Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Monday, August 3, 2020

Video killed the Radio Star : Talking conspiracy, Peter Jones and VAR

An 'official partner' of the Premier League. If I were them, I'd be having words... 

One of the reasons I like football is that it is, essentially a simple game. It takes five minutes to learn the basics (two teams, ball, goal, don't touch it with yer hands unless you've got a green jumper on (unless you play for Plymouth, in which case for green see yellow or whatever.))

Offside might take a further ten minutes and basically boils down to 'don't goal hang' which is an easy enough concept to grasp. Beyond that, it's more or less, don't trip people up, don't deliberately try to break their legs and the difference between a corner, a throw in, a penalty and free kick. 
Because of the fundamental simplicity of the game, football has always translated well on the radio. It's easy to imagine the game in your minds eye as it's easy to grasp in the first place. The same simplicity that makes it easy to play, means that it's well suited to verbal description.

Much is made of the broad lexicon of football but really, it doesn't take a massive range of phrases to describe the action. Pass, shot, goal, corner, defense, attack, far side, near side, header, foul, free kick, penalty, save, catch, throw, clearance and the players names and positions will just about do it when combined with a little bit of description. 

The best voices in the game combine poetic improvisation with a talent for precision and a good football match on the radio is to me, not a lesser experience than a televised one, but an equal, if not superior form of enjoyment. 

In the last 30 years, it's become a real rarity to hear a solo commentator and the pundit has become seemingly indispensable, but without question the real 'colour man' in radio sport is the crowd, who will keep you abreast of the action through the change in their pitch, rhythm and tone. The words serve to flesh out the reality hinted at by the rise and fall of the crowd, the sudden bursts of outrage or optimism serve as notice of what could be a foul or a breakaway moment. The type of cheering tells you what sort of goal it was, a once in a lifetime last minute winner caught perfectly on the volley, or a scrambled consolation that bounces off the strikers arse sound very different. As Premier League grounds have become more sedate, it's perhaps been a little less visceral an experience than once it was to tune in, as if blindfolded and increasing your aural sensitivity, to the noise of a football stadium, but it remains a great way to experience football. 

Whilst the lack of crowds has been visually jarring, nowhere has the impact of supporterless football been more tangible than on the radio. The lack of crowd has really stymied the impact of the game, reduced it to sounding like a simple list of things happening somewhere, as opposed to a bonafide event. It doesn't sound thrilling. No matter how manfully the commentator has tried to imbue the game with a sense of verve and energy, one man's words are no match for sound of thousands. Put simply, without the crowd, it seems a bit fake. 

This alienating experience got me thinking about my own habits.

Whilst seasoned readers of this blog (possibly that's just me when I do the proofreading) will note I am fond of dismissing the Premier League as a bloated cash cow with a moral equivalence to someone under investigation by Operation Yewtree, I have nevertheless followed it for more or less every weekend for the last 28 years. 

This year has been the exception. I've singularly failed to listen to more than about 4 live games. I can remember a United game where they played well and everyone got chufties on about how they were the next big thing, a Newcastle game where Joelinton* scored, a West Ham game where that lad who is only decent if David Moyes is the manager was indeed decent and and an Everton game where Calvert Lewin was really good. 

For the first time in my life, I'm turning over in the middle of games instead of hanging on to 'see how this turns out.'

It's definitely not that I don't like football anymore. If you've read some of my other pieces, you might think I've fallen out of love with the game, but what I've written is stuff I've felt for a long time. It's not like any previous year of the Premier League was a paragon of moral virtue or a competitive free for all. Leicester was top bants and all that, but that was one year out of 27. My blog is an early mid life crisis in which I return to the obsessions of childhood in order to try and carve out a safe space in the midst of all the chaos and uncertainty or something and I actually really do still like football itself. 

It's not the commentators either. I quite like a lot of the Five Live and TalkSport commentators and even some of the pundits who are irritating as fuck in a studio or presenting phone ins are more enjoyable in the context of an actual game. I really like it when Stan Collymore gets all wound up and excited, other players reveal a thoughtful or philosophical side to them, even Robbie Savage and Chris Sutton can move beyond their trolling by numbers 'controversy' caricatures to being people enjoying a game of football and saying mildly interesting things. None of them are Jimmy Armfield mind. 

