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Lincoln, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom
Senior news reporter at the Grimsby Telegraph, UEA History graduate, former BBC Kick Off sports reporter & Lincoln City fan.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The sad state of English football journalism

Sunday, 23 January 2011
Written by Matt Scrafton.

Why do we continue to persevere with such poor standards of football analysis? Football is the most popular sport on the planet, yet why is British coverage of Formula 1 and Cricket infinitely superior?

Following today's allegations that Sky Sports presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys made sexist comments towards the female lines woman during their commentary of Liverpool's 3-0 victory away at Wolves, it got me thinking - just why is it that our country has such low standards of football journalism?

Football journalism is in a poor way at the minute, preferring to employ ex-professionals to sit on their couches and in radio studios to discuss the latest happenings in the world of football. First of all I'd like to ask - what's the obsession with employing ex-professionals? Logically, you'd think the best pundits will be those who have played the game at the highest level. But apart from the odd individual (I'm thinking Clarence Seedorf, Leonardo, Lee Dixon etc.), that doesn't appear to be the case. It's a depressing state of affairs when people like Alan Shearer are considered "football experts", and proceed to tell us how "a simple 4-4-2 formation is always the most effective" and how shin high challenges are okay "because the man won the ball". It's infuriating to think that goons like Shearer, along with his clueless pals Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen are declared experts of the game, when there are far more knowledgeable journalists that watch football on a world-wide scale, not just typical Premier League fanboys. Shearer may be clued up on Tyneside and possibly the English game as a whole, but does he really deserve the opportunity to voice his opinion on England's mainstream broadcasting channel? Renowned names in the world of football were 'foreign' to Shearer during the World Cup, would this occur in other sports? And it wasn't just Shearer, the BBC's coverage of the World Cup in general was an embarrassment from start to finish; it beggars belief that people that get paid massive salaries to basically watch football for the entire year, say things like "can't say I know anything about the Slovenian team". I do love Alan Shearer, he was my footballing hero when I was growing up and was a phenomenal striker, but as a pundit? Just no. The time when he and Alan Hansen were laughing over Karl Henry's attempt to break Joey Barton's leg on Match of the Day pushed me over the edge.

Compare the state of football punditry and commentary to that of cricket, and Formula 1; two sports that are far less popular than football. The pundits know their sports inside out, they are articulate, well-versed and not at all patronising when putting their balanced views across. They speak to the nation as informed fans of the sport; not a collective group of children that aren't familiar with basic concepts of a sport. The BBC are able to produce a fantastic coverage of Formula 1, with the informed views of ex-drivers Martin Brundle and David Coulthard, the somewhat erratic yet utterly compelling opinions of ex-team boss Eddie Jordan and a young, dedicated presenter in Jake Humphreys. 

Is it too much to ask to have mainstream television and radio shows presented by someone like James Richardson? Or Gabriele Marcotti? Guillem Ballague? It would be great to have top journalists alongside ex-professionals to give a more rounded view of the game. I mean, look at the who the BBC have employed to lead their popular 606 radio phone-in show; none other than Robbie Savage. Apparently people find him entertaining? Can't say he does anything for me. But one thing I can say is; he's an ignorant buffoon. I once remember him commenting on Man City's Yaya Toure when sitting in the commentary booth during the Man City v Liverpool game; "I never knew this lad was this slow, how did he get in the Barcelona team?". It's damn right ignorant comments like that, that irk me and fellow like minded individuals. I'm not saying I'd make a brilliant pundit or commentator, but I'm only a casual fan who enjoys watching the Premier League, The Football League, Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga amongst others; so I'm pretty confident I'm more informed than Savage.

606 co-host Robbie Savage, a man that declares he "says it how it is"

The worrying thing for me is, the majority of the fans that watch MOTD take their word as gospel and spout the same drivel when talking to their mates down the pub, or whatever location they choose to discuss their beloved sport. I'd be the first to admit that Shearer is a terrible pundit, and worryingly ignorant; despite being my footballing idol since I was a young child. Hansen's terrible, so is Lawrenson. Mark Bright and Garth Crooks (once said Dover v Gillingham wasn't a real derby because no one really cares about the game) make for terrible viewing on the Final Score programme on Saturday afternoons. Even Lineker doesn't know much, but he's not a bad presenter so I suppose he get's away with it. The only guy I don't mind on the BBC is Lee Dixon, he's not too bad and seems quite clued up tactically, but 
but has a tendency to just agree with the others on the panel, particularly to avoid conflict

It seems that a lot of people within football have a bizzarely arrogant attitude, suggesting that the bigger name you are, the more your opinion matters. I mean, it's not like we want to hear balanced, informed views about the game do we? We just want to be told the basics of the game by the most famous and talented ex-footballers available for comment. Oh no wait, that's wrong. Most consider BBC Radio 5 Live to be the best in terms of expert coverage of football in this country, and I'd probably go along with that too. Yet even they have Alan Green fronting their commentary team; a man who basically tells us how bad the game is and how bored he is. They're only ruining their own credibility by promoting their product with the likes of Green and Savage, and bringing them down to the levels of their main rivals; Talksport. Don't even get me started on the idiocy of that show

There is an answer to all this, of course. It's tough, but quality journalism is out there. It can usually be found away from the mainstream tabloids and television shows, and written by normal people like me and you. People who can effectively analyse, write in a diligent and well informed manner whilst not patronising the reader/viewer, or bending over for the bias of journalists whilst trying to keep in the good books of certain managers. Good luck in your search for all this though, you'll need it.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Why we should all want Leeds back in the big time

Do we really want sparsely supported clubs in the Premier League? Would it not be better to see packed crowds every week?

Wednesday, 19th January 2011
By Matt Scrafton

Leeds United have won the English First Division (Premier League) on three occasions, the FA Cup once and boast the impressive achievement of reaching the Semi Finals of the UEFA Champions League having defeated AC Milan on their way. Nottingham Forest have won the First Division once, the FA Cup twice and the European Cup (Champions League) twice following the guidance of the masterful Brian Clough. Wigan Athletic are a club that's highest achievement is finishing runners up to Sunderland in the English Second Division. Bit of a difference...

Yet what is it that separates these clubs? That's right, only Wigan are now a Premier League side, whilst the comparably 'giants' of Leeds and Forest languish in a division their history and honours aren't worthy of. Now, I don't want to pick on Wigan; there are plenty of other sides that probably don't 'belong' in the league they currently reside in. And added to that, Wigan deserve to be plying their trade in the Premier League; they were deservedly promoted from the Championship and have done well to remain in England's top division, when many other similar sized clubs would have melted at the challenge. All this was done with a plethora of Dave Whelan's cash though, I may add...

Leeds United walking out to face Deportivo in the Quarter Final of the Champions League, only 9 years ago

So what exactly am I arguing? Well, to put it bluntly; I'd prefer it if the likes of Leeds, Forest, perhaps Norwich, Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton, Cardiff and Millwall were in the Premier League. All would pretty much guarantee selling out their grounds most weeks and would provide a lot more interest than the likes of Wigan, Blackpool, West Brom, Fulham and Wolves. Of course it's great to see relatively smaller clubs defy the odds and match the likes of Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool etc. and sometimes even beat them. That's great, we're English so we love to see the underdog come out on top, and the 'storytale' (eugh, I hate that word) of Blackpool's season so far is clear evidence of this. The tabloids and the British media are still maintaining their current 'love-in' with the Tangerines and their loudmouth manager Ian Holloway, never missing an opportunity to remind us that Blackpool's squad 'only' cost a combined total of £2million. 

Doesn't the FA Cup provide enough 'giant-killings' for the average football fan to get all excited about? Undoubtedly, it's refreshing to see a smaller side upset the status-quo and over achieve. But it seems to me like this is now happening pretty much year on year. The recent 3-1 victory for Stevenage against Newcastle hardly raised an eyebrow, and this was a lowly League 2 club coming up against a side that averages almost 50,000 fans when they feature at home. So now we should want the 'big boys' back. Imagine the fixtures; Leeds v Man Utd; Millwall v West Ham; Sheffield Wednesday v Liverpool; Nottingham Forest v Arsenal. All  huge games that would almost guarantee sold out grounds, interest for the neutral and more of an edge (without glorifying hooliganism, I'd rather watch Millwall v West Ham than Wigan v Bolton any day of the week). 

And then we come to attendances, some what of an English obsession. I shall admit one thing: fans that boast of their clubs size solely because of their impressive home and/or away followings does become somewhat tiresome (yes Leeds, I'm looking at you). But it is a big factor, and surely we'd all prefer to see 36,000 at Elland Road in the Premier League, than 15,000 at the JJB? Once again, apologies for picking on Wigan; but it's pretty much undeniable that they wouldn't be where they are now without the bankrolling of Whelen, owner of sports company JJB. Wigan is a rugby town, always has been and always will be. The interest for football isn't really there, and if you live in and around Wigan then you're perhaps more likely to support Man Utd, Man City, Liverpool, Everton or any other bigger club from the north-west. And that's understandable, that's just the way it is. But that's why Oldham are in League 1, along with Rochdale, and Bury are in League 2. Their crowds just won't allow them to progress as much as they maybe would want to. Wigan have only progressed because of Dave Whelan. And even now when they're facing top sides every other week, they only average 16,000. 

Wigan don't really belong in the Premier League at all. For anybody who doesn't really know much about Wigan, let me fill you in on some history. In the 1992/1993 season (when the modern day Premier League was formed), Wigan finished 23rd in Division Two (third division), below teams such as Mansfield, Leyton Orient and Stockport. Since then however, the club have enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top flight and many would now consider them as an established Premier League side, despite being in danger of the drop this season. Some argue that it would be impossible to gain a large fan base because they've come such a long way in a relatively short space of time. Well that's nonsense, seeing as Wigan have already tripled their average home attendances from when they were in the Third Division. But the club will never have a large fan base, for reasons I've already pointed out (unfortunate location, rugby town).

If I had it my way, then the Premier League would be 20 sides that have impressive attendances and a rich history. The likes of Leeds (average 26,000 in the Championship, Forest (23,000), Norwich (25,000), Cardiff (23,000) and Derby (26,000) would be the type of clubs I'd want to see face United, Arsenal and Liverpool on the box. I don't have anything against supposedly smaller clubs doing well and upsetting the odds, it's good to see every now and then. But in the past decade or so we've seen massive clubs relegated a division, or maybe even two in the case of certain clubs. Why is this? 

So do the honourable thing Wigan, and step aside for the big boys...