Before debate gets too healthy, Lineker will gently interject with mild humour before re-directing our attention to the next match, and the cycle continues. Regrettably, it’s all bland, mostly scripted, and therefore lacking in depth or genuine insight. Like many, and despite the plethora of other more reasonably timed football highlight shows available, I’m still not deterred.

Each and every Saturday, I try to steer clear of any football scores, which is easier said than done. I’ll ignore TV screens, carefully screen all calls, and steer clear of sports bars. Twitter goes unchecked, messages unopened, and sports news websites closed down. Reason being, I believe there are few pleasures sweeter than sitting down to watch MOTD in blissful ignorance of any full-time scores. Even if I slip, and learn a final score, that somehow does little to detract the child-like excitement of hearing the theme tune. Match of the Day is a national treasure, and each show has the potential to make a grown man feel like a five year-old boy on Christmas morning.

However, for every moment of exuberant optimism before 10.30pm, there comes disappointment and teeth-grinding frustration shortly after. Initially in waves, lasting a few moments in-between each of the match highlights. At first, it’s fine. The kettle goes on, and the tea making process is complete by the time the experts have stumbled through their scripted analysis. However, as the football is sandwiched between waves of frustratingly predictable chatter, there’s only so much tea a man can drink before a pending bedtime. I, like many others, am left with no choice but to sit, watch, and listen as Alan Shearer presents the fruits of his last two hours with the match footage, a computer, and a tactical editing tool.

Due to its overwhelming popularity, and despite sentiments above, it can be difficult to criticise MOTD. However, if one thing was apparent throughout the nicely-edited and protracted fiftieth birthday celebrations, it was that not too much about the show has changed in half a century. Of course, the same cannot be said about the sport covered.

Change, though, is naturally a contentious subject whatever the context, and a TV show with over fifty years of history is no different. Gary Lineker only stopped wearing a full suit in the early 2000’s. Rightfully, the ‘what’ Match of the Day does will hopefully never change. Showing football highlights is a simple premise, yet the ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘for whom’ should all be open for debate.

A choppy and fresh journey across the North Sea to the Netherlands affords a poignant contrast regarding the ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘for whom’. The ever forward thinking Dutch update their football fans in two parts; one show for football, and another show for talking. On a Sunday, usually late afternoon or early evening to include all the weekend’s fixtures, NOS Sport will run through all the games, goals, and highlights. Pragmatic, without a script, and deliciously unfussy, the Sunday show is all action.

A lone man in a studio gives the quickest introduction to each match, and concludes with the latest table. ‘You know all you need to know. Go and have dinner folks, you’ve got work and school tomorrow morning’, seems to be the reassuring message. Those who like to see experts healthily debate the weekly controversy, tactics, talking points, and narratives, aren’t disappointed either. For on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening, there exists a ninety minute football talk show, again hosted by the Dutch Gary Lineker. Also without a script, and deliciously unfussy, five or six experts sit around a table and talk. There’s a live studio audience, and it’s not uncommon for current day players, managers, and even referees to appear on the panel, alongside the regular pundits. All of whom have had three or four days to digest their emotion, reflect, do some research, and come prepared for genuine debate. Their analysis goes a little deeper than arguing about the latest handball law interpretations, and the simple fact that it’s not scripted makes for compelling viewing.

Ruud Gullit guests on NOS Studio Voetbal. Image from here.

In addition to its regular pundits, MOTD has, in fairness, hosted a fascinating list of special guests, including; Russell Brand, England manager Roy Hodgson, Noel Gallagher, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. Their presence positively shakes up the sometimes overly politically correct BBC status quo, but it’s not enough. Bless them and Gary for trying, but the home truth is that they’re only operating under the same time constraints, dress code, script, and rules as the regular pundits.

In the most recent show, with the curious pairing of ex-Everton manager David Moyes, and Jermaine Jenas as pundits, the 3-3 draw between Chelsea and Everton received top billing. First in the fabled running order, the match was something of a modern classic. Six goals, attacking football, a feisty challenge or two, errors, own goals, a John Terry vs. John Stones narrative, and a whopping eight minutes of time added on. The concept of time added on could be well worth looking into for the show’s producers as the time allocated for three men to discuss the highlights, tactically analyse the match, and resolve the controversial moments, was three minutes and twenty-five seconds.

Somewhere in a parallel universe, it’s Thursday 21st January 2016, and an agreeable half-past eight in the evening. Gary Lineker is in a slightly different studio. The MOTD name and branding remains, but it all looks, sounds, and feels different. David Moyes is a guest, and he’s sitting next to current Everton manager Roberto Martinez, another guest. The pair briefly discuss Saturday’s result, before spontaneously moving on to a much more interesting discussion about Everton’s curious form this season. Both men offer some frank admissions under the banner of  mutual respect. Other guests, including a surprisingly affable Jose Mourinho and delightful Kolo Toure, lend a convivial air, and personal reference points to the Everton debate. Later, Toure offers insight to Liverpool’s transition under Jurgen Klopp, and many a true word is spoken in jest as Moyes and Mourinho discuss the fragility of Louis van Gaal’s position at Manchester United. Oh, and the Saturday night highlights show is limited to just Gary, the football, and some post-match interviews. It’s also aired at an agreeable half-past eight in the evening.

Granted, it may be difficult to get such a cast together on a weekly basis, but one must assume it’s also far from impossible. An extended, discussion-based Match of the Day show would provide players, managers and referees with a respectable platform to communicate their view of the footballing world, and bringing it together under the careful blanket of Lineker’s handling would benefit all. We might even realise that these people are only human, after all. We’d learn a little more about them as people and therefore be in a better position to accept their decisions and performances the following Saturday.

If a Saturday night football show can go largely unchanged in fifty-two years as football vigorously evolves, anything is possible.

BBC-Match-of-the-Day-History

MotD celebrated its 50th birthday in 2014, which was nice. Image from here.

YOU CAN FOLLOW GLENN ON TWITTER @glennbills AND CHECK OUT HIS BLOG HERE www.glennbillingham.com

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