What I think it is, is the impact of, firstly VAR and latterly, drinks breaks and multiple NFL style substitutes. Much has rightly been said about the impact on the actual spectator at the ground of the former but little attention has been given to how it kills the experience of the radio listener (who, for reasons I'll outline briefly further below, does actually matter, even though we aren't paying for a ticket or a Sky subscription.)

Football works on the radio, because it is non stop action. It is breathless and continuous and thus engaging. It's like a book that expresses its narrative in an efficient way, without long rambling digressions. It's a brilliantly written crime thriller, an airport page turner, not a Booker prize nominee that you have to make notes to keep up with. That's why it has mass appeal. Many seek to dress it up as a science or mysterious artform, but it isn't and if it was, it would be a niche interest not one of the most popular things in the world. 

Football on the radio can be consumed intensely, perhaps lying in a darkened room, with headphones on, like some kind of trip. It can also be a backdrop to life, to for example, tinkering with a car, your attention split between the YouTube videos you are using to try and figure out what you have to do, the physical task in hand and the game in the background. That's the one of the beauties of it. It can be all consuming or it can loosen it's grip and let you live. You can walk about, drive to Nuneaton to see a man called Kevin, paint a naked prostitute or take apart a damaged angle grinder whilst listening to football on the radio. It is company, but not one that imposes on you. It doesn't pin you to the sofa, but it's rich enough to absorb you if you want it to. 

Either way, It doesn't work if it gets too complicated. If you are focussed it becomes like a bad trip where your thought patterns get all muddled if things become too mixed up and confusing. If you aren't giving it you entire attention, you simply end up losing track of what's going on. 

We listen, to take part, in however small a way, in the ritual that the crowd have created. It's like listening to a gig on the radio. You aren't there, but when you hear that guitar riff or the cheers of the crowd as the bass drops, you share that thrill a little bit. It's the difference between putting on the CD and hearing the music as it's played. 

VAR is like if you were tuned into, let's say, for sake of argument and to make this as appealing as we can to everyone, a Beatles gig. Paul started off with 'Hey Jude, don't make it...' and the crowd all joined in, but then Ringo stopped playing and after a backstage conflab made them all play a different song he'd written that morning instead. You'd feel cheated. It would destroy the rhythm completely. Something was happening. There was a moment and then it was snatched away for reasons you don't understand. 

VAR on the radio though is worse than this. It's like listening to the gig, but then your sense of 'being there' being disrupted by a BBC continuity announcer having to guess what was happening and fill in the gaps. 'Er, Ringo has stopped playing. And er, possibly he doesn't like Hey Jude. Paul is looking at John. He's shrugging. They've gone off stage for a bit. Erm. The drum kit is still there though. Maybe they've nipped for a fag. Er.... here's some random facts about the Beatles for a bit.... oh, now they're back and it looks like they're going to play again. OK, back to the Beatles' (They play a song no one has ever heard called something like 'Love Shines Through' that's absolute shite cos Ringo wrote it on the toilet in the bus because he's jealous the others get the attention)

That's not a brilliant analogy and it's frankly unfair to compare Ringo's adequate drumming and inoffensive whimsy to the joyless dementors that conceived of and continue to apply VAR, but he's the least good Beatle and I'm not getting paid so I'm not fucking rewriting it. Ok?

Go and read some patreon sponsored blog by an attractive 20 something with an 'about me' section and a professional headshot and adverts instead if you want quality content. You people.  

What I'm clumsily trying to express is that the theatrical suspension of disbelief we need to partake in radio football is punctured. I.e we KNOW we aren't there, but it FEELS LIKE WE ARE when we got lost in the game. The sense of being part of the occasion clearly suffers when the event itself is forced to stop and then the commentators have to describe that it has stopped for an extended period of time.

We all know injuries and so on interrupt the game, just as we know that actors can break the fourth wall in theatre and even adverts punctuate TV shows, but we don't want to have our entertainment interrupted by a technician running some tests on the lighting or the director jumping up and telling the actors "to go back and do that line again please." in the middle of the show. The golden rule of stage acting is 'Don't acknowledge a mistake' because the audience will forget in a few minutes. VAR, and particularly VAR on the radio is like rerunning that fluffed line, lighting mistake or missed musical cue over and over and over again which stamps out any illusion that has been built up. 

