deep dives

A Deep Dive Into 'Match of the Day', the Greatest Show on British Television

How the BBC's flagship patter-void became football's last remaining safe space.

by Joel Golby
30 August 2018, 11:18am

All screenshots: 'Match of the Day' / BBC

Been thinking about it a lot, and I don't think any high in my adult life has come even close to being ten years old, cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV – so close, startlingly close, just monstrously close to the TV, nose-to-the-pixels – when those opening strains of the Match of the Day theme-tune started up, dun duh duh.

Something very thrilling about Match of the Day, as a kid, because it was ostensibly a late-night show – occasionally your dad would let you stay up late enough to watch it, normally on one of those evenings where your mum was out and the rules of the house went out there with her, chips for dinner and ice cream for after – and you would stay up through the technicolor flashes of Fergie-pomp United and French invasion Arsenal, and Chelsea fronted up by Gianluca Vialli's big bald head, and then you'd feel your eyelids growing heavy as Southampton scrapped a 1–1 draw with Wednesday, until, inevitably, you'd fall dead asleep by the time West Brom rolled around, carried to bed in a fireman's lift. But usually it was a show you would watch early in the morning, in the 6 and 7AM hours, volume turned down as low as it would go so you wouldn't wake anyone else in the house, the sheer feeling of late-night all over it, like some secret whispered at you from back beyond midnight.

Big throw-ins. Goal of the month. Der duh luh duh duh–der. Exotic teams hauled up from the first division who you'd never heard of before: Bradford, Charlton, Ipswich. Dun der duh luh der der. Crowd applause falling to a hush like rainfall, and slow-motion replays of twisted knees, and Des Lynam in a tan suit, and Alan Hansen, fuming. Me, pyjamas pulled over my head in a full Ravanelli, pirouetting around the front room with my arms outstretched, and that theme tune reaching its crescendo – DUN DUH DUN DERLUHNDE-DUN DUN DUN DUN DEH DUN DEH LUHN DEH DUN DUN! – and then, so inevitably, a slipper on the floor on the ceiling above, an angry creaking in the bedroom above me, and the urgent demand that I shut the living fuck up.

Match of the Day has been running for 54 years, and all 31 of the ones I've been alive. It has gone from the most thrilling and important show in my life to something I kind of half-watch with a beer, before walking out of the room whenever Danny Murphy comes on. It is as much a part of modern football as the linesman is, or bad, hot half-time pies, or buying a striker from the Eredivisie and him turning out to be a bit shit. But what is it? What is it? What is it? What is it? Beyond an absolute banger of a theme tune: it is near impossible to tell.

* * *

The format of Match of the Day is this: selected highlights from the day's Premier League games are shown in a completely non-biased order of importance (*1), then three to four men mildly discuss them while sat wide-legged on what appears to be the futuristic prow of a hyperspace ship. Gary Lineker presents. The last show of every calendar month sees a sizzle reel of the best goals scored, followed by a Twitter vote that gets rigged by Arsenal fans, and occasionally Alan Shearer turns in his chair and chuckles in Geordie, but mainly the format is pretty rigidly the same: football, then Phil Neville analysing a defensive line with the kind of hard-edged energy that suggests he’s being held off-screen at gunpoint, and then more football, in diminishing portions as the fixtures go on.

By the final game of the show – Brighton hoofing it around at a half-empty Cardiff City stadium, defenders shouting "MAN ON!" so loud it reverberates back from the empty seats – you, the audience and Gary Lineker himself are all tired of the concept of football. You start the show full of hope and a Sergio Agüero hat-trick, and you end it watching Anthony Knockaert running into an upright goal post. No other show oscillates so wildly between the glamour and the grime.

The current list of pundits are these:

Ian Wright, former Arsenal striker and teacher embracer and possibly the only man on Earth who can rock a gold tooth at the same time as Penfold glasses, like a former porn magnate gone legit, somehow selling you all his DVDs at a car boot sale just by talking confidently enough at you about it—

Phil Neville, deputy-head dinner lady who hasn’t quite been the same since that attack, 500 appearances for Manchester United and Everton—

Martin Keown, a bouncer who makes local newspaper headlines after, at the age of 45, teaching himself to read—

Jermaine Jenas, Facebook estate agent and formerly Britain’s most expensive teenager—

Danny Murphy, a man I am convinced crushes all the crisps in the packet before he opens it and eats them like a savoury dust, the famous face of spending four nights a week sleeping in the car park of a motorway service station—

Alan Shearer, a man who exudes eactly two vibes: "I take six holidays a year" and "I could beat the ever-loving shit out of someone if they mess with me in a chippy"—

Ruud Gullit, cheerful continental tech guy presenting his doomed app during a glamour-break at E3—

Screenshot via: 'Match of the Day 2', the "your younger brother is bombing a best man's speech" Sunday night version of the show.

