This is a new series that looks at some of the unsung aspects of football that don’t necessarily get the shout outs and the column inches among the glitz and glamour of the modern game.
Whether it’s lesser-valued trophies, unheralded officials and rules, unfancied formations and tactics, or simply half-time pies, this series will be about recognising all the things, big and small, that make football the beautiful game.
Monday Night Football on Sky Sports is exactly that.
So far this season, we’ve had two Monday night fixtures — Liverpool’s hard-fought win versus Crystal Palace in the second week of fixtures, and Spurs’ second half demolishing of Man Utd last week.
Two very different games, but each immensely entertaining in their own right.
But alongside the football itself, there are a few things that make Monday night games special.
First of all, there’s the evening fixture aspect. Games under the floodlights always have a certain extra something — a mystique or energy — that Saturday 3pm fixtures just don’t have.
Then there’s the fact that it’s on a Monday. It’s an extra day of football, a leftover from the weekend — the turkey sandwich on Boxing day — that tastes all the more delicious because it feels like a bonus, on top of an already bumper package.
And finally, there’s the actual programming and broadcasting.
Monday Night Football (hereon MNF) on Sky Sports has been a brand staple since the very first days of the Premier League. All the way back in 1992, Sky rewrote the football broadcasting rulebook, and thanks to the huge investment they made in the Premier League TV rights, were able to convince the league to begin scheduling fixtures on a Monday night.
The early days of MNF became synonymous with Richard Keys and Andy Gray, whose knowledgeable and innovative analysis combined with matey banter instantly helped draw in a big audience.
When the pair were fired from Sky for taking said banter way too far (to say the least), the future of MNF looked in jeopardy. It might seem strange now, but at the time there were genuine questions around whether Sky’s flagship football show would continue — Keys and Gray had been the consistent features since its inception, after all.
In fact, the season Keys and Gray left Sky was the first in which the Monday night football rights had been retained from ESPN, after a few seasons’ hiatus, and so at that point, the show was still on flaky territory.
In the end, the show continued and was presented by Ed Chamberlain.
Now, with absolutely no offence intended to Chamberlain, who was in no way responsible, these years between 2011 and 2013 are what I’d term the “fallow” years of MNF.
The problem at this time was that the show didn’t really know what it was supposed to be.
Back in the early days, MNF was a trailblazer for fancy digital graphics, detailed analysis and in-depth chat.
By 2011, every football show on every channel had copied or drawn on this format. Where before MNF was unique, now it was stale and just one among many.
It needed a revamp, and in 2013, that came, with the arrival of a new pair of instantly memeable pundits in Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville.
Suddenly, thanks to these two recent ex-pros with a longstanding on-pitch rivalry, MNF started to feel fresh again.
Neville and Carragher brought new perspectives, more recent practical understanding of the game and a fine attention to detail.
Add this to the fiery debates and yes, the banter, and the show had become exalted from its previous hackneyed formula of “old-school ex-pro chats to identikit presenter in the glass box in front of pitch and crowd”, into a new realm of social-media-worthy soundbites and modern, tactical analysis, all from a dedicated and distinct studio.
We take it for granted now, but the introduction of the, what I’m going to call, “big iPad” with the associated tactical sermons and breakdowns from Neville and Carragher, highlighting positional mistakes, freezeframing offside traps and the like, was at the time, nothing short of revolutionary in football broadcasting.
Before Neville and Carragher dared to take the plunge with this type of new onscreen tech, such innovations were seen to be counter to good football programming — slowing the pace, opening up the prospect for glitches and gaffes. Yet now, and entirely thanks to their pioneering, such techniques are commonplace across the football broadcasting spectrum.
Once again, as in its early days, MNF was at the forefront of advances in how we consume and engage with football.
In 2016, Chamberlain left and presenting duties were passed on to David Jones.
Like Chamberlain before him, Jones is mostly there to steer the programme in the right direction, with the pundits providing the colour.
Though unlike Chamberlain, who did this well, but only did this, Jones has a slightly more involved style of presenting.
You’ll notice, mostly in the post-match hour or so, he often makes comments that would be more traditionally left to pundits — whether about the quality of play or observations on tactics. He doesn’t go overboard, he knows his role, and bows to Neville and Carragher’s professional experience, but it’s nice to see a presenter willing to make a claim and the odd comment, rather than simply parrot the pre-ordained lines.
And we’ve touched on it there — the pre and post-match hours. This is where Monday night football comes into its own.
Where other football programmes sometimes feel like they need to cram in as much content as they can into the slot they’re given, MNF has the luxury of being able to really stretch its legs.
The pre-game is usually dedicated to a breakdown of the weekend’s action, which harks back to Andy Gray’s time, with Neville and Carragher providing the pinpointed barbs and strategic scrutiny.
The post-game follows the same path, but focuses solely on that evening’s match, interspersed with interviews from the players and managers.
Yet another recent innovation MNF brought to the table was having the pundits ask the players and managers questions from the studio — the premise being that Neville and Carragher’s players’ perspectives allow for more precise or revealing questions. It’s a small thing, but it adds to the overall feeling of MNF as the most in-depth of the footballing broadcasts.
MNF goes hand-in-hand with Premier League football. Since the early days, it pioneered new approaches, new styles and new formats.
It continues this legacy to this day, and hopefully, for a long time yet to come.