Listening to a commentator trying to describe the technical minutiae of a VAR decision is insanity. It's why dressage, synchronised swimming and gymnastics don't translate well to the radio. At a level of such macro analysis we need visual evidence and unlike the spectators in the ground, we didn't even see the incident** in the first place so how are we to know? We're out of the loop*** completely and utterly. 

Drinks breaks and complicated substitution rules (I don't even know who can make a substitute and when anymore) further interrupt the experience. For the fan at the ground and the fan on telly, at least they can watch the player's expressions or body language, observe the manager's attempts at motivation and take some time to try and work out what the random advert in Cyrillic text might actually be for and muse on how it has come to this, when it doesn't seem five minutes ago that Dave's Taxi's were on that board but the radio fan has no such luck. 

The radio commentator is like a shaman in a ritual. They channel the energy of the game to us and we experience a transcendent escape from our actual surroundings. We are instead at Boundary Park, the KC Stadium, Wembley or wherever... When the game stops for no reason, the commentator has nothing to say. Whilst an injury or a fight has an energy of its own, in the drinks break there is no energy to channel and so the commentators begin to fill. It's like being at a rave, out of your tiny mind and defying the mortal weight of life on this strange earth and the DJ stopping and explaining why they chose the records or putting on three minutes of muzak whilst nipping for a wee. 

It jars horribly and it manifestly isn't the fault of the commentators. There's only so many 'rain blown sideways through the lights of the floodlights on a chilly night in this magnificent old stadium' kind of flourishes they can give per match, before it gets tired. We're here for the football not for a John Betjamin impression and for the best commentators, those observations come naturally, not shoehorned in by force at a designated time. 

Sooner or later, they'll start nipping back to the studio for travel or bringing in another pundit to offer another layer of opinion you don't need. I'm not needlessly conservative. Let's remember, it was I who brought you the idea for football without floodlights with a glow in the dark ball, goal, pitch lines and kits, so it looks like Tron. I'm all for that, but 45 minutes is the length of a half. That's how much time my brain wants to focus for. Not however long it takes before we get a VAR interruption, then another few minutes before everyone stops for a drink and a natter, before we play a bit longer, then it's half time, then 3 subs, then another tea party on the pitch, then two more subs, then 3 more. I'm all for change, but I can't remember a single person ever expressing the opinion 'Football would be better in quarters, with lots of pedanticism added to it'

Actual innovation please

I promised to say why the radio matters and thus I will. Whilst the world now is different than it was back in the days of then, I fell in love to football on the radio. I saw precisely 3 games of football live in about 3 years before I started attending regularly. I listened to hundreds. I lived at the confluence of many signals. I could hear Radio Wales, Radio City, Radio Lancashire, Radio Cumbria and GMR to name but a few as well as the national sport. 

I thrilled to Friday night matches from Prenton Park with Graham Beacroft and Anfield and Goodison with Clive Tyldesley. I listened to Mike Ingham, Peter Jones, and Bryon Butler bring to live games from all over the place. Radio Lancashire 'Goal Action!' jingle punctuated my Saturdays. Without that experience, my love of football would have struggled to come alive. The games I saw on TV were a mere cherry upon the top of a very rich cake. 

The situation today for a 7 yr old (my age when I got my first radio) without Sky TV (which is factually, most 7 year olds)  is even more bleak than it was for me. No live football on telly at all (outside of a pandemic.) Nothing.  

And therefore, the quality of the game as a radio experience should matter. It's overhearing the excitement through your dad's car radio, listening to the feverish chanting and the weirdly musical ebb and flow of a game that can captivate. If football wants fans and not just players of FIFA simulating an alternate universe beneath their Mbappe and Messi posters, then it can't hamstring the game itself by taking away the life and energy from it. When FIFA 21 comes out, you'll be able to press X and skip the simulated drinks break, hammer the button again to move through the VAR replays and these kids will do that. Because who wants to sit through that waste of time if you don't have to? 

