I don’t like to use the word infamous lightly, but it is a word that I would use to describe BBC One’s ‘The Football League Show’.
The programme was launched in 2009 – after the BBC obtained the rights to show live Championship matches and highlights from the Football League – and the remit was very much focused on offering something new.
Unlike ITV’s Football League highlights package, which included ‘Football League Extra’ and ‘The Championship’, it was presented in a studio rather than an empty ground.
It certainly wasn’t seen as a low-key affair; the package was a big thing for the BBC and the programme’s producer, IGM Sports Media.
The early days
Even the opening titles were different. Again, unlike ITV’s offerings, there weren’t any shots of crests and managers in 2009. There were fans wearing their replica shirt over a Hi-Viz jacket, and doing cartwheels outside a train station. It was meant to be real football for real fans.
The opening minutes of the very first edition were bold, too. Take, for example, presenter Manish Bhasin’s introduction on 8 August 2009.
“Yes, good evening and a warm welcome to the brand new ‘Football League Show’ as we aim to bring you every goal across all three divisions. By the way, there’s only 95 just to squeeze in tonight. Over the next 40 weeks, we’d also love to hear from you. Have you got the right manager in charge? Have you got the right players in the team, perhaps? What about your result this afternoon? Here’s Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes as to how you can get in touch.”
And the second edition was no better, with Bhasin saying:
“The best opening day attendance figures for nearly 50 years show exactly what the Football League means to its fans. And, if that first week threw up some extraordinary results, then let me tell you, today was no less dramatic.”
The attitude taken by the programme – and Bhasin – was overzealous and condensing. They felt that the Football League was exciting; so exciting that it should be alike forcing half a dozen chicken balti pies down your throat at once.
Other elements of the programme were just as preachy. Steve Claridge was recruited to act as the programme’s pundit. During the first edition, Bhasin described him as “a man who knows the Football League inside out”.
But, at best, he has been unbearable to watch during its tenure. Clichés were often, and incoherently, bandied around with a swagger of arrogance. For a show that is broadcasting beyond midnight on a Saturday, it was the wrong tone.
There was also an ‘interactivity’ element, where Greenwood-Hughes read out texts and e-mails from viewers.
As a troubled indictor of this segment’s quality, the first five messages were about Newcastle United: four of them stated that Alan Shearer should become their manager, and one was about Tim Krul being stung by a wasp. A further two messages, during the first edition, supported Shearer.
Greenwood-Hughes also patronisingly said “well done” to a Peterborough United fan, who thought that their defeat at Derby County was a “starting block for a good season”.
During the first series, there was a slight obsession with Newcastle; on most occasions, their matches were shown first.
Within just a few minutes of the first edition, Bhasin said:
“Well, you [Claridge] mentioned the big teams, no doubt the big talking point of the Championship is Newcastle. Who’ll buy them? Who’ll be their manager? And can they bounce back at the first time of asking? Well, we got some sort of pointer to that last question, at least, when they travelled to West Brom, a game you might have seen a little earlier on BBC One.”
And then there was Mark Clemmit, a man who was equally enthusiastic talking about Torquay’s “postcard image” or about “Cardiff City’s swanky, new, £15 million stadium”.
That’s perfectly fine, but there was no light and shade to his presentation – the joviality felt like a façade, at the very least.
He presented two items: a feature about a team in the Football League – particularly if they had changed stadiums or managers – and ‘Potted History’, a collection of ‘wacky’ facts about another team.
These two segments rarely lasted more than a few minutes, but listening to Clemmit often felt like being forced to down a couple of pints after vomiting on the balti pies.
However, the amount of actual football shown was proportionally low. Over 22 minutes of the 75-minute time slot was spent on Championship football, and just under half of that was used for two games: Newcastle United v West Bromwich Albion and Derby County v Peterborough United.
Over 11 minutes was dedicated to League 1 highlights, while nearly nine minutes was used for League 2 football.
