The Footy Show: rebooted but McGuire and Newman quickly revert to type | Jonathan Horn

With Eddie McGuire back alongside professional angry man Sam Newman, any attempt to revitalise the show is an exercise in futility

In 1994, The Footy Show was the right show at the right time. Pay TV had yet to arrive in Australia. The five available channels dished up some truly grim fare. Hey Dad was still on in prime time. Our only taste of reality television had come through Sylvania Waters and its impossibly vile Donaher family. The most popular live variety show was still co-hosted by an ostrich.

Despite its national reach, The Footy Show had a decidedly Melbourne feel. The city, which had been hit particularly hard by the recession, was open for business again. Advertisers were spending money. There was a new casino. There was a premier who pretty much did as he pleased.

Footy was changing too. Though it’s tempting to look back with rose-coloured glasses, footy in the 1980s was in a rut. Most of the clubs were broke. Crowds were down. The same clubs won the flag every year. The players were paid nowhere near enough.

By the time The Footy Show aired, the AFL was finally a truly national competition. The West Coast Eagles had taken the flag out of Victoria, with their three-verse theme song blaring to sullen stands. The game was replete with superstars – Carey, Ablett, Lockett, Modra and Allen Jakovich. Just a few years earlier, if you wanted your fix of footy heroes, there was Dermott Brereton on the Ernie and Denise show and there were handball competitions in suburban shopping centres. But footballers were now bobbing up everywhere. They were making serious money. The entrepreneurial vim of men like Ricky Nixon was heralded.

With apologies to the besuited footballers and the affable host, it was Sam Newman who drew the viewers. Granted, from the outset, there was an undercurrent of nastiness, as he sought out the more wretched reaches of the social stratum. But he had a certain post-coital charm and a quicksilver mind. In the early days, he actually seemed to be enjoying himself.

At the end of his Street Talk segment, the camera would catch him, ever so briefly, sporting a “what the hell am I doing with my life” look on his face. But then readjust himself and reach for his tutu, or his face polish, or his staple-gun. Newman, who barely had a pot to piss in when the show first started, was unstoppable. The rage ricocheted and the ratings soared. Channel Nine insisted that Eddie McGuire and Newman fly on separate light aircraft.

Fast forward nearly a quarter of a century and so much has changed. The game, though no less intriguing, is almost unrecognisable these days. There are initiatives to stamp out homophobia and to highlight the scourge of depression. There is, say it softly, a professional women’s competition. Both pay and free-to-air TV has been colonised by football shows. By the time we get to Thursday, most of us are all footied out. Our general viewing habits have changed, too. Last month, 820,000 Australians were watching Game of Thrones on a Tuesday morning. On the Sunday, 3.3 million people watched a bunch of amateur rock climbers and personal trainers traverse a ropes course.

Newman, despite his protestations to the contrary, has changed as well. He presents as a professionally angry man these days. In recent years, The Footy Show has been notable only for his lectures from the pulpit. For two or three minutes, his blade sheathed, his face clenched and his finger pointed, he’ll rail against this and that, call his detractors “perfumed excrement” and bewail a politically correct world gone mad. The only thing more tedious than his rants is the ensuing outrage.

McGuire, who took back the hosting reigns on Thursday night, and who calls Newman “one of the most unique, entertaining and intellectual people you’ll find on TV” is thus on a hiding to nothing. When his return was announced, someone harked back to Denis Cometti’s maxim, as relayed to Russell Jackson last year. “You can go back to the place,” he said, “but not the time.”

McGuire is a competitor at heart. He loves to win. And he loves proving people wrong. When he became president of Collingwood, the club was in a hole. Victoria Park was falling apart. There was a legionnaires outbreak in the spa. A weights rack collapsed, coasting the club tens of thousands of dollars and almost killing the guy loading up his barbell. Through sheer force of personality, he revitalised the place. He’d just turned 34.

But his latest task – to turn Newman’s frown upside down and “to bring the fun back to football,” may be beyond even him. He was champing at the bit on Thursday night. He had his baby back. On horseback, quoting William Wallace, he looked about three stone lighter, courtesy of an extreme herb and cucumber based diet. But the show quickly reverted to type. The whole thing felt a bit pointless. “From my position,” he says, “The Footy Show is all about being massive.” For most footy fans however, it’s simply irrelevant. It’s gone to suet. It‘s best consigned to the ash heap of history.


Jonathan Horn

The GuardianTramp

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