What went wrong with Football League Tonight. And how it can improve.

What went wrong with Football League Tonight. And how it can improve.
Channel 5 kicked off at Hillsborough

Channel 5 kicked off at Hillsborough

Back in the 70’s, at 9pm on a Saturday night, you’d find me an hour out from Kings Cross on my way back from a home game. A few cans of Tennents Lager (adorned with photos of scantily clad ladies) would have been consumed and I’d be sampling the joys of a British Rail pork pie, writes Vernon Grant.

When the 6pm out of Sheffield Midland finally made it back to the metropolis, the handful of original London Owls would go to the pub to reflect on victory or defeat.

Today the life of a football fan is very different. You can still go to the pub (though many do not), you can watch the football highlights on a Saturday night or on Sunday morning. And British Rail is a thing of the past (at least until Jeremy Corbyn becomes the next leader of the Labour party).

For Sheffield Wednesday supporters the only thing missing from the first airing of Football League Tonight on Channel 5 was the version of a Marty Robbins/Tommy Steele/Guy Mitchell hit record. Producers could have used the version heard on the Kop at Hillsborough. It goes something like this.

‘I’ve never felt more like singing the blues, the Wednesday win and United lose, oh Wednesday… you’ve got me singing the blues.’

It would have been the perfect soundtrack for one of the most bizarre television programme running order decisions I have witnessed – and I’ve worked in TV since January 1980.

It would be unfair to assume that a work experience addition to the production team came up with the idea of a transition from Sheffield Wednesday winning their opening game of the season in the Championship, to city neighbours United getting well and truly stuffed in a 4-0 defeat at Gillingham. In League 1.

Perhaps there was a Wednesdayite on the production team. That would explain it. An Owl in the nest. He thought it would be a hoot to link the two matches via the use of an almost indecipherable piece of modern technology in which one time England cricket captain Michael Vaughan reiterated his loyalty to the Owls.

Footage the quality of which would once upon a time been deemed unfit for transmission. And rightly so. I despair that a network broadcaster in 2015 considers such footage to be acceptable. There is no way then or now that I would have allowed that to be broadcast.

The title music is just plain wrong for a football show. To quote my mum when the brothers Grant first played The Beatles in the house, “an awful noise.”

George Riley and Kelly Cates

George Riley and Kelly Cates

I’ve worked with Kelly Cates (née Dalglish) and I’m a fan. The nightmares experienced by those of us who worked at Sky Sports News in the early days, weeks, months and years have ensured that we know chaos when we see it. Those crazy days have actually been valuable to the likes of the ever smiling Kelly.

There is no way you can blame the two presenters for the truly terrible production standards displayed on Football League Tonight. In my time I’ve had reason to be critical of a presenter (and they of me). But the buck for last Saturday night does not stop at Kelly or co-presenter George Riley. Both are professional. Kelly has the advantage of TV experience, including on productions where all around her lost their heads.

Riley, meanwhile, was for many years very good delivering the sports news on Radio 5 Live. He’s in the early days of television presentation and he should be forgiven the odd lapse of concentration on show one. I can only imagine the nonsense he was hearing in his earpiece. He will get better.

Presenters need help. Too often in TV these days the producer or director simply expects the ‘talent’ to get on with it and deliver. The most experienced can do that. But who is doing what I did for many a young or inexperienced presenter? Coaching them. Reassuring them. Explaining what I as producer want from them. When and what I might be saying in their earpiece. Above all, sending them out there well prepared, confident and clear as to the format and running order. And going through the latter free from distraction such as those drinking the free ale in the Green Room (I doubt the C5 budget ran to that) or the modern day nuisance of mobile telephones.

football league banner

To judge any first show in a new series is to deliver a pre-emptive strike. Much of the criticism of the programme was fair and justified. But it is in the natural progression of things that television shows improve with age.

I’ve produced many a ‘pilot’ or a new series of an established show. It’s not an enviable gig.

For years, my late colleague and friend Richard Whiteley introduced me to people as the man who predicted ‘Countdown’ would flop. In fairness, we had worked on the ‘pilot’ called ‘Calendar Countdown’ – a show that was somewhat different in appearance from the one that would launch Channel 4. The format of the show was the same, but we were working with a budget normally associated with a local programme. For that is what ‘Calendar Countdown’ was.

Broadcasters around the country were coming up with their own ‘pilot’ programmes. Everyone wanted to produce the first show on Channel 4. The year was 1982.

After we recorded our pilot Richard asked me, then a humble (but supremely talented) programme researcher, what I thought. “This show will never run” said I. Countdown is currently one of the longest running TV game shows in the world!

So what do I know?

I know what it’s like to produce sports shows for network transmission. I know how tricky it can be to pick up a show that has previously been produced by a different company. But the rules you should follow are as follows.

  • Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

If it wasn’t broke in its former guise, don’t try and fix it now. Better to be accused of being a copycat than make a mess of things just so you can say you are doing things differently.

