The Birmingham Beelzebub

On Wednesday night, I saw the devil. He’s a Brummie. If ever there was a sign that football has descended into a slightly more active version of Loose Women, it was Adrian Chiles’ steadfast refusal to cover Sunderland’s victory over Middlesbrough in spite of his own channel actually showing the match.

Here was an FA Cup tie containing two teams, local rivals no less, who took us to extra time and almost penalties. A match blessed with three well-taken goals including a great strike from Jack Colback. Yet anyone tuning in for the highlights at half or full-time would barely have caught a glimpse or mention of this, because ITV had their own agenda. Far from discussing the match, the only thing Chiles and chums wanted to talk about was the sensational resignation of former England boss Fabio Capello.

Now, to totally neglect the story that along with Harry Redknapp’s acquittal made up a footballing double header at the start of the news would have been baffling, but to totally neglect the match itself was a sad indictment of what the media considers important. Instead of clips of the many talented youngsters on show or the key moments in the match aside from just the goals, we were treated to Wayne Rooney’s tweet. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except ITV had already shown it at the bottom of the screen during the game, as though it was a landmark message in footballing history rather than a pleasant but banal comment from a man whose opinion doesn’t really matter. That isn’t to disparage Rooney; there is nothing wrong with a player releasing a polite message about a former manager. The question is: why did we need to read this quote so urgently that it had to be plastered onto the screen during proceedings and then chewed over afterwards?

The answer, sadly, is that Wayne Rooney is the most high-profile player in the England setup. If Leighton Baines or Scott Carson had posted word-for-word the same tweet, it would have been totally ignored. Maybe one of them did. It would have been ignored because beyond trumpeting media-darling Redknapp’s cause, it contained nothing especially interesting, revealing or insightful. The only value it had was contained within the user name.

It is hard to choose between this and the instance when Chiles admitted that the ‘quotes’ attributed to Capello on the screen were unverified as the low-point of proceedings; the precise moment when the show revealed itself to be obsessed with celebrity and scandal and not particularly interested in the actual football.

Sadly, this match and ITV are not simply a one-off. Football seems to be merging increasingly with the gossip columns, which themselves encroach ever more onto back pages. Whilst there have always been players who have embraced their public image, the desire to seek this notoriety out and squeeze every last drop from it has certainly grown in recent years. Sky Sports News’ unnecessarily extensive coverage of the outcome of proceedings at Southwark Crown Court was another example of this. One reporter spent at least five minutes explaining how Redknapp made his way from the courtroom to the press outside – unless he broke a record in the process this is neither sport nor news.

It is often commented that football has become a soap opera, but the behaviour of players on the pitch is only part of the problem. The media’s production, and the public’s consumption, of over-hyped and sensationalist stories concerning events surrounding the game rather than of the game itself is the real issue. We might accuse footballers of loving their lifestyles more than their clubs, but is this any worse than the public and media being more interested in courtrooms, affairs and what goes on behind closed doors than the action on the pitch? Until we demand that the sport media sticks to sport and leaves rumour, melodrama and moralising to other departments, the world of football will continue to exist in its warped reality.

The most telling comment on Wednesday’s farce was not Rooney’s aforementioned tweet, but came inadvertently (or perhaps not, knowing him) from the mouth of Roy Keane on that very subject. “Wayne should keep his head down and focus on being a footballer,” he said. Can’t we all just focus on the football?

Oli Moody

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