Monday Night Football is Sky Sports’ flagship show for good reason: it’s a four-hour marathon of thoughtful, balanced and forensic analysis carried out by a buoyant bunch who both know their stuff and do their homework. It is, in its current form, perhaps the all-time high-point of British football broadcasting. But even this show has found itself succumbing, of late, to the medium’s most tedious tendency: the endless obsession with refereeing decisions.
Those of us who tuned in last week were treated to a half-hour autopsy of Spurs’ trip to Anfield, the vast majority centring around a Zapruda-like examination of the game’s two penalty decisions. It was a lengthy journey to say the least, and one that took us all on the scenic route back to square one. Yes, Kane was looking for it, but Karius made contact and the striker has every right to go down, to be honest. And sure, Lamela had been a bit cute there, but Van Dijk has probably caught him and Liverpool can’t have too many complaints. So there we had it: both decisions were about right.
None of this should have been news to anyone. It was what you, me and every other sane viewer thought at the time. And yet two hours later, once the final whistle had been blown on Watford’s glorious stickup job on Chelsea – once Abdoulaye Dacoure had wrapped up his midfield masterclass, Tiemoue Bakayoko was done debasing himself and Gerard Delofeu’s twinkling toes had nudged Antonio Conte one step closer to the brink – we were again provided with analysis-by-incident. Watford’s penalty (clear as day the first time, clear as day the tenth time) led the bill, and was given the microscope treatment as a result. When time came for the managers to be interview, the first thing they were asked about – as has become routine – were the so-called “big decisions” of a match that contained nothing of the sort.
“I hark back to the days when people talk about what happened over the 90 minutes not in 40 seconds of the 90 minutes. That’s all my interviews ever seem to be: was it a penalty, was it not a penalty? Should a referee give a free-kick? Was it handball?”
That was Roy Hodgson speaking 24 hours earlier on Match of the Day – a show which, in accordance with the times, now leads its analysis segment with a retread of all the big incidents, only then expanding with a piece on tactics or performance. Hodgson’s interview was a nail-on-head moment, made all the more so when the camera cut to the studio and our presenter chuckled: “Well maybe we should rename this show Controversies of the Day! Now, let’s start with the shirt-pulling…”
The real question here isn’t “was it a penalty?” – it’s “who cares?"
Ten minutes earlier, two moments of majesty from Mohamed Salah and Victor Wanyama had been reduced to footnotes by an editorial team intent on letting no part of Jon Moss’s display at Anfield slip under the radar. There are a couple of problems with this. First, boiling a result down to isolated moments is to fundamentally misunderstand the butterfly-effect nature of a game of football. “We would have won if it wasn’t for Decision X’ is simply never true – we simply don’t know. And besides, ostensibly harmful decisions can often have a resoundingly positive impact. If Roy Keane hadn’t been booked in Turin, would he have hauled Man United past Juventus, en route to the treble, as he so heroically did? Would Chelsea – 1-0 down at the Nou Camp in 2012 when John Terry got himself sent off – have bus-parked their way to improbable victory if it had stayed 11v11?
Second, it has an insidiously ruinous effect on the fabric of sport, pandering to managers’ worst excuse-seeking instincts, hounding would-be referees away from all levels of the game, dumbing down football coverage to the point of inanity, entrenching the victim complex that has come to define the modern fan and fostering a culture where confected outrage supersedes rationality and reason. None of this is good for anyone, apart from perhaps Alan Pardew.
But there’s also another, and perhaps even more important reason at play, too: it’s boring. It makes for bad TV. And this is especially inexcusable given the raw talent at hand. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher are gloriously entertaining broadcasters, largely because they provide insight that us proles at home don’t have. They have built their formidable reputation on a muscular deconstructions of tactics, technique and sports psychology.
On the BBC, the core pair of Ian Wright and Alan Shearer have formed a similarly watchable partnership, providing just the right mix of warmth, wit and hardbitten wisdom, while Jermaine Jenas’s cameos never fail to deliver eloquence and clarity. In other words, there has never been a better array pundits occupying the studio sofas. So watching these grizzled experts pore painstakingly over frame-by-frame replays simply to establish ‘whether there was contact’ is a waste of everyone’s time. When the difference is that minuscule, it might as well not exist. Truth might be the first casualty of war, but this obsession with truth has nuked the very concept of fun. The real question here isn’t “was it a penalty?” – it’s “who cares?”
The history of football has been one of gradual transition: from community sporting event to made-for-TV mass-entertainment. We’ve pretty much reached that latter stage now, and there’s nothing wrong with that – after all, who doesn’t like to be entertained? But if it’s the broadcasters’ job to entertain us, then they should take note: there are few things more tedious than a 10-minute deliberation over a borderline offside call. For as long as television continues its obsession with referees’ rulings, the only truly pivotal decision will be when the people behind the camera start focussing on the football.