If the real thing ... which many of them also can't see without paying £50+ a month, which is generally beyond pocket money prices... is inferior in pace and intensity to the simulation, then that's not a great starting point for breeding new fans. Whether or not we see football in modern or traditional terms, the game needs kids falling in love with it. For real. 

Now finally, for the conspiracy bit. It's not entirely serious, but dear reader, is anything serious in a godless world where we're fumbling in the dark inventing spurious meanings to justify our inhumanity to our fellow man and awaiting the inevitable entropy of all things? Hmm?

The authorities are faced with a real problem. One in which they've created a monster - a game which requires servicing with levels of cash that actually make our minds melt if we try to conceive of them. As a small example, I've previously made the argument that reducing the average PL wage to a 'mere' £1.5 million pounds a year per player would free up money that would change the culture of football permanently. The fact the figure I'm proposing we could REDUCE wages too is so outrageously high (£15 million for a ten year career as an average top flight player) illustrates how cash hungry the game is. 

The game relies on TV money but it faces challenges in maintaining this. Sky and BT aren't seeing the viewing figures they would wish for and a recession threatens this further. If they collapse (Hello ITV Digital!) or back out, then the idea of selling massive packages of rights for bundles of games domestically is likely doomed. The future will be pay per view and whilst certainly there's a big market, is that market big enough? Will that yield more or less money? Will the money be more or less guaranteed in the way it is now, or will it be more precarious? 

One thing is for sure, for many people, the radio has been a reason 'not to bother with Sky' (and a future reason not to buy games on a pay per view platform) - the radio provides the sense of liveness, the BBC highlights fill in the gaps if you want to see exactly how good the goal was. The combined reach of 5live, 5live Sports Extra and Talk Sport 1+2 is estimated at around 11 million listeners. 

So, by introducing measures that ruin the game as a radio experience, you drive A LOT more people into feeling like they have to have TV subscriptions to take part in the party. For context, the most Sky have ever attracted (aside from when they've given it away for free on Pick) is 4.3 million for the final day title decider in 2012. 

This is the national game. It doesn't (or shouldn't) belong to TV (where actually, most of the fans aren't) and whilst, of course, the fans in the ground should matter most, the masses gathered round our transistor radios phones, laptops and DAB car stereos have never asked for a kick off to be moved. Radio doesn't interfere with the game. It doesn't try to control it. It just reports and channels it and we're seeing it left behind (in a way that is probably not deliberate.) 

Given the sociopathic nature of people who want to squeeze every last penny from us and wring the last vestiges of social value from society in the name of profit and whom proliferate in positions of power, including in football, I'm not confident enough to say definitely not deliberately

Finally, this homage to and appeal on behalf of the power of radio in football, was originally conceived as a piece about the late, great Peter Jones. A man who it seems like I listened to for decades, but actually can only have heard for a few years. My research quickly yielded an article that did that, better than I ever could and thus, I'll finish the piece with an absolute treasure I found on YouTube before I gave up the idea.

If you're of certain age, I defy you not to be moved. It's just a mundane game, played on a cold night. Listen to how alert he is, how you can live every moment, every tackle, how it's as if he is feeling the game itself flow through him and he reports it back to you with a mixture of energy and calm. He bristles with readiness, living on the edge of the action and yet is so comfortable there. There's everything of him in this commentary and yet nothing of it is about him. It's almost zen in the way there's a moment and his words work with it and transmit it to you. The effect of time on it is even more profound as it still feels alive, despite the barrier of 30+ years and countless changes.  I listened to this and felt the tension and excitement as if the game was happening now. 

He was an absolute master and alongside the brilliant Tony Cozier, the man I would most like to commentate on a sporting afterlife.

* I follow a lad on twitter called Joelintontraveltavern**** - there are no words for that level of genius.  

** There seems to be an increasing use of the word 'incident' in football. Never merely 'handbags' or 'a scuffle' or 'the lucky goal' but 'incident' - the quasi legal nature of such language speaks of the way football needs to get out from up its own arse and stop taking itself so fucking seriously. 

*** What is the 'the loop'? People have been saying this for years and I'm none the wiser. Is it a reference to old phone circuits or something? 

**** You have to get Partridge*****

***** Alan that is. 



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