Whether it was his unashamed bias, his rejection of video evidence or his invention of the ‘wingers’ side footed block tackle’, Dean Saunders practically re-wrote the punditry rule book with his performance during our 2-1 win over Wrexham.
I like BT Sport’s mix of Premier and lower league domestic football along with its broad smattering from the European leagues. It’s a more intelligent selection than Sky’s binary focus on the Premier League and La Liga.
But, BT are facing the age old problem of how to cover the lower echelons and the early rounds of the FA Cup. They’ve clearly listened to the bleating of people like me who complain at the corporate distance of the top flight. Lower down, football is more ‘real’, that’s what they need to capture.
Sky’s coverage of the Football League is just a pared down version of the Premier League big boys, so BT have gone grittier. Presenters get right in amongst the players and we get to see inside the dressing room. It’s all designed to put the viewer at the heart of the game.
Getting ‘in there’ doesn’t capture the gritty realism of ‘real’ football. There’s a sense of theatre to football at all levels, the last thing you want is to have the myth of your gladiatorial heroes destroyed by having to look up your left back’s shorts.
BT specialise in being overstaffed; Robbie Savage and David James, looking like Barbie and Action Man lookalikes hired for a corporate party, join Jake Humphreys for a wander around the pitch. There’s a cameo from Mark Creighton, a regular in their non-league coverage, but on this occasion on duty in a Wrexham tracksuit, talking about his career coming to an end and at the same time offering a small dose of less-than-objective punditry. Dean Saunders is in the stands, but more of him in a minute.
James talks from a position of complete ignorance about Chris Wilder’s application for the Portsmouth job (“Unbelievable situation”, Saunders said later – a man seemingly surprised and incredulous about the most mundane things). You have to ask yourself why they need so many people offering so little? It all seems a lot of effort for an game of this insignificance.
Then, just before kick-off, things slot into place, we’re treated to a weird in-game advert for Bet365 and Ray Winston barking like an east end criminal. He might as well be saying “Oi, fuck this lot, let’s make some fucking moolah”.
It’s clear this type of game is basically a platform for gambling. Like those obscure horse racing channels broadcasting 24/7 with no real difference between one race and another. The scourge is in-game betting, which allows people to place money on fragments of the game. It means you’re actually compelled to watch to see whether your bet comes off rather than simply wait until the end to find out the result.
In the context of the emerging match fixing scandal, you begin to wonder how pre-planned this stuff might be. In injury time Dave Kitson inexplicable draws a yellow card for kicking the ball away (‘Experience, taking one for the team’ said Dean Saunders) it’s probably nothing, but it makes you wonder sometimes.
While not fixed; BT have written the general narrative of the fixture in advance. The double header of Gateshead and then Wrexham offered a decent chance of an upset. We were expected to negotiate a Skrill Premier minefield. The appeal of the fixtures were dependent on us losing one of them.
That’s fine; it’s the par for the course. The art form, from a TV perspective, in the early rounds is spotting the potential fixtures which will evoke the magic of the cup and a giantkilling. But, once the decision is taken, the match should take care of itself. However, by the time we got to the Racehorse Ground, the game was devoid of balance and objectivity.
Wrexham started well, but they weren’t as dominant as the commentators suggested, they had a chance which Saunders thought the striker should simply have prodded home ignoring that he was a good 6 yards away from the ball when it was played in. On the other hand, Johnny Mullins hit the bar; a fact completely ignored for the rest of the game.
Then there was the tackle; Saunders, at this point, simply lost all sense. Williams crumpled in a heap as Clarke slid into him. Not a foul, said Saunders. In fact if Williams had ‘tackled properly’ he wouldn’t have hurt himself. It was a standard ‘winger’s side-footed block tackle’ reckoned Saunders. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but it appears to be the art of putting your leg in the way of a shin-high sliding leg breaker.
This released Saunders from any obligation to objectivity. We heard about ‘Keatesy’, ‘Deano’ and ‘Clarkey’. Wrexham players who were ‘unstoppable’, ‘unplayable’, ‘unbelievable’. Not to mention Andy Morrell, who could be the greatest player of them all. In essence, Wrexham were one of Europe’s all-time greats according to Saunders. There was at least one occasion where he referred to them as ‘we’. Hmm.
Their goal, moments after the winger’s side-footed block tackle, was a good one. It gave Wrexham a marginal advantage in a game where they were marginally better, but only marginally.
At half-time BT froze the tackle at point of contact. Williams’ leg contorted out of shape; showing how close he was to serious damage. “Slow motion makes everything looks a lot worse” said Saunders refusing to back down, and simultaneously breaking a decade of pundit lore by dismissing the all-healing powers of technology.
After an early fright, we controlled the second half. Williams gave us the lead and Saunders hopped over the fence. The killer ball came from ‘Kitson obviously’ – a player he’d criticised persistently throughout the first half. Moments earlier he had flicked away Constable’s excellent goal with the dismissive ‘well he’s a goalscorer, that’s what he does’.
Despite Saunders’ belief that Wrexham were akin to Bayern Munich, the game was going to form. Wrexham were simply doing what Conference teams do. In League 2 teams tend to be erratic from game to game, in the Conference the variations are within games themselves. Wrexham had been good for a half, but struggled to sustain it. We, on the other hand, were good in both halves, but better in the second. A late Ryan Clarke save aside, we controlled the game. Given that Clarke would have been disappointed to let that one in, the fact he didn’t made it a good rather than great save. He was just doing his job. The Wrexham ‘threat’ was muted.
The game went with form, ultimately, as these things usually do – which is why giantkillings can be so thrilling, because they’re rare. Afterwards, David James asked some clunky questions of James Constable, which he shrugged off as though in a challenge with an off-balance centre back. And we were through.
Maybe there’s a market for heavily editorialised football coverage. There are few neutrals at a game of football, so TV is being noble but not empathetic by remaining neutral. That’s how boxing usually works; there is a bad guy and a good guy. Perhaps that’s how it should be; the presenters and commentators pick a side, like a fan, and present in a relentlessly bias way. I wouldn’t mind that so much, if they tell me beforehand.