‘Gary Lineker’s the best in the business,” said the BBC director-general, Tim Davie, on Saturday, during a hostile interview with his own organisation in which he insisted he would not resign. “That’s not for debate.”
An eerily simplified edition of Match of the Day, truncated to just 20 minutes in length, underlined his point.
Only 32 hours previously, viewers had been expecting the best football highlights programme there has ever been to appear as normal. Its host, Lineker, had been criticised by government ministers and their media outriders for tweeting that the Conservatives’ dehumanising language about refugees was reminiscent of 1930s Germany, but the storm would surely blow over soon. Then, however, the BBC pulled out a shotgun and aimed it shoewards. On Friday afternoon, it announced it had suspended Lineker for breaching impartiality guidelines.
When regular MotD analyst Ian Wright posted that he had chosen not to participate in the programme in “solidarity” with Lineker, it sparked the wildest few hours on Twitter since David Cameron was accused of porking a pig. By the end of the evening, every possible replacement host and pundit had tweeted to rule themselves out of filling in, the show’s commentators had pulled out en masse, and even the players’ union had said there wouldn’t be any post-match interviews. So it was that, the following night, with the BBC now deep in crisis, an embarrassed continuity announcer was forced to intone, “Now on BBC One, we’re sorry that we’re unable to show our normal Match of the Day … ”
Impatient football fans have for some time been able to circumvent Match of the Day and watch cursory three-minute highlights packages of Premier League matches, for free, on YouTube. That explains the 20-minute run-time: there were six Premier League games on Saturday, which makes 18 minutes of footage. And that really was it. Even the theme music, which is one of the best on TV – check that bassline when and if it plays on BBC One again – was retired, presumably because it does too good a job of hyping up a programme that on this occasion deserved the opposite of a fanfare.
The scab MotD wasn’t actually as good as a compilation of the YouTube highlights would have been: they have Sky Sports commentary, but the BBC doesn’t have the rights to that – and, hilariously, it turns out it doesn’t even have access to the default “world feed” commentary commissioned by the Premier League. So there was just crowd noise, which never translates to television well and sounds fake when it’s heavily edited for a highlights reel.
Some viewers, whether they sincerely meant it or were just saying what their chosen side in the culture war demands, had said that this would be the Match of the Day they always wanted: they hate the commentators and pundits! Just show them the football! And for football fanatics, the super-slim MotD was … OK. For viewers who can’t identify Solly March or Diogo Jota at a distance, however, or who don’t know why Ben Chilwell might cup his ears after scoring against Leicester or why a Harry Kane penalty on Saturday was significant, it would have been a confusing, context-free experience. Look away at the wrong moment and you could even miss the final score in a game.
It was a joyless watch because, although Match of the Day is just a vehicle for showing Premier League football highlights, it’s all the stuff around it that makes it a Saturday-night BBC One show. Davie was right: Lineker doesn’t present Match of the Day because he banged in three against Poland at the 1986 World Cup. He presents it because he is perhaps the best in the TV business at the nightmarishly difficult task of juggling analysis, discussion and links to camera to fit a light tone and a rigid running time, in a show broadcast live to a massive audience. It’s a pleasure to watch him do it. His fluid but informative interactions with Wright and Alan Shearer are, as can be confirmed by watching football on any other channel, not as easy as they look. Beyond the studio, commentators like Steve Wilson have spent years honing the rare skill of improvising just the right phrase to describe the action.
When all those people took a stand this week, it put the BBC in deep trouble, and this emergency version of MotD showed why: without them, Match of the Day is very nearly nothing.