Now, then – were we pre-modern before we were post-modern? Or were we simply modern? Whatever the correct term, there once was a time when presenters of television sports programmes were a straight, serious bunch in suits. These bastions of broadcasting for several decades were not beyond the occasional joke, usually when a comedian appeared as a guest on the less formal ambience of a Christmas special or those Cup Final shows that had hours to fill before the ref blew his whistle at 3.00. Largely, however, they had the same avuncular trustworthiness of the era’s newsreaders. It was hard to envisage any of them having a life outside of the studio or sports arena. I don’t think any of their political views or opinions on the day’s issues were ever expressed during a broadcast; they were there solely to air their views on the sport they were covering and the sportsmen and women participating in them.
In a way, Jimmy Hill was the first break with the formula; his initial appearances on London Weekend’s ‘The Big Match’ portrayed him as a bit of an arrogant dandy, with his beard, bushy, long-ish hair, and Carnaby Street-style neckerchief. His naturally combative style as a pundit also set him apart from the genial gentleman’s club of the comb-over crowd; that haircut seemed to be a requisite coiffured touch at the time, worn by such stalwarts as David Coleman, Frank Bough, Harry Carpenter and Brian Moore. Once Jimmy Hill moved into the presenter’s seat, he toned down his opinionated spiel, but I’ve no doubt that if social media had existed in the 1970s, Hill and the likes of Brian Clough (who became a household name mainly through his blunt speaking TV punditry) would have utilised it to get their egos across to as wide an audience as possible.
Would they, however, have engaged in the kind of non-football arguments Gary Lineker has engaged in on Twitter this week? Having kicked-off the season hosting ‘Match of the Day’ in his pants, Lineker is certainly cut from a different cloth to his predecessors. David Coleman in a similar situation that led to Lineker’s unappetising striptease would probably have said he’d eat his hat if Leicester City won the league, though Coleman belonged to the generation that would have actually worn a hat. But Lineker, plying his trade on the pitch through the 80s and into the 90s, belongs to the generation that sought to shed the archaic image of footballers who headed for the golf course to the strains of Robert Palmer or Dire Straits and were polite young men when interviewed by father figures.
In the 90s, ‘Fantasy Football League’ and ‘Under the Moon’ were new, late-night post-modern commentaries on sport that brought the irony prevalent in both the music press and magazines like ‘Loaded’ to a TV genre that had previously been in the hands of dads. Building on the success of Saint and Greavsie on ITV in the 80s, Sky had established its own even cruder double act in the shape of Richard Keys and Andy Gray, though their humour was essentially old-school and certainly didn’t equate with the post-graduate atmosphere that rejected both the starchy presentation of the Beeb and the ‘Wheeltappers and Shunters’ coarseness of its satellite competition.
As for the BBC, it took the retirement of that smooth silver fox Des Lynam from ‘Match of the Day’ for the vacancy to be filled by Lineker, who dispensed with the desk and imported a polished version of ‘TFI Friday’-type presentation to proceedings. The days when Des would soberly don his glasses to speak seriously on the subject of Eric Cantona scissor-kicking hecklers hurling abuse at him were long gone.
With the exception of Frank Bough and the somewhat racy escapades he’d much rather have kept out of the headlines, BBC sports presenters used to keep a low profile off-screen; their non-sports opinions were certainly kept to themselves. But in the Twitter age, Lineker has an online voice as loud as the current players whose performances he analyses on ‘Match of the Day’. Were he to reserve his tweets for the sport he played and presents, his opinions would only be of interest to football fans; but in expanding his Twitter portfolio by commenting on wider events in the world, he has been drawn into the murky waters of trolldom and the instant outrage agenda that generates it.
Making an enemy of UKIP and the EDL, not to mention the Sun – a paper whose track record when it comes to football tragedies alone is hardly something to shout about – won’t necessarily end Lineker’s career; if anything, it could well prolong it. Murdoch’s masses mouthpiece demanding ‘the jug-eared lefty luvvie’ be sacked for questioning the nasty, scaremongering reporting of the refugee ‘children’ arriving on British shores from Calais is a bit rich; but the Sun ascending the moral high-ground is always amusing. Lineker played into their hands by foolishly labelling anyone disagreeing with his own viewpoint as racist, though it was no more stupid than Tory MP David Davies describing Lineker’s response as ‘emotive and controversial views’.
The Sun resorting to playground taunts on the size of Lineker’s ears is just about the level this particular spat has descended to, leaving the actual subject under discussion the province of the prejudiced on one side and the apologists on the other, with no middle ground – again.
© The Editor