Alan Partridge is not real, despite the desperate protestations of a special kind of idiot who can still be heard shouting “DAN! DAAAN!!” in plaintively wretched grief. He is a fictional light entertainer sub-par excellence, who cut his teeth on spoof radio show On the Hour, before appearing on television for the first time in its screen adaptation, The Day Today. The latter has widely been credited with presciently signposting the grim future of news coverage, which now poses before us today with its mixture of self-importance (“You know the saying ‘no news is good news’? It’s BALLS!”), ostentatious graphics and over-emotional delivery.
Partridge appeared on these shows in his formative years, in the role of a sports presenter. What, if anything, has the man taught us about the nature of football broadcasting? Could it be that he was screaming unheard warnings into the abyss? Could he have prevented such abominations as Richard Keys idly threatening to basically ‘smash’ anything and everything with a backbone? ITV’s turn-of-the-millennium Premier League coverage? Mark Lawrenson’s genuinely harrowing collection of bloke shirts? Dr. Fact is knocking at the door. Someone, please – let the man in!
When Partridge broke the news that Tottenham Hotspur striker Clive Allen had been signed by Chessington World of Adventures (On The Hour, series 2, episode 2), could he have foreseen the frenzied madness that would become the Transfer Window? The act of signing a new player is merely the glamorous end of the admin spectrum, and was once realised as such. Time was, a player would join a new team and then the coach would have to mould him into the side’s image, smoothing off rough edges to fit him into the puzzle. Nowadays, signing a player is an attempted shortcut to success, particularly in the January window, when a player is immediately thrust into a new team without the soothing acclimatisation of pre-season. The period of time during which a manager can fill out the necessary forms required to allow a man to wear the shirt of a different team for money has now become a television spectacle (as deconstructed by Barney Ronay), with all the misplaced zeal witnessed in the aforementioned Clive Allen sketch, as well as in the news of Gordon Strachan being signed by a retired schoolteacher from Solihull. Partridge saw it all coming. If you play the aforementioned Allen/Chessington sketch backwards, you clearly hear him say “Jim White is coming, his incongruous enthusiasm must be destroyed”. Did we heed his warning? No, we did not…
It ain’t what it used to be. Even Alan knew that sometimes less is more (‘TWAT!’), and that the best lines will stick with you for years (‘That was liquid football!’). Clive Tyldesley is ridiculed for his satisfaction with that most affectionate love letter to himself, the infamous line “That night in Barcelona“, which he has been dining on for so long you worry he may contract e-coli. As Manchester United were stumbling out of the Champions League at Benfica earlier this season, Tyldesley twice referred to his own commentary from the 1999 final (“Can they score? Well, we know they always score”), desperately trying to invoke the spirit of The Manchester United Comeback. Jonathan Pearce has subtly abandoned his Shouty Man USP over the years, so he now seems more concerned with regulating his volume than contributing anything remotely memorable, like so many ill-advised garage bands. John Motson is a parody of himself, forever sustaining his fact-boffin mythos in a perpetual cyclic renewal of sheepskin and statistics, like the ancient Greek symbol Ourobourous, only wearing a rubbish coat (See Barney Ronay again, on Motson’s misplaced canonisation).
Alan’s earnest ineptitude was the very essence of the man. His lack of knowledge was a comic device used to provoke laughter (see his USA ’94 ‘Soccermetre’, and this interview with a jockey), because, obviously, a sports broadcaster would be expected to know what he’s talking about. That doesn’t seem to matter these days. On the Match of the Day sofa it is a source of broadcasting braggadocio if one is unfamiliar with an obscure foreign signing, for fear of looking – what exactly? Enthusiastic? Commited? Interested? Alas, these are three words that Alan Shearer has lost in the transition from the football pitch to the television studio, as he continually fails to apply a fraction of the quality he showed in his old vocation to his new one. Partridge didn’t know what he was talking about, so people laughed at him. Shearer doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and he is paid handsomely for the privilege, without having the good decency to even consider a hair transplant.
When Alan was shocked to see a female horse-rider undressing before him on The Day Today, he had the gentlemanly courtesy to look away. Would unreconstructed sex maniacs Andy Gray and Richard Keys have had the good grace to do likewise? Or would they have made lewd, crass remarks, before comporting themselves in priapic menace, hands like penises clumsily stapled to beef burgers? I think we all know the answer to that one. Whither Partridge, and his fumbling, embarrassed asexuality?
In the realm of football broadcasting, tact is a tightrope that wibbles precariously between turrets of doubt, over a steaming sea of ignominy. Misjudge a situation, and you could make yourself look foolish. As fast money and trash values continue to corrupt the modern footballer, it is becoming ever more difficult to handle the emotions of these cosseted chancers that have never worked a day in their lives. The managers aren’t much better, and a few poorly chosen words could provoke such incidents as renowned wheeler-dealer Harry Redknapp angrily denying that he is a wheeler-dealer, an Alex Ferguson press conference walk-out, or a Kenny Dalglish compound nervous breakdown.
In the eyes of many, Soccer Saturday is the best football programme on television. Football fans across the land sit agape on a Saturday afternoon as they watch the genial Jeff Stelling and his ever-excitable colleagues jabber and babble in vague coherence as they react to images on the television. This sporting simulacrum is compelling despite the notable handicap of being no more than a bunch of men boasting about having a better Sky package than you, the viewer. Watching people reacting to football in humourous ways is as popular now, with the likes of football’s foremost hapless boob Chris Kamara, as it was when Partridge was shouting “Thriker!”.
Partridge’s shambling efforts at sports broadcasting now appear in different forms, stripped of the veil of irony. Shearer, Tyldesley, Keys and Gray – all share the same lack of self-awareness that made Partridge so amusing. But if he has taught us anything, it is that “self defence is not just about punching someone repeatedly in the face until they’re unconscious.”