Screen Test

The BBC’s TV programme schedules for Saturday 4 August were depressing for what they omitted. On the first day of the new football season, there was neither Final Score nor Match of the Day. With what by common consent was the conclusion of the most dramatic Test Match since the last most dramatic Test Match, there was of course no cricket at all.
The absence of any football coverage is presumably explained by the fact that the Premier League doesn’t start until next weekend. So that’s a single upright finger from the British Broadcasting Corporation to all fans of English clubs outside the Premier League and of other British clubs outside Wales.
There was one forlorn hope. An inexplicable break in the published BBC1 schedule at 4.45pm separated European Championships 2018 from European Championships 2018. The witching hour for football supporters begins at 4.45pm. In the event, nothing happened at 4.45pm apart from Chris Hoy talking engagingly about his early career. While the football results could have been screened, the BBC showed the Women’s 800 metre Breaststroke Final, 16 lengths, with no British interest, for eight minutes plus. How long does it take to read the football results? Five minutes? Meanwhile on BBC2, Flog It! began on time.
Where cricket is concerned, the BBC threw in the towel a long time ago. It talks a good game. The fetish object that is Test Match Special sits smugly on the pedestal sustained by the rest of the corporation. On Radio 5 Live, the pretence that people might actually prefer their sport without moving pictures is repeated daily, many times, as if that might eventually make it true.
The results are dispiriting. The BBC becomes a cheerleader for events that other broadcasters will screen. In a hole and continuing to dig, it surely drums up interest in subscriptions to BT and Sky. Carried away by its own enthusiasm, it loses a sense of perspective: how can a Test Match be a ‘classic’ when only two of the four possible outcomes are available by tea on the third day? And perversely, in its news bulletins, it subsequently broadcasts spoilers.
Online, by contrast, its sports service is comprehensive. Football scores are automatically refreshed, details of individual games are available and ‘virtual’ league tables are updated to reflect, pointlessly, fluctuating fortunes. (This service may not be entirely reliable: the Oldham v Milton Keynes fixture had apparently not kicked off by 3.11pm. Meanwhile, MK Dons had gone up 0-1 from a penalty.) In the red-ball game, cricket scores are updated ball-by-ball.
Perhaps this is how sport will be ‘consumed’ from now on: live, on television, only for those able to afford the appropriate subscription (or canny enough to find a streaming portal); or verbal/textual, regularly updated and free. If the latter, it’s almost a return to the early days of ‘live’ Ashes Test Match commentaries. In the 1930s, audiences in Australia listened through the night to ‘live’ wireless broadcasts put together ball-by-ball from cables. It’s Teletext all over again. It doesn’t feel like progress. It feels as if supporters of second-class clubs are second-class citizens.

Humble origins

The main aim of Towns of Two Halves is to encourage you to go and take a look at places that you might never have considered. All those towns have something to offer.

But the football is the common denominator and it needn’t be the lowest. As England’s success in the World Cup demonstrates, a trip to somewhere obscure might give you a glimpse of the football stars of tomorrow.

The goalkeepers in the squad are the most exotic examples. Over the past five years you could have gone to Darlington, Alfreton, Burton Albion, Carlisle, Bradford City or Preston North End and seen Jordan Pickford between the sticks. His back-up Nick Pope was even more widely travelled: Bury Town, Welling, Cambridge United, Aldershot, York City and Bury. Jack Butland confined himself largely to the Midlands and Yorkshire; he played for Birmingham, Cheltenham, Stoke, Barnsley, Leeds and Derby before moving to Stoke.

Of the outfield starting XI, Dele Alli’s origins are probably the humblest at Milton Keynes Dons. But five years ago you might have seen Harry Kane turning out on loan with Millwall and Norwich; John Stones was still at Barnsley, Harry Maguire was at Sheffield United in League 1 and Jesse Lingard had a spell on loan with Birmingham City.

How will you know you’re watching a star of the future? You probably need to talk to the home fans. Dele Alli was among the scorers when MK Dons put seven past Oldham in 2014. I had no idea I was watching a World Cup warrior of the future. Besides, Geoffrey Boycott’s grandmother batting with a stick of rhubarb could have scored against Oldham that day. But Tottenham signed him just three months later, so somebody clearly knew.

It’s a little like watching bands on the way up. You see people you’ve never heard of playing in the back room of a pub. Sometimes you only know they’re special with hindsight, and with the perspective that comes from kissing a large number of frogs. But it does mean that there’s always a good reason to go, just in case…

Martin Defender

Do football fans reads books? Maybe not, according to excellent BBC pundit Martin Keown (…/world-cup-england-v-sweden-…). On the other hand the wonderful Pat Nevin said on Radio 5 Live yesterday that the France/Belgium match was “the football intellectual’s semi-final”. As a book for football fans (and anyone else who reads books), Towns of Two Halves is with Pat – and with Rachel Burden, who introduced him in a momentary lapse of concentration as ‘Pat Winger’.