Now boasting a trendy acronym and the crisply blazered Ed Chamberlin, Monday Night Football is back with a vengeance...
The history of televised football is a long and (arguably) fascinating one, but seeing as I have an actual job to do, I won’t bother going into it here. Needless to say, Sky and its well-heeled, no-nonsense presenting troupe have been a highly visible presence along the way. I say ‘no-nonsense’ – that much was true until about eight months ago, when long-serving anchor duo Richard Keys and Andy Gray were a) dramatically ensnared as victims of a conniving plot conjured by jealous subordinates, or b) finally called out as the pre-historic, woman-hating knuckle-draggers they are and got their arses handed to them on a plate (delete as appropriate). Either way, the corporation's image most definitely took a sizeable knock.
Back when the Premier League made its bow in 1992, Sky’s Monday Night Football show was pitched as the ideological equivalent of its NFL namesake: a mouth-watering feast of dancing girls, fireworks and Simple Minds-soundtracked fist pumping, all dished up with a generous side of novelty. Football! On a Monday night! Quite the time to be alive.
Having decided to shift focus to the lucrative mid-week cash dispenser that is the Champions League, Sky’s Monday night game started to lose some of its vajazzle and when the ill-fated Setanta Sports pinched the rights in 2007, the spectacle, to the majority of sofa dwellers at least, more or less fizzled out entirely. But over the past year or so, it has crept back into view, gradually re-establishing a foothold in our already hectic soccer viewing schedule.
Now boasting a trendy acronym and the crisply blazered Ed Chamberlin, Monday Night Football (or ‘MNF’, as those workaholics in Murdoch’s marketing imaginatorium would have it known) is back with a vengeance. Chamberlin, with his minty-fresh eyes and welcoming hair, represents a safe (and depilated) pair of hands for the shows producers – you’re unlikely to find young Ed nudge-winking his way through an ad break as the work experience girl bends over to tape down a loose wire. Joining Chamberlin in the MNF control tower is former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville: scourge of Liverpudlians and beard trimmers alike, now recast as expert summariser – the analytical yin to Chamberlin’s Autocue-ready yang.
Following a mixed online reaction to Neville’s MNF début at Manchester City the previous week, the moustachioed one’s second major challenge of the new season had arrived: casting his analytical eye over his boyhood club’s home game with Tottenham. Sky is of course no stranger to risking a little partisan analysis. Jaime Redknapp remains present (in body at least) during Liverpool games, Ray Wilkins can get a little dreamy and nostalgic during Chelsea fixtures, and who could realistically forget Mike Summerbee’s peculiar bout of statistics denial in the wake of February’s Manchester derby?
Nonetheless, it probably didn’t help Neville that, after a patchy and evenly-matched first hour, United turned on the style, a situation which could easily have resulted in more arse-licking submission than a night round Max Mosley's pad. But with the level-headed Chamberlin alongside, Neville held his own. He also proved especially adept at handling Sky’s Transcendental Interface of Football Dreams (or ‘STIFD’), gracefully dragging, dropping, slowing and circling like a seasoned user; the natural heir to Gray’s misogyny–encrusted throne (but without the hateful insecurity).
Down on the pitch, once United’s attack finally clicked, the new-look look front line resembled the selection one might find in a drawer of fine cutlery. Danny Welbeck is the knife – incisive and to the point – whilst Ashley Young is the fork, picking and prodding at whatever is served up in front of him. Wayne Rooney, meanwhile, is very much the dessert spoon: strong, shapely and with a face like a carnival mirror. Having exhausted this metaphor, let’s just say Nani is a bit like a tin opener and move on.
The second half quality displayed by Fergie’s latest fledglings was befitting of an occasion when two young presenting bucks also came of age. Ferguson was full of praise for his latest crop of upstarts as he spoke post-match (a privilege no longer exclusively Sky’s after Mike Phelan’s summer facial hair growth left Sir rethinking his interview ban with the Beeb). “We put him [Welbeck] on loan to Sunderland last season and that is when he became a man”, proclaimed Sir, misty-eyed at the bittersweet thought of finally replacing those faded photos of Nicky Butt in his wallet. Like Welbeck and Tom Cleverly, who combined for United’s opener, Ed and Gary are forming quite the double act, although self-confidence is admittedly something Neville has never exactly lacked.
“I played for twenty years and never got a handshake off the manager!” quipped Neville upon viewing Welbeck’s substitution, a cheeky bon mot eagerly greeted with a healthy-yet-professional chuckle from Chamberlin, the pair modelling a fetching line in family-friendly banter. Whilst Chamberlin orchestrated affairs in a mature, safe-as-houses, offensive-as-a-light-breeze manner, Neville’s assured performance represented something of a triumph of reinvention. Self-effacing, insightful, yet still repugnant to Kopites everywhere – what more could you wish for?
Well, for one thing, what MNF (and, by extension, much of today's football coverage) lacks is a little breathing space. Having watched a whole two plus hours of pre- and post-game discussion, not to mention the match itself, by late evening I was feeling slightly jaded, overwhelmed by the multitude of angles, stats and replays I had been privy to. Retiring to bed that night, I could have easily recreated the entire match in my dreams.
At times Sky's no-stone-unturned match deconstruction can feel like the football equivalent of taking apart and dissecting word-by-word a piece of A-Level literature, which runs the risk of leaving the whole process feeling staunchly academic and ultimately a little unrewarding. If ocean-deep analysis provides heightened insight into the tactical and psychological mechanics of the game, it perhaps dispenses with some of the heart and soul, the difference between driving a cared-for old banger and a sleek piece of Vorsprung durch opulence. Football, like life, perhaps thrives on a little grit and mystery.
Two people who will be sleeping soundly, however, are Ed and Gary, not that I'm suggesting their relationship runs anywhere beyond the purely professional. This season polished proficiency is most assuredly in. Monday Night Football, then: Sky, for the most part, know how to do it.