The thing about the pundits is it almost doesn't matter who they are that week: they interchange and tessellate, and they all make the same knowing nods and winks, and they all talk from the same position of ex-pro-who-didn’t-fancy-management, and they all, very crucially, sit in the same awkward stiff-backed position and wear the same taut-round-the-buttons tucked in black or navy shirt.

Match of the Day is built to be a basked-glory reflection of the beautiful game, and with football being so swollen with money and hyperbole now, MotD has to follow suit: while it used to be Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen frowning over muddy defending behind a rigid desk, it’s now a table that looks like a set of coasters your mum gets mad as you for unbalancing, and swooping computer graphics front, centre and back, and replays on replays, angles on angles. Looming enormous ghosts of players hologram in front of them as the pundits speak (Gabriel Jesus folds his arms in front of the robust-in-retirement figure of guest panellist Paul Ince; Martin Keown watches in horror as Paul Pogba enormously dabs). Slow motion replays with attackers bathed in spotlight and the defensive line joined together with graphics. "You have to get it in the mixer," Shearer opines, and on-screen The Mixer is highlighted in crimson. "Get your head in there, that’s a goal."

Watch enough Match of the Day – talk to enough football fans – and you’ll realise so much of football analysis is about what hasn’t happened, and what could have happened, as opposed to, very crucially, what did happen. United could just win the title this season if they bought a decent winger, sorted their defence out. If that Arsenal goal goes in, that’s three points instead of one, and then they’re right there or thereabouts. If Spurs had bought anyone this summer then we’d be looking at an even more powerful and in-form team, somehow. If City never got Pep this all wouldn’t be happening.

Football fans come in two categories – weird, and very weird – and there is something about the game, the four corners of the pitch, the parameters of the goal, the rigid win-lose-draw, that drives them insane: it makes them spend deep hours of the night watching YouTube compilations of towering 19-year-old defenders, and look up WhoScored stats, and figure out how many goals a team should be scoring based on their expected stats. The rules and results are there to stretch, contort and break against. Match of the Day embraces this: Phil Neville quietly explains how a defence could have kept a clean sheet, Ian Wright insists a striker could have had three if he just aimed for the corners. They stare at a victory or a loss and explain how it might have unfolded instead. They tell you how to win a game that has already been won.

Tone-wise, Match of the Day falls somewhere between half-banter and quarter-banter: it’s your girlfriend’s dad gently ribbing you at a barbecue, it's two middle managers on an ill-advised Friday lunchtime pint finally realising they both support the same team. Thrown into an awkward conversation, most men will default to football talk, even if they don’t really know about the game: Match of the Day is the natural conclusion of that, the tone adopted when three strangers at a party have decided to forego all other conversation – as well as talking to anyone else – to instead huddle safely in a corner with a single bottle of Heineken, occasionally saying, "of course – Wilfried Bony" and whispering about 4–4–2.

In an era when football fandom and the discourse around it so often leans into realms of near nerdish fantasy – knowing what an expected assist is, in my opinion, is right up there with knowing the topography of Westeros, in that yes, I'm sure it’s useful and it proves that you take things more seriously than everyone else, but also it's so deeply unimportant, so astoundingly uncool – Match of the Day maintains everyman appeal: it’s apolitical, entry-level football analysis, football for all, football for every end of the spectrum, football for the man who likes top corner bangers and doesn’t necessarily know what offside is, as much as it is football for the man who knows what Watford’s manager looks like.

To that end: tell me a memorable Match of the Day moment. Think back. Every episode you have ever watched. Childhood until now. Recall one moment that happened in it. It’s not, technically, possible: MotD is about presenting the football highlights in as close to a conflict-free zone as possible, sandwiched with analysis that you can technically leave the room and go for a piss during, before coming back into the room about as well-informed. It acts as the spiritual opposite to the shouting-into-a-wireless-mic of Sky’s bombastic Soccer Saturday. Hard opinions are almost never expressed. Squabbles and disagreements are near non-existent. The fightiest an episode ever gets is when Alan Shearer watches a highlight back and says "he’s got to do better", or when someone says with a wry smile that a clear penalty appeal was maybe not a penalty after all. The meat of Match of the Day is, ostensibly, the football highlights themselves: the gravy it sits in is basically just a computer-generated airplane hangar with Danny Murphy in the middle of it, grey and scared, recounting a free kick in slow motion.

