What next for Sky?

January 26, 2011 22

If this was politics, or any other kind of proper news, they’d already have dubbed this Massey-gate. Andy Gray was the first casualty, mercilessly sacked by Sky Sports yesterday afternoon. Richard Keys has reportedly followed after a calamitous interview with Talksport today, in which his ineloquence and tendency to bend the truth sounded more like an audition for a full-time role on the station. It is, undoubtedly, the end of an era.

Keys and Gray in happier times, before sexism was bad

There are a generation of fans, my sprightly self included, who can barely remember a time before