An open letter to the new Director General of the BBC by Mr Daniel Forman.
Congratulations on your appointment and hope you've enjoyed your first few weeks in the job. You don't strike me as much of a football fan and you don't seem to have had much to do with sport in your long career at the BBC but I hope I'm wrong about that as I have something quite important to tell you: Match of the Day is about to die.
You may not have been made aware of this because I'm sure your people have statistics that I haven't bothered to research showing that its audience is growing and getting younger and that people rate it as one of their top five favourite things about the BBC and Gary Lineker is one of your most trusted, likeable and recognisable presenters. But I tell you, in all honesty, as someone who has watched more hours of sport on TV than Lineker has stolen bags of crisps, that it's in its death throes, having its last rites read and about to get to that bit in a horror film where the axe actually goes into the head.
You see, the problem is that I've long since starting fast forwarding all the bits that aren't actually highlights. And - in an age when all the bits that are actually highlights are available on any number of other outlets, legal and otherwise - that's a bit of a problem, isn't it?
For anyone reading a sarccy, but vaguely intelligent football blog (the editors if I'm lucky, my boss if I'm not), I barely need to go into this in any detail but as I'm imagining this is a letter to you, I will...
When Match of the Day came back from a break in the early 1990s it was quite good. Des Lynam was in the chair, Lineker was an intelligent pundit, even Garth Crooks wasn't bad when he was answering questions rather than asking them. Alan Hansen's arrival was another boost. In those days his analysis of bad defending was actually quite groundbreaking.
But Des left, Mark Lawrenson arrived, Lineker somehow decided that the humour of a bad best man's speech was more appealing than showing off one of the sharpest minds in modern football and the format changed about as quickly as John Terry on the turn.
These days I know Hansen's views on defending so well that I can predict what he's going to say not just before he says it but before the match has even been played. As for Alan Shearer, I have no idea what he thinks or if he thinks at all because all he ever does is ineloquently and quite literally describe what is happening in a clip I have already seen.
What's worse is that while this rot set it, other sports were upping their game. Whether John McEnroe and Boris Becker at Wimbledon, Austin Healey's in-game analysis of the Six Nations, Chris Boardman at the Tour de France, whoever it is that is covering Formula One this week, or Channel 4 and then Sky's coverage of test match cricket (okay, not many sports are blessed with Mike Atherton, Richie Benaud and Shane Warne, but Christ, even Channel 5 is good), the standard of sports punditry sky-rocketed in the 2000s.
Slowly, some football coverage even got in on the act too. Adrian Chiles was an inspired choice for MOTD2, as was Jurgen Klinsmann at the World Cup and Euros. Sky sometimes had a decent discussion on Champions League nights if Graeme Souness and Ray Wilkins were involved. Even Andy Townsend's Tactics Truck wasn't a bad idea in itself, so much as very badly executed.
And then Gary Neville happened. Let's be honest, this was more accident than design and, who knows, he might now be managing Bury or somesuch if Andy Gray hadn't been exposed as a sexist bully and Sky taken a massive punt him. But Gray was, Sky did and the rest is the most unlikely revolution since Tony Adams took up playing the piano. Neville is incisive, astute, shows you things you might not otherwise have seen and is unafraid to upset his old playing mates or even England charges when he thinks they've done wrong.
While the move to Salford could and should have been a great opportunity shake-up the programme along these lines, it instead seems to have just doubled down on all that was wrong with Match of the Day in the first place; more cosy, smug, brainless, unchallenging and unenlightening than ever before. That was a bad sign, like a doctor deciding to up the dosage of a drug that was having no discernable impact on a patient other than nasty side effects, rather than change the medicine. But what happened in the summer was when I knew the writing was really on the wall.
You see you let Lee Dixon go and allowed Mark Lawrenson stay. Let me say that another way and stretch that dying patient analogy that little bit further from laboured to beyond its own useful life: You had within you one small white blood cell capable of starting the fightback against the infection of untouchable complacency that had taken hold of the body, a potential Gary Neville of your own if you like. But instead of injecting a load more of those blood cells, you took it out and gave it away, while Lawrenson continues to suck the last lifeblood out of the soon-to-be corpse.
Yet even at this late stage there seem to be people within the BBC who have the ability to do something about this. I actually thought your coverage of the Olympics was slightly over-rated, or at least not quite as good as some of the very best sports coverage mentioned above. But let me be clear that that is over-rated in the sense that the bar of received wisdom was very high indeed and that the coverage was still very good. What people liked about Claire Balding was that she seemed enthusiastic without talking down to viewers. What they liked about Ian Thorpe was that he provided genuine insights that even keen fans might not have known. What they liked about Michael Johnson was his combination of brutal honesty and utter refusal to abide by cliche or consensus opinion.
Somewhere in Salford must now sit some of the producers who put that coverage together: find them and give them free reign. Sat somewhere near them will also be some talented football pundits and presenters already in your organisation. Pat Nevin is on Radio 5 every Friday night yet as far as I'm aware has never once been on Match of the Day. Gabby Logan only seems to get a chance when Gary Lineker is at the golf. James Richardson - James Richardson! A man who almost single-handedly invented intelligent and humorous football coverage in the 1990s - has presented late night regional Football League highlights for you and yet you didn't think to try him with anything else.
If you wanted to be really radical you could try some other options. You could take the programme back to its roots and genuinely show the Match of the Day in extended form and just the goals from the other games. You could utilise the red button and allow viewers to pick their own running order, or highlights/interviews/pundits mix, or director's commentary-style audio of a pundit taking you through the highlights from a tactical point of view. You could acknowledge that most people have already seen the goals and main talking points if they want to and make it all about the analysis but actually make the analysis good. Or, I don't know, have pundits prepared to disagree with each other or presenters prepared to play devil's advocate or producers prepared to take some action if they don't.
Maybe the fact that you're a news man might come in handy after all. You wouldn't have put a political panel together on Newsnight who all said the same thing, or employed a journalist who refused to probe a point. George, I implore you, even ITV is now outdoing you on innovation and if that doesn't shake you out of this slumber nothing will. Do something, anything and do it now. Time is not on your side.
PS, in case you ever do actually read this, I have some thoughts about 606 and Test Match Special as well if you're interested.