SWITCH OVER TO BT Sport now, and you’ll invariably be met with the most expensive ex-professionals imparting their wisdom from the glossiest studios, or pitchside at the biggest and noisiest matches. Since launching in 2013, BT Sport has been perfecting its product, showing the very best of English and European football, and letting the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard lead the conversation, with the seasoned arbitrage of Gary Lineker. Even better, the Champions League and Europa League are now their exclusive property.
With all this in mind, why is it such a tragedy that the European Football Show, a weekly discussion of continental highlights presented by a bunch of journalists, has been axed? On the face of it, EFS is not a headline-grabbing televisual event; it’s relaxed, sober, a little obscure, and the presenters are hardly household names. Yet there is so much of the wit, intelligence and warmth that the shiny Champions League specials sorely lack, and the well-informed presenters are far easier on the ears than the meaningless platitudes spouted by your Rio Ferdinands and your Steven Gerrards.
Presenter James Richardson – best known as the host of Channel 4’s Football Italia in the 1990s – is joined by his chums James Horncastle, Raphael Hönigstein and Julien Laurens, allowing the show to take on a friendly, easy-going tone, akin got a group of clever, funny friends sharing obscure football knowledge. The show is the television equivalent of leafing through an old Panini sticker album. It has nostalgic recollections of classic teams, quiz questions, goal highlights, and witty repartee between luxury football experts – exactly the kind of people who ought to matchday pundits. Horncastle in particular, grinning smugly as he over-pronounces the names of Italian players, has always been a favourite in our house.
Axing BT’s most innovative programme suggests that it thinks of its viewerships as slack-jawed, tabloid-reading stereotypes.
Axing what is easily BT’s most cerebral and innovative football programme suggests that the network thinks of its viewership as little more than slack-jawed, tabloid-reading stereotypes. When compared to the channel’s usual suspects, these are almost football academics. We don’t yet know the show’s replacement, but a parody site came up with the ludicrous The Savage and Brazil Banter Bus, evidently mocking the idea that BT’s coverage has been aimed increasingly at the lowest common denominator, a patronising caricature of the laddish football fan.
The Savage and Brazil Banter Bus may not be real, but it speaks to the truth of football broadcasters pandering to the most pernicious stereotype of the un-educated football fan, and to their over-reliance characters like Robbie Savage. With his typical tiresome belligerence, he is the very worst of the ex-professional-turned-presenter, a non-entity as a player whose career was lifted by a middling performance on Strictly Come Dancing, and whose punditry consists of little more than falling out with the guests and co-presenters who disagree with him.
BT Sport have never been blessed with high ratings. In fact, their absorption of more and more high-profile ex-professionals show how desperate they are to drag people away from SkySports, whose Champions League-less programming still draws a larger audience. The problem is, the European Football Show has a loyal following – search social media for references to it, and all you’ll find is utter dismay at its cancellation – so axing it will do nothing to solve their low viewing figures. It is probably BT aren’t quite aware of just how well-liked the show is. The cachet that broadcasting EFS gave the network will be entirely lost.
Fortunately, James Richardson and friends can still be heard of The Guardian Football Weekly, a bi-weekly football podcast which fairly similar content. It’s a shame, though, that this is now apparently the only outlet for intelligent football conversation. Soon, I suspect, BT Sport will come to regret their decision, and viewers may in fact find themselves further put off by the network’s programming. They cannot sustain themselves on already under-watched European nights alone, and if SkySports can make the right offer to Richardson, Horncastle, Hönigstein et al, they might just come across the formula to compete with their younger rivals.