By Jason McKeown
Sometimes, we forget how far we’ve come. The BBC’s Football League Show is about to end its six-year run under a weight of derision and dissatisfaction from viewers; but for all its ills, the programme represented a major step forward in the exposure of lower league football.
Sure, it is often shown far too late on a Saturday night. The slot after Match of the Day meant it barely begins before midnight. Keeping your eyes open to the bitter end was a challenge that eluded most of us more than once. I love football, I love watching football on TV. But the three hours-plus marathon of Match of the Day and The Football League Show can be gruelling. And it means a lot of time waiting around for a 20-sec clip of your own team’s victory/defeat. The briefest of coverage devoted to your world leaving a sense of anti-climax and frustration.
Amongst Bradford City supporters, a conspiracy theory has grown that The Football League Show “hates us”. Or that the BBC has an agenda, fuelled by its run-ins with the Bantams over recent months. It’s hard to see how such claims have any real credence, and the “they hate us” line is no doubt one that followers of other lower league clubs equally believe, when judging the lack of coverage afforded to their own team.
Yet rewind back to 2009 – when the Football League Show was launched to much fanfare – and the landscape of lower league highlights was completely different. For terrestrial TV viewers, it simply was not possible to see your team’s goals on a Saturday evening, save for local news showing your first half highlights during their teatime bulletin (which would be broadcast before you even got home from the match).
Instead, we had to wait until Sunday morning for ITV’s ‘The Championship’ for lower league highlights, and that particular show was equally brief in how much they covered action from League One and Two. Beyond that, there was a dreadful local highlights programme on Thursday evenings – the Yorkshire version was presented by Andy Townsend and very often completely ignored Yorkshire teams in favour of criticising the England team. The BBC had their own ‘Late Kick Off’ series which they didn’t bother with this season. It was better, but still a tad underwhelming.
Prior to The Championship (which began in 2004) it was even worse. Its predecessor, Nationwide League Extra – shown in the early hours of Monday night/Tuesday morning – was something most of us had to videotape and watch later. There used to be regional highlights shows on a Sunday afternoon – Yorkshire TV’s ‘Goals on Sunday’ is sadly missed – but it was still a long wait to watch lower league football. I lost track of the number of times I saw a great City win, and then spent the weekend impatiently waiting for the goals to be shown on TV.
We are lucky to have had the Football League Show. And when it launched at the start of the 2009/10, it felt like a massive step forward. Saturday night highlights. A 90-minute show with no advert breaks. Manish Bhasin is an excellent presenter who finds the right tone. Steve Claridge is not a great pundit, but Leroy Rosenior knows his onions. Mark Clemmit’s reports can be a little too jolly, but are nevertheless interesting. In the old days, ‘Lizzie’ used to read out viewers’ tweets, texts and emails. Not the best section, and one that was eventually dropped.
The Football League Show’s failing was that it never attempted to build on, or refresh, the format – meaning it ultimately looked tired. It is a very formulated show, always going through exactly the same order in what is covered. Half of the programme is devoted to the Championship, with Leagues One and Two getting a quarter each. It feels too imbalanced at times, especially on certain weeks where there are more interesting stories in the bottom two divisions. And they spend too long showing highlights of the weekend’s Sky games, even when they are not especially interesting matches.
There’s also a big black mark against the producers for no longer running shows during international weekends, when Leagues One and Two are still in action.
Beyond that, I don’t think clubs in Leagues One and Two have had a raw deal. There is no obvious favouritism towards certain teams, or an agenda against others. Some people say they should abandon the punditry section so more time can be devoted to highlights of every team. Whilst we’d all like to see more coverage of Bradford City on the show, I’m not sure I’d be that bothered about more time focused on other teams. I think it would have become boring.
We all guilty of our partisan outlook clouding our judgement, and I’m not sure the BBC does a bad job of remaining impartial.
This weekend is The Football League Show’s final set of regular highlights. It will cover the play offs too; but then it is to be replaced with a new highlights programme on Channel 5. On paper it suggests another leap forward in the exposure of lower league football on terrestrial TV. The show is expected to broadcast in the more prime time slot of 9pm on Saturday nights – before Match of the Day. There will be no more desperate attempts to stay awake until the small hours.
As ITV’s ‘The Premiership’ showed, there is a huge risk with showing football highlights early on a Saturday night. 9pm is family time, or going-out-drinking time. Whilst there is evidently an audience for Football League highlights, it’s unclear if that audience will be available to watch at this time of the evening. There is no way that Channel 5 can push it back to 10.30pm and go against Match of the Day, so it will be interesting to see how well the show works in an earlier evening slot.
At present, details of the new programme’s presenter and pundits is unclear – as is the thorny issue of balancing out coverage of all three divisions, when the Championship is clearly the golden ticket. Channel 5’s record of covering football in the past is mixed. The BBC might have got some things wrong, but they got more things right and generally provided a show that sat well with its audience. Channel 5, please, no gimmicks and no over-hype – we just want to see highights of our team.