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Tuesday, 08 May 2012

Outside the Box – Football on TV: A long time ago in a Stadium far far away, ITV began their FA Cup Final coverage


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The 2011-12 football season will probably be looked back upon with a real intrigue in future decades. It has been a long, incident-strewn expedition encompassing an abundance of controversy, drama and despair. It is hard to remember another campaign with more extraordinary talking points. The Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra saga, the fraught journey of Fabrice Muamba, the still-unresolved yo-yoing of the Premiership crown, Capello, the untimely death of Gary Speed, Paul Scholes and John Terry’s quest to become the biggest arse to have ever played football are just a fraction of the headline-events to have occurred in this marathon season.

So as the players, coaches and us fans wearily inch our way to that final whistle of the season, the last thing our fatigued minds and bodies needed was ITV subjecting us to a colossal 13-hour build up to the FA Cup Final on Saturday. Ok, so it wasn’t quite that long but there were times it certainly felt that way during the afternoon’s drawn-out festivities. As ever, it was the unfathomably monotonous doomsayer Adrian Chiles at the helm; from the very beginning he was trying to convince his sorrow-drenched face that he was excited about cup final day but alas, it was having none of it and despite his spirited words throughout the afternoon, he often looked as though he was not at Wembley at all, but instead attending a funeral – or at least a game at Molineux.

The ITV execs did have a go at lightening things up a bit, and in the early stages of the broadcast, employed a sort of revolving door policy by wheeling in and out a few different guests. These included the sparkling Robbie Fowler (for heaven’s sake, someone give him a regular gig), stalwart Andy Townsend and the walking oxymoron Dennis Wise. The former Chelsea captain is a rare sight these days; his shady misdemeanours at the backend of his career have obviously left him a cautious soul and so it proved in his small stint in the ITV studio in which he spoke very softly and offered nothing particularly noteworthy apart from finding out he acted as a mentor to John Terry early in his career. Ah, sort of fills in a few blanks doesn’t it?

Eventually though, still with another eight hours to kick off, the A-Team pundits made their way to Chiles’ side. Messrs Southgate, Strachan and Keane took their place and immediately livened things up a bit. Gordon Strachan particularly has mastered the slightly wacky uncle role and has no qualms about calling Luis Suarez a nutter or even poking the angry bear that is Roy Keane. When referring to Kenny Dalglish’s handling of Suarez’s chequered past Strachan made this point: “We’ve seen this before when managers protect their top top players” he said, with a knowing glance to a certain hot-headed customer next to him… do you not remember Southgate’s venomous tirade during Euro 96 when his Salad Niçoise wasn’t properly seasoned? It wasn’t pretty.

So with still four hours yet to go, what else in ITV’s coverage was there for the shattered viewers to enjoy? Well, there was an entertaining little piece in which Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina played a variation of the classic board game Guess Who? with cartoon pictures of their Reds team mates. The best moments included Dirk Kuyt’s image looking less cartoony than his real face and the slightly edgy moment when Gerrard described Jay Spearing’s sketch as “looking like he’s on Crimewatch”. Slightly hypercritical as there was a time not too long ago when Gerrard almost had his own segment on that show. The other highlight of the pre-match features was an emotionally charged interview with Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba. A touching insight into the midfielder’s recovery and the love and support he has received from across the football spectrum. However, I did feel it was a risky strategy to send Adrian Chiles, a man who could talk Mario Balotelli into a coma, to interview somebody whose heart stopped only a few weeks ago.

Finally then, just as we were about to give up on the whole thing and turn on The Voice, the game actually began. And rather predictably, as is the case with most recent FA Cup finals it was a somewhat dull affair. Drogba scored his obligatory Wembley goal, Chelsea won their obligatory FA Cup and Dalglish gave his obligatory two fingers up to anybody holding a microphone. The one unexpected occurrence was Andy Carroll actually looking like a footballer. He completely rejuvenated Liverpool’s performance after coming on as a substitute and was unlucky not to drag his team into extra time. Good news for the Reds, and possibly for Roy Hodgson too, who may just see Carroll as an important part of his plans this summer.

All-in-all then, a fairly underwhelming FA Cup final; but did we honestly expect anything less? I came away not wholly dissatisfied; some decent pre-match features and some genuine shocks in Carroll’s performance, Strachan’s jabbering and most astounding of all, Clive Tyldesley going 90 minutes without mentioning ‘that night in Barcelona’. Incredible.

There was at least one morsel of TV joy for the people of Liverpool this week. The long-awaited moment that two British institutions were bonded, a moment that we, as a country have waited many years for: Joey Barton was on Newsnight. This was what Joey has worked so hard for on Twitter these past few years. All of those Nietzsche and Orwell quotes about the ‘shackles of a working man’ and ‘wisdom arrives at the enlightened thug’ finally led Barton to his spiritual home – a place where debate and sense are welcomed. So what did they want to talk to him about? Well football. He shared his thoughts on Hodgson’s appointment and the state of the English game in general, which was all really nice. However I’m sure Joey will forever harbour regrets that he wasn’t given the opportunity to dazzle the viewers in a debate with Paxman over the political situation in Syria; or that he wasn’t able to elbow Paxman in the face.

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