The Match of the Day controversy unravelled so quickly on Friday night that its presence on television screens this weekend is a long way from certain.
It was last removed from them 30 years ago because of a strike by technical staff, though this is something more visceral and elemental, a tumult which leaves the very future of the programme in question.
One by one, Gary Lineker’s colleagues removed themselves from the picture in acts of solidarity. First Ian Wright, then Alan Shearer, Alex Scott and Micah Richards, catching the BBC in a deeply invidious position.
It was a position they did not see coming when they blithely and disingenuously suggested that the show’s host would be “stepping back”, having effectively removed him.
Stepping into the breach will not be for the faint-hearted. A number of presenters’ agents were advising their clients against doing so on night, and with a route through this minefield so hard to discern, the programme which is a bastion of football broadcasting is plunged into its moment of gravest jeopardy.
Lineker is not the first BBC broadcaster to have been reprimanded for a lack of neutrality, though in the world we once knew, when left and right wing meant John Barnes and Steve Coppell, the chastisement was accepted and everyone moved on.
It was during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics that Bob Wilson, commentating on Daley Thompson’s medal ceremony, saw him whistling on the winner’s podium and declared, “I just wish he’d shown a little more respect for the national anthem.” He was censured and nothing more was heard or said of it.
Regardless of the subject he has chosen to comment on, it was clear Lineker had overstepped the mark when some of his own BBC colleagues, such as Neil Henderson and Katie Razzall, made clear assessments that this was a transgression.
Both are consummate, intelligent, thoughtful professionals, with views which they keep to themselves. It is a raging dialectical and political storm that Lineker has positioned himself in, not just a contemporary debate.
It says everything about the programme’s abiding status and relevance, which Lineker has contributed substantially to, that his tweets have brought the programme into this position.
We are in a world of live football, “content generation”, digital goal clips and the egregious dodgy streams, through which criminals thieve from our game.
We have witnessed Sky Sports take football broadcasting to another level and yet Match of the Day remains our football staple. Its hour or so of highlights remains much a part of the cadence of our weekend as its theme fanfare, composed in 1970 by Barry Stoller, whose brief was simply to write ‘something good’.
The programme commands this place because so many of us have measured our football lives through it, watching an unforgettable game and returning home to impatiently wait for Match of the Day to confirm it really did happen.
Justin Fashanu for Norwich against Liverpool in 1980: “Oh, oh, what a goal. Oh that’s a magnificent goal.” Terry McDermott for Liverpool against Tottenham, 1978. “McDermott, Oh that was beautiful.” Glenn Hoddle for Tottenham against Watford, 1983. “He deserves those celebrations.”
Others have tried to replicate what it has been delivering since 1964, but none have ever come remotely close.
ITV tried in 2001, recruiting Des Lynam and introducing U2s Beautiful Day and Andy Townsend in a tactics truck, but it was not the same. The BBC’s head of sport Peter Salmon rightly observed when Match of the Day returned three years later that it was like ‘welcoming home an old friend’.
That BBC coup paved the way for Lineker to take on the role he has held to this day and his Twitter presence has actually been a way of retaining profile for the BBC among younger audiences, for whom TV is less relevant.
It is a measure of the way that broadcasting now operates, with major presenters operating as freelancers who can work for whom they chose, that Lineker has had plenty of alternative options, long before what seems like a parting of the ways.
His multiple opportunities allow him to test the corporation’s patience in a way that Wilson certainly never could.
It is the programme which is damaged, perhaps irreparably, not him. When it is safe to break cover, other presenters will step up, but candidates who bring top level football experience and a delivery which sustains the programme in its competitive environment are thin on the ground. There is a whole lot of beige out there.
Confronted with the challenge from hell, some at the BBC will yearn for easier, gentler times, when presenters did not feel the need to fill the world in on their opinions.
The late John Motson, who Lineker discussed on Match of the Day just two weeks ago, was invited into Downing Street by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the latter of whom told him he was “one of my heroes”.
Motson was then wined and dined by Blair at a Chequers dinner party, but all we heard of this from him was the story of his parting shot when he and the Prime Minister left that night.
“You should come on Football Focus some time,” Motson told him. They were different times.
- A Daily Mail report