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.
What could sum up that intangible wonder of football better than Match of the Day?
The flagship Saturday night BBC football show has, save for a few fallow years when football highlights were broadcast on “the other side” of ITV, been part of the nation’s furniture for over 50 years.
And what an integral role it plays in our consuming of football.
Whether you’ve spent the day doing your best to ignore the score updates on your phone, watched the matches live on Sky and BT, or if you’ve just got back from your team’s game that day, there’s always a place in your Saturday routine for Match of the Day.
Some time between 10 and 1045 usually, the news ends, and the anticipation builds. And then you hear it: quite possibly the most iconic theme tune, not just in football, not just in sport, but perhaps in the whole of television.
You can’t help but hum or whistle along. Even your Dad briefly wakes up from his post-dinner snooze when he hears those trumpets.
The perfect musical accompaniment to that feeling. That football feeling. Whatever it is. The hope, the despair, the elation. All in one. All soundtracked perfectly by those tooting trumpets.
And then the main man arrives. Our Gary welcomes us into the fold. Like a tea and a custard cream from your Nan, like a lie-in on a Sunday, like a beer and a burger deal at Wetherspoons — standard. Solid. Decent. Always there. But makes everything okay.
Always with the impish grin, the punny quip, but doesn’t dawdle, knows what we’re here for — it’s time for the football, but first, just quickly — the running order.
The all so important reveal of where your team falls in the night’s roster. A first or second billing usually means you’re in for a good match, particularly if you’re a mid-table side and one of the top six has been bumped below you.
The running order becomes all the more intriguing if you did somehow manage to escape checking the day’s scores: Man City are on in 5th? What’s gone on there? Bournemouth v Newcastle first up? Must be a corker.
Now, there’s a time and a place for long pre-match build-ups and umpteen ad breaks and national anthems and handshakes. And then there’s a time and a place for the Match of the Day style — 20 seconds of backstory and stats, a quick flashup of the lineups. Bosh, straight into the action.
Guy Mowbray or Jonathan Pearce or (formerly) Motty then serenade us with the usual riffs and themes, a “he’s done well” here, a “was always second best” there.
And before you know it, after the odd screamer and mindless red card, we head to the post-match interviews.
And don’t we all love a bit of the post-match pageantry?
When Man. Utd lose and you’re just waiting for the grumpy Mourinho moans about the ref or one of his players or the weather, or back in the good old days when Arsenal were awarded a penalty and Arsene would say “I didn’t see it” for the 32nd time that season. It all adds to the theatre of it.
Now, back to the studio. And there’s our Gary alongside some too-tight shirts stuffed with various former footballers.
There was a point, back in the Hansen and Lawro days, when the MOTD analysis was beginning to look a bit stale, a bit analog, certainly compared to the glitz and techno-glamour of Sky and BT.
They’ve since upped their game. Some of the pundits are genuinely brilliant. Jermaine Jenas is knowledgeable, erudite and quick. Wrighty just makes you smile whatever he says. And for every Keown or Neville who maybe don’t quite make the grade, there’s a new face chomping to get a prime-time Saturday night billing.
Even Alan Shearer, whose punditry was almost exactly the opposite of his striking skills when he first started, has managed to become something of a comment heavyweight — prone to entertaining rants about poor zonal marking or the state of his old club.
The analysis has become more “Monday Night Football”-ified, with swish graphics and detailed breakdowns of positional errors and tactical subtleties, but it retains the down-to-earth, everyman feel.
And that, you have to say, is testament to Match of the Day’s ongoing success and longevity — its ability to evolve, to develop and to improve, to match the footballing world around it, without losing its original core appeal.
An hour or so on a Saturday night that is both modern, and traditional. Football at its best, its simplest, its most enjoyable.
A quick look at the table, a parting quip from Gary, and its goodnight.
In a world of hyperbolised, OTT Super Duper Sundays, and Mega OMG MONDAYS, there’s something to be said for the quietly effective, professional comfort of Match of the Day.
Here’s to another 50 odd years.