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Football broadcasting is currently at a crossroads, and the decline in quality has been stark

As broadcasters try to attract a new generation of viewers, the standard of analysis, commentary and presentation is being sacrificed, writes Phil West

Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At Wembley last May, as the big Scot calmly shifted the ball to his right before thumping it past a flat-footed David Stockdale, Sky Sports’ Gary Weaver added an extra layer of magic to Ross Stewart’s decisive goal in the League One playoff final against Wycombe.

It’s Ross Stewart!

Sunderland took over Trafalgar Square last night, and now they’re taking over football’s most famous landmark!

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

Weaver had already called Elliot Embleton’s opening goal in poetic fashion (‘His city, his people’) and this was a perfect way to wrap it up. It was simple, powerful and brilliant, the sort of quote that fitted the moment perfectly and will live long in the memory of anyone who heard it.

On the other hand, it was also an incredibly rare occurrence, because in recent times, football broadcasting has taken an alarming downturn, to the point where it’s almost impossible to ignore.

Saturday night’s UEFA Champions League final, live on BT (soon to be TNT) Sport, was a new low water mark for televised football in just about every single area.

From Jake Humphrey trying to moderate a panel of guests including a visibly uncomfortable Mario Balotelli, to a never ending stream of rambling, parochial co-commentary from Steve McManaman that would’ve made Alan Partridge cringe, the entire programme was a masterclass in how not to present European football’s most prestigious game to an eager audience.

FC Internazionale v Manchester City FC - UEFA Champions League Final 2022/23 Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

Sadly, this apparent lack of care and attention makes a lot of sense, because in recent years, some of the true greats have slowly been phased out in favour of low-quality alternatives who can barely string a coherent sentence together, and in some cases, people with startlingly little knowledge of football.

At the end of the 2022/2023 season, the best sports presenter on UK television, Jeff Stelling, stood down from Soccer Saturday after a near thirty year run which saw him win a place in the affections of football fans across the country.

With his panel of animated guests, a rolling vidi printer and an army of roving reporters to keep tabs on, Stelling made Saturday afternoons entertaining, engaging and unmissable through a mixture of humour, encyclopaedic knowledge, razor-sharp wit, and sheer attention to detail.

However, that era now feels like a long time ago and the future doesn’t exactly look appealing, particularly for football fans of a certain vintage.

Tune into Sky Sports News at any given time of the week, particularly during mid-season, and the chances are you’ll see would-be rap artists, social media ‘influencers’ and YouTube nonentities offering their own unique take on the game we love, usually in embarrassing fashion.

Are the broadcasters willing to sacrifice genuine quality for gimmicks simply to chase viewing figures? Are they now targeting a certain demographic and effectively saying, ‘To hell with everyone else’?

There are plenty of exceptional lead commentators still on the scene, among them Peter Drury, Ian Darke and Clive Tyldesley, all of whom have made big games over the years, whether domestically or internationally, that much more special. Combine any of them with someone like Ally McCoist, and you’ve got a sure fire winning combination.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester City v Southampton - Etihad Stadium Photo by Mike Egerton - PA Images via Getty Images

However, they’re all underused and last season, you’d tune into Premier League games on Sky to be greeted with the sound of Martin Tyler commentating with all the enthusiasm of a man announcing vital engineering works on the East Coast Main Line as Gary Neville or Jamie Carragher desperately tried to keep things from falling completely flat.

On ITV, it’s often been a similar story for England fixtures, as Sam Matterface and Lee Dixon drone their way through every game as if reading a telephone directory aloud, with Dixon’s only leanings towards enthusiasm coming when criticising Jordan Pickford for getting caught in a situation in which he ‘could’ve done better’.

It’s almost as if the television companies are thumbing their nose at viewers and saying, ‘Keep paying, suckers, because we don’t care about declining quality as long as the viewing figures are steady and the subscription fees keep rolling in’.

When I was young, Roger Tames was the man who made some of Sunderland’s most memorable games even more special, with his masterful commentary the soundtrack to the glory days of the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s.

I’m talking about the demolitions of Millwall in 1996 (‘Oh, they’re walking on water today!’) and Bury in 1999 (‘Sunderland are absolutely on fire now, and they’re burning a path to the Premiership’), and his call of Stephen Elliott’s winner in 2005 (‘That could be the goal that wins the Championship! Oh, has he done it in style!’).

These were moments you couldn’t forget, and after we made the Premier League in 1999, it was the likes of Rob Hawthorne on Sky and Jon Champion, John Motson and Tony Gubba on the BBC who made Sunderland matches that much more engaging. If you weren’t there in person and could only catch the highlights, you knew that you’d be in for a treat.

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Portsmouth v Bolton Wanderers - Fratton Park Photo by Tony Marshall - PA Images via Getty Images

I’d love football coverage to get back to how it used to be, with no inane ‘banter’, cliche-free commentary, and as little filler as possible.

Subscription rates for televised sports packages aren’t cheap, after all, and in these tough financial times, it’s the least the viewing public deserves if they’re putting their hard-earned money into the pockets of the media giants.


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