  • Don’t try to be too clever. At least not so soon. Move with the times by all means, but make changes in a gradual, seamless way.
  • Know your audience. Who they are and, crucially, their age range. Judging from show one, football fans in their mid fifties are not the target audience. Their children or grandchildren perhaps, but not those old enough and lucky enough to have watched Best, Law, Charlton, Greaves, Bell, Moore. And Tommy Craig (one for Wednesdayites of my vintage).
  • What do your viewers want? The answer is simple. Action. Not inane chatter.
  • On a new venture you must have experienced programme makers on board. That’s why Sky Sports News asked me to be what the boss grandly called their ‘launch producer’ that unforgettable first weekend in 1998. As it turned out, by far the majority of the young ones knew what they were doing and did a great job. Today, if you employ a production team that spend all their time on social media, you’ll likely deliver a TV programme that resembles one made by team Twitter.

I will be amazed if the powers that be in charge of Football League Tonight do not make changes in week two. And both astonished and dismayed should they not revert to showing the highlights in logical order.

I felt sea sick trying to keep up with which division we were in when watching the first show. Which team was this? Who scored that goal? Did not the Sheffield Wednesday player Lewis McGugan first prevent Bristol City from scoring when clearing off the line before racing up the other end of the pitch to score? A move made for a replay and analysis.

No. We’ll cut back to studio with our presenter holding a Sheffield United shirt. Go figure!

Kelly auditions audience members for a remake of 'Night of the Living Dead'

Kelly auditions audience members for a remake of ‘Night of the Living Dead’

For years, I produced a late night, cult television show live on ITV. As we went on air at 1am you could have forgiven audience members had they been, like some guests, the worse for drink. However, the audiences who witnessed at close quarters some of the very first stand up performances of Steve Coogan were not only lucky people, they were well behaved.

But then I took time to talk to some of them beforehand. Not just in rehearsal on the night but earlier in the week. In those days as producer I got mail – yes, mail – from viewers. Lots of letters. Some were written by people who should have been in a padded cell. But the majority were from witty and clever people. I would telephone them and, if they lived reasonably local to Leeds, invite them to come and be in the small, sit on the floor or stand around audience (Top Gear did not invent this). I would have first sussed out who were the best talkers. Which ones might contribute something should the presenter thrust a microphone under their nose.

There are certain rules to follow when opting to involve your audience in the transmission.

  • Employ someone to discover which members look the best and, more importantly to my mind, which ones can string a sentence together in a voice viewers will understand. I cannot believe that happened at Channel 5 on Saturday night.
  • If you are going to involve an audience to the extent of asking them a question, best make sure someone has a microphone within five miles of their answer. Silent TV will never catch on.
  • If you think it a good idea to ask quiz questions of the slow witted members of your audience, tell them the answers in the commercial break just before that Q & A. In such a short space of time, they might remember the answers. Though, looking at the oddballs that made up the audience last Saturday night, I would not bet on it.
  • If you are going to bring in a manager of a team that played earlier in the day, do more than simply meet and greet them before recording. It is incumbent on the producer or presenter to sit down with him for 15 minutes beforehand. Or call him before he gets to studio. Find out what he thinks were the interesting points of the match. That way, if there is a crucial piece of action he wants to talk about, you can have it edited correctly and in plenty of time.
  • Do all you can to avoid moments like the one last Saturday when Martin ‘Mad Dog’ Allen, the manager of Barnet, was led to say to George Riley: “What do you want me to say?”

Something. Anything. There’s nothing scarier for a TV producer than a silent witness.

Week one of Football League Tonight was a mess. If there is anyone with a modicum of TV experience working on the show, they will know that. Whether they acknowledge it and make immediate improvements to the format remains to be seen. Post production meetings often include too much back slapping along the lines of: “You were great” and “It wasn’t that bad.”

TV producers are not quick to admit getting things wrong. One night we cocked up and, as producer, I apologised to a guest. My boss walked past. The following Monday morning he called me in to his office. He said: “Never apologise to a guest. You are the producer so it’s never your fault. Never say to anyone that you were to blame, especially not the guests.”


Those who dreamt up the running order, the theme tune, the ‘Double Your Money’ game show like league tables… they got it all badly wrong. But it happens. People rarely remember brilliant first shows. And they often forget the nightmare ones. Gary Lineker was embarrassing in his early Match of the Day shows. Now he’s so accomplished he’s boring.

I’ll not be tuning in to Channel 5 football highlights this weekend. I’ll give them time to clear up the mess and I’ll dip in again in a few weeks time. By then I would expect changes to have been made. For starters, I would expect League 2 highlights to follow League 1 which will have followed action from the Championship. Please!

I know Kelly will keep smiling, bless her. She’ll hold it together and offer her input for change. They should listen to her. She may have been working in telly less than half the time I have, but she’s learned plenty and will now be working with plenty of people younger than her (welcome to my world, Kelly).

Football fans who appreciate what the game has to offer outside of the Premier League deserve much better than what they were served up last weekend.

I hope Channel 5 get it right before their audience opts instead to go for a pie and a pint.

1 Comment

  1. owls4life 5 years ago

    Good read and i agree wholeheartedly. I couldn’t see anything about that show which was an improvement on what went before on the BBC,in fact everything wasn’t only worse but i found it difficult to watch it at all. Even when using record & ffwd it was difficult.

    Having said that, the opening 10 mins was quite funny for reasons you’ve pointed out already.Can only get better or scrapped!

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