The format factory
In a way, you could say that ‘The Football League Show’ was an experiment during its earliest editions. Before 2009, there were two other similar experiments that flopped: ITV’s ‘The Premiership’ and the launch of Channel 5.
The former, which started in 2001, had a number of new features including a teatime screening, Townsend’s Tactics Truck and Terry Venables’ ProZone analysis. All three of those items were scrapped within a matter of weeks.
Channel 5’s launch in 1997 was also troubled. Its flagship programme, ‘Family Affairs’, wasn’t originally a soap about a community, it was pitched as a soap about just one family.
Its early schedules were also “stripped”, a tactic that was normally reserved for digital television. In fact, it often felt like a satellite channel.
Furthermore, two of its main sport presenters were Dominik Diamond, best known for presenting Channel 4’s ‘GamesMaster’, and Gail McKenna, a former Page Three model and future ‘How 2’ presenter.
The channel quickly obtained broadcasting rights for the Poland versus England international, but it was transmitted from a London sports café with stars from ‘Family Affairs’ and ‘Gladiators’. Claridge was also given his own role, in the form of providing betting news and analysis.
Channel 5’s reputation for its sports coverage never recovered from this moment – even if they managed to take an interest in the UEFA Intertoto Cup, Eredivisie and Primeira Liga.
The problem with these two examples, and ‘The Football League Show’, is there was an eagerness to please that went too far. They tried to add too many new gimmicks at once, while failing to get the basics right.
A slow improvement
But changes have been made to ‘The Football League Show’. The show is now pre-recorded, which led to the interactive element and Greenwood-Hughes being dropped in 2011.
Clemmit remained, despite the quiet axing of his ‘Potted History’ segment, although the insufferable enthusiasm remains.
Claridge’s role has also been reduced, being partially replaced by Leroy Rosenior. His gentle tone is suited to the programme’s late transmission time, and he also comes across as intelligent and well informed on occasions.
Bhasin’s interest in the Football League seems more genuine in 2013 than in 2009, and the programme’s overzealous attitude has been toned down.
For example, Bhasin introduced an edition, on 23 February 2013, by saying:
“Good evening, and we’ve become increasingly used to managerial chopping and changing in the nPower Football League. But this week, though, it seems to have stepped up a gear. Out went Paolo Di Canio and Dean Holdsworth, while in came Paul Ince, Simon Grayson and Andy Scott. Not to mention Alan Knill, now covering for Martin Ling over at Torquay. And they’ve all, of course, got to hit the ground running with points becoming more precious by the week. A warm welcome tonight to Steve, as we reflect on a busy day across all three divisions.”
This change in tone is seen in the new titles sequence, which was introduced in 2012. The focus is on the past – with images of Brian Clough and Glenn Hoddle – to remind viewers that football existed before 1992.
It isn’t ideal, but it is a sight more preferable than a John Westwood-esque figure dancing around in a circle.
Also, in 2013, ‘The Football League Show’ is now broadcasting more football than in 2009.
For example, on 23 February 2013, nearly 28 minutes were dedicated to Championship matches and nearly 15 minutes were spent on League 1. Furthermore, there was over ten minutes of League 2 football.
By comparing the editions on 8 August 2009 and 23 February 2013, the amount of actual highlights being broadcasted has increased by 20.32%. It must also be mentioned that both shows were 75-minutes long. (NB: this chart provides a more detailed comparison.)
The programme’s quality has slowly improved to an acceptable level and, for the most part, it is now perfectly watchable.
But there are still doubts of whether the programme requires a punditry element, particularly when Claridge is at the helm.
A back-to-basics format is recommended, where just the goals are shown, à la ITV’s ‘Football League Extra’.
If its length remains at 75 minutes, then more action can be shown – particularly as its coverage of League 2 feels rushed – but the producers would be wise to reduce the running time by 15 minutes or even half an hour.
It may look like a step backwards, but it would get the most out of a format that is difficult to produce with such short lead times.
‘The Football League Show’ may have its critics, and there is still room for improvement, but it has changed since 2009. And it is all the better for it.