So much of what makes MotD in any way watchable, then, is the safe-hands presenting style of Gary Lineker, the living embodiment of "dad who got a motorbike and now is doing quite well on Bumble". My favourite Gary Lineker move is this: slowly rising hand from the knee as the camera swoops in and around him, while looking up and saying, "Well—." My favourite Gary Lineker move is: [putting on a pair of glasses to read a prepared statement]. My favourite Gary Lineker move is: talking on wireless earphones while standing upright and gazing into a TV screen satellite link with a foreign manager, a stiff and stilted interview he recorded several hours earlier in the day. Gary Lineker always signs off with the same lilting up, pause, then lilting down, softly-spoken goodbye vocal run. Gary Lineker always smirks just slightly and turns to camera, bodily shushing Alan Shearer as he does it. Gary Lineker has grown that beard out now and we’re just accepting it, we’ve stopped saying anything about it, because Gary Lineker is very sound. Gary Lineker is always a full season’s colour palette ahead of the rest of the panel in terms of shirts and slacks. Gary Lineker whispers you off to sleep.

When I was a kid, Match of the Day was either the holy ritual of my Sunday mornings or the most head-spinningly up-past-bedtime illegally illicit Saturday night thrill-ride I could possibly imagine. Now I’m an adult, I’m struggling to figure out exactly what it is, and I think that’s sort of the point. What is it? Watch it now, and it’s the iconic theme tune played over slightly-off football iconography, football as written by a committee that has only slightly heard of football before: roaring wolves, glowing-eyed foxes, symbolic city architecture, huge ancient hammers crossing over northern hills, a wolf atop a mountain, Tottenham’s cockerel inverted against a Watford badge, a rose, the seaside, lions and spiralling rollercoaster architecture (???), Tyne Bridges and a sky-blue moon. Inside, the tone falls somewhere between hyper bombast and back-of-the-pub-reading-the-newspaper while Danny Murphy mentally plans his funeral: not entertaining, exactly, not anti­-entertaining, but some sort of patter void in between.

You might think a lack of tub-thumping identity is a bad thing, but thinking on it, I think it’s the exact inverse: what do football fans want, exactly? They want their team to win three points every week and their rivals to lose by the exact same margin. They want Gary Lineker and Ian Wright to spend 90 minutes discussing just precisely how good their goalkeeper is. They want to see the highlights, but not the bits where their team concedes, or when the referee blows against them, or when a rival player leaves their centre-back flat on his arse. They want the impossible, essentially, and Match of the Day doesn’t even shoot for that: "Here," Match of the Day says, "here are the football highlights you wanted. They are in glorious HD and the only payment you have is to endure Phil Neville talking about them."

Match of the Day gives and gives and expects nothing back, and that’s what unites us over it. No other show is as frequently watched with a bottle of beer and some crisps. No other show is so frustrating to chase the licensing of a repeat around on iPlayer. No other show is as avidly watched by steaming drunk lads fresh back from the pub and ten-year-olds in their pyjamas with the volume turned down, and as someone who has at various points been both of those different viewers, I’m glad for that.

In an era when you can know about every Premier League goal within seconds of it being scored – either by watching an afternoon-long live-stream of them, app notifications pushed to your phone, successful bets coming in or illegal .GIFS being immediately tweeted and retweeted – it’s quite soothing to know that somewhere, without narratives and storyline (teams, in the MotD universe, are one of two states: "really pushing for the top" or "gonna struggle this year"; occasionally, someone will "surprise us"), a sort of neutral slop of football fandom is waiting for us, regular as clockwork, 10.20PM on a Saturday night, and probably will be for the rest of our lives, and then for a bit after that, until heat death of the universe explodes us, and all that is left is darkness, carbon and a soft, thrumming trumpet: dun dun duh der duh luhn duhn duhn duh. And then it gets louder: der, duh luh duhn duh. And then Danny Murphy goes on about taking penalties for a bit.


(*1) Ha ha ha, ha ha, ha ha ha ha ha. Oh, god, no. A casual reading of the Match of the Day order-of-play might suggest that matches are chosen on importance, goal count and drama, with dwindling returns of each as the show goes on, but that’s easy for me to say as a fan of one of the Big Six teams who almost always head up the show. A brief dip into the world of football conspiracy and you will find thousands of fans constantly ringing with the idea that Match of the Day – and the BBC as a wider whole – has some sort of regional conspiracy against their team, and that, for instance, is why Burnley are always in the last three games, and not because they never score and their stadium seems to be a very large corrugated shed. I used to live with an Everton fan, and him going on about anti-BBC bias actually made me straight up stop watching the show at home for a while. "Last three, again!" he'd say, texting his dad, who was furiously texting him the exact same thing. This is how men bond. We go mad, together.