Being abroad for a while certainly gives one a different perspective on the Premier League. There’s no blanket coverage. It’s not in all the newspapers. It’s not talked about often in the workplace. Would you believe there’s actually a world outside the Barclays Premier League?
Well, it turns out there is. Last year I was lucky enough to watch a lot of Fox Soccer’s coverage of the Premier League here in the USA. Despite the bombastic musical overture and flashy graphical presentation, it had a far more relaxed and laid-back presentation and attitude towards the English game than I’d been used to.
First off, the host, Rob Stone, enthusiastic without being grating, was excellent. He let the ex-pros have their say but wasn’t afraid to chip in an opinion or two, and could often be found smoothly dropping in references to professional wrestling and guns n’roses (amongst others things) during his segues.
His main sidekick ad infinitum was Warren Barton, former Premier League mainstay, never shy of putting forth his point of view. He was always something of a figurehead. In the studio, there was an air that suggested, “you may not agree with this man, but he’s played 3,623 games in the Premier League. And he used to play for Maidstone United, so you have to respect him.” Prone to using big hand gestures and wearing nice waistcoats, those two things along already make him a better analyst than Mark Lawrenson and Alan Shearer. Essentially though, he was an engaging and interesting pundit.
Then we have the Robin to Barton’s Batman: Eric Wynalda. Even at 7am PST, this man was a bubbling ball of enthusiasm and excitment. He was so clearly passionate about the game, you could see he genuinely loved being able to sit there and watch these games and then get to talk about them after. I always felt there was something more about him, something existentially uplifting. He loves football, but not only that, he believes in football, he believes that it is a force for good, and he makes you want to believe in it too.
And the three of them had a great chemistry. Sometimes the discussion would get quite heated over a controversial point, but it was never antagonistic. More often than not, there was a warm, convivial feeling to proceedings and it pulled you right into it. They were often funny, quick to praise good football but not afraid to be damning of dull matches or poor sportsmanship.
It’s these qualities of honesty and conviviality that NBC’s coverage (the new rights holders to Premier League matches) sorely lack. Everything is taken very seriously. Rebecca Lowe looks constantly like she is about to deliver bad news to someone. Robbie Earle is there, hunched forward and eyebrows raised, but unable to shift out of second gear. Robbie Mustoe is also there, clearly still thinking that he’s on some kind of massive wind up and Jeremy Beadle is going to appear in a gorilla suit at any moment.
It’s all very dry and drab, and for a show going out on the flagship channel of one of America’s biggest networks, you wonder if it’s doing more harm than good it when it comes Americans’ preconceptions of soccer being boring and the English being stuffy. Fox’s coverage never came close that, but NBC seem to be playing up to it. They’re trying so hard to impress New Viewers, they’ve completely lost sight of what was good about what came before it. They’d do well to remember that you can’t polish a turd, and Monday’s 0-0 game between Man Utd and Chelsea was an enormous floating example of that.
There’s still the issue of the commentary to be discussed, but that’s for another time. The good news is that Rob, Warren & co. can still be found presenting Champions League matches. I’ll leave you with a clip of the live coverage from the game between Palace and Sunderland. Please note this was the live coverage, while the game was going on and things were happening on the pitch. Thumbs up all round.