The competition on the pitch at Euro 2012 has been fierce, sometimes more than a little dramatic and, yes, refreshingly attacking. About time after the negativity of World Cup 2010 in South Africa, where defences ruled and entertainment failed. While the distances between games at the Euros has sometimes been significant, travel notoriously difficult and hotels rabidly expensive, the tournament has largely taken place against a positive backdrop, incidents of racism and violence in the streets excepted.
Yet, while the football has been predominantly high-quality, and the atmosphere mostly positive, the same cannot always be said for the UK’s broadcasters; Sky’s normally outstanding Premier League coverage having been replaced for three weeks by the best on offer from the UK’s free-to-air channels.
After the distance, and not inconsiderable expense, of outside broadcast across 10 South Africa cities two years ago, how would BBC and ITV approach the logistically difficult tournament? Reluctantly, it seems.
Gone are the stunning vistas of South Africa, replaced in ITV’s case with a semi-permanent on-site studio built in an attractive, if modest, Warsaw square. The back-drop is no Table Mountain, but Warsaw’s National Stadium has sat, colourfully lit for most of the week, just over pundit Roy Keane’s right shoulder.
ITV’s studio is a modern effort, wrapped in edge-to-edge glass, if lacking any obvious tie to the domestic audience, given that England’s base in Krakow is some 300 kilometres south, and all group games hundreds more east in Ukraine. It’s unfortunately tragi-comic – born of the broadcaster’s logistical planning more than two years in the making. At least presenter Adrian Chiles has been kept honest by a stream of old town late-night revellers.
The BBC, meanwhile, stung by criticism of its extravagant £2 million Cape Town base at the previous World Cup – that of the awesome Table Mountain landscape – has retrenched into a minimalist Salford studio, replete with no vista at all, save for levitating computer-generated team graphics. This, in a time of austerity conscious penny-pinching, is the price of keeping the Daily Mail onside it seems. Still, critics might still point to the £70 million cost of broadcast rights, split between BBC and ITV.
What the Beeb has lacked in outside broadcast atmosphere the organisation has attempted to fill with an extensive roster of pundits. Accused of a back-slapping know-it-all-yet-deliver-little attitude at the World Cup, Aunty has employed a plethora of managers and ex-players to fill in the knowledge gap. Match of the Day could do with the same refresh.
Not that the core team has been knocked back, with Mark Lawrenson and Alan Shearer on location, and Alan Hansen and Lee Dixon joined by lead presenter Gary Linekar back in Salford. Melancholy’s Lawrenson, who’s knowing inner-pain has tormented the viewing public for nigh-on two decades, has taken up co-commentator duties alongside BBC regulars Guy Mowbray, Jonathan Pearce, and Simon Brotherton.
While Lawrenson suffers on our behalf, Shearer has been offered a new lease-of-life pitchside with the likeable Jake Humphrey. Stripped of the replay monitor, the former Newcstle United striker has been pressed into delivering something other than the bland descriptive – it has almost, if not quite, approached insight. Beeb producers take note.
In the other half of the draw, the choleric Martin Keown has occasionally been joined by former England ‘keeper David James for the BBC. It’s an eclectic mix, with retired ‘keeper James sharp-witted and smartly dressed, to Keown’s wild-eyed morose. It has shown too, with James struggling to contain his frustration at Keown’s unremittingly downbeat stream-of-consciousness.
Had Linekar the wherewithal, after years stuck on the sofa with Lawrenson, he might have been tempted to throw himself out of a Media City studio window; a martyr to the media cause. Except the studio is windowless – a cocooned mausoleum to Lawro’s pain.
Meanwhile, back in the BBC studio former Dutch international Clarence Seedorf has offered a relaxed counter-balance to Hansen’s highly-strung, serial-killer intensity. Seedorf is so laid-back that mere consciousness itself is seemingly an affront to his endless powers of relaxation.
It is not often that ITV out-does it’s publicly funded sibling, but it might just be the case despite the desperately try-hard Chiles doing his level best to cheapen the coverage. There’s chummy, and then there’s Chiles, who’s efforts universally grate over the course of a late afternoon to evening.
Meanwhile, in the commentary box Andy Townsend continues his one-man campaign to ‘end passing’, while Clive Tyldesley struggles on without any obvious link to that night in Barcelona with which to fill dead air.
Yet, on the pundit’s sofa ITV has hit the winning note, pairing off Keane, with his erstwhile rival on the pitch, Patrick Vieira, and the solid, if humdrum, Gareth Southgate. Joining on the suspiciously ethnic-looking cushions – surely a hand-me-down from the World Cup – is the excitable Roberto Martinez, who is both engaging and insightful, while Gordon Strachan remains as spiky as ever.
And the broadcaster struck gold with Jamie Carragher, who’s refreshing honesty chimes the right note, even if the scouse inflection is all-too-painful on the ears.
Yet it is with Keane, the former Manchester United midfielder and captain, that ITV scores the winning runs. Keane, painfully honest and intense, was described by one national magazine of ‘going feral’ this week such is the Irishman’s demented scowl. Like David Brent, Keano is best viewed from behind the safety of the sofa.
Not least if you’re an Irishman, with Keane saving his most delicious barbs for his fellow countrymen. While others praised an Irish support that ran to 20,000, Keane refused to tow a party line, chiding a stunned Chiles that “it’s nonsense to say how great the fans are. The players and supporters have to change their mentality. Let’s not just go along for the sing-song every now and again.”
Mind you, Keane once promised he would never take the easy punditry pound. Good for ITV’s Euro 2012 coverage that he did. Unsafe perhaps for the “bemused onlooker” Vieira who’s safety cannot be guaranteed should Keane go fully off reservation.