PAUL ARMSTRONG, editor of Match of the Day, takes us behind the scenes of a British institution…
Why Fulham went from last to first…how to squeeze 10 goals into 10 minutes…and glad to have Sir Alex back…
When does the planning for MotD start and what does this entail?
Our planning starts as soon as the fixtures come out in June, often while we’re working on a World Cup or European Championship. Sky and ESPN pick their weekend live fixtures, we send multi-camera Outside Broadcasts to three Saturday 3 pm games, and we send commentators to every weekend game. Pre-season sees either new titles commissioned, or the tweaking of the existing ones. Having to remove that iconic opening shot of Bobby Moore after West Ham were relegated was a bit of a wrench last summer.
Who decides which commentators will be at which games?
My immediate boss, Andrew Clement, who is also an Outside Broadcast director, allocates the commentators. We have a group of four or five lead commentators who travel to World Cups and Euros, and there’s a careful effort to allocate them an even share of the major Barclays Premier League clashes across the season. We then have a small group of trusted freelancers and guest voices from 5 Live to cover the rest of the games across a weekend. The beauty of Barclays Premier League coverage in recent years is that every game has multi-camera coverage and a commentator on site, so any game can lead the
Do you draw up a rough schedule of order of games?
We don’t construct a running order in earnest until all the games are over. As the season evolves, the title race tends to lead, followed by the relegation battle, then the race for Europe. Mid-table encounters tend to end up later in the show, in the same way as they may not feature on FWA members’ back pages too often. That said, there are times when unexpected games promote themselves up the running order – we led with Wolves 2 Villa 3, followed by Fulham 5 Newcastle 2 the other week – and Blackpool led the show several times last season, simply because they’d caught the imagination and been involved in open, entertaining games. The beauty of the modern MotD format is that we can show at least a few minutes of every game with commentary. The old beef – which I often shared as a Middlesbrough fan – about a team only featuring for a minute in a single-camera round-up, is well and truly redundant. The new complaint is “we’re always on last”, the heartfelt, and mathematically impossible, cry of something like sixteen sets of Barclays Premier League fans.
You have feeds of games coming into the studio on Saturday afternoon…do you try to keen an eye on all of them? How many monitor the matches?
Yes, our production office has all the games coming in live on screens. The pundits concentrate on a pre-allocated 3pm kick-off each, and while we sometimes miss the nuances, we’ve become pretty adept at watching seven monitors at once. Staggered kick-offs may not suit the fans, but are actually quite good news for us. We can watch a game at 12.45, some more at 3pm, then another at 5.30 on the average Saturday. The resulting running order may be subjective, but at least it’s based on a reasonable overview. Each game has a designated producer making notes in the videotape area, then editing that game. Between them and the commentator at each game, you hope as the
programme editor, to be alerted to anything noteworthy from all the games. As the editor, you then decide on an order, how long each edit should be, and how much time to allocate to analysis. The show goes out live, so with the videotape durations being exact, the live chat sections are sometimes adjusted on the hoof. The action always has to come first, is pre-edited, and comprises at least 80 per cent of any given show. So, if you see a pundit trying to summarise the last game of the show in 15 seconds, it’s usually my fault, not theirs.
When do Gary Lineker and whoever else is on the show arrive?
Now we’re based in Salford, Gary gets a train up from London to be at the studio in time for the 3pm kick-offs. At least one of the two pundits (Hansen and Lawrenson from Southport, and Shearer from Newcastle) travel in for the early game, and they all watch the 3pm kick-offs and late game, then stay until we’re off air just before midnight.
Do you note down the time and who is involved in controversial incidents?
Yes, as above, there are big timecode readers in the VT area and the production office, so we should all be on the same wavelength if we need to find something.
Do Gary, Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson talk the incidents through before the show starts?
The pundits spend most of the evening fine-tuning their video analysis sequences with the producers, so should know what’s coming, but we don’t rehearse the actual chat sequences. Gary knows the themes of the analysis, and has seen the matches too, but largely improvises the questions, and often asks a supplementary based on whatever the pundits have just said. The hope is that it all looks reasonably spontaneous, as indeed it is. The only words which are pre-scripted are Gary’s links, which he writes himself within a running order structure determined by the editor.
At what time do you finalise the running order?
It’s usually in some kind of order after the 3pm games. The advent of the 5.30 game in recent years has made our lives a little more complicated, in that you can’t finalise the running order until that’s over, and you have to factor in the need to change durations accordingly. The Fulham v Arsenal game a few weeks ago was drifting along as a 0-1 at fourth or fifth in the running order, until Fulham scored twice at the death and it rocketed to first and a longer duration. You then have to tweak the rest of the programme to work out where, say, you can include a top six graphic without giving away the other scores. That is the ultimate crime for the hardy (and vociferous) band of viewers who manage to carry off the great Likely Lads challenge and avoid the results all day.
Who has the final decision?
The editor’s decision is final. Though he reserves the right to umm and aah, and consult, before making that decision. The Twitter era has made us ever more aware of how seriously (too seriously in some cases) fans take our subjective assessment of the editorial pecking order, so we do try to come up with an order we can justify retrospectively.
Is there a maximum time you can give any one game?
There’s a 10-minute match action limit on the Sunday live games. That presented a bit of a challenge to MotD2 this season in the cases of Manchester United 8 Arsenal 2 and United 1 City 6, but the producers concerned somehow squeezed all the goals and major incidents in.
What is your worst case scenario nightmare as kick-off for MotD approaches?
Editorially, that we may have missed something which will make huge headlines the following day. That’s one of the reasons we almost always transmit live – Sir Bobby Robson turned down a return to the England job late one Saturday evening, so Gary was able to speak live to him on the phone. Patrice Evra’s account of the Suarez incident on French television began to circulate on the wires on a Saturday evening. We couldn’t take the story a lot further, but were at least able to signpost the forthcoming storm during the course of that night’s live show. Technically, we’re absolutely in the hands of the experts and the increasingly complex technology. If that fails to work,
we’re all pretty helpless.
Has it happened?
There was a complete power failure in Television Centre during a midweek MotD last season. Those midweek shows are fairly hairy at the best of times given the fast turnaround, so losing all pictures during the games meant there was every chance we’d have no show at all. After about half an hour, power returned. We knew we’d have to mount a show, but had to cobble together what we could of the missing segment of each game by asking the Outside Broadcasts to play down key moments when the games were over. Gary prefaced the show with a precautionary reference to a few gremlins, but somehow, every goal and key incident made the air. We didn’t do full justice to Liverpool 0 Wolves 1, a game in which Wolves had apparently been superb, and had certainly scored their winner, during the missing segment. The goal, a few incidents, and Mick McCarthy’s interview did make it, but it wasn’t quite our normal service, and I wrote a piece for the Wolves website the following day to admit as much. Mind you, it turned out a lot better than ever seemed possible sitting in the dark at about 9pm.
It’s good to have Sir Alex Ferguson back on board…
It is indeed. Much as we appreciated Mike Phelan standing in for Sir Alex, the Match of the Day production team and viewers always want to hear the thoughts of the managers themselves, particularly when he’s the most successful in the history of the English game. He’s our near neighbour now – I can actually see Old Trafford out of the window as I type this – and at the time of writing, it looks increasingly likely that he may just pull off one of the more remarkable Barclays Premier League title wins of his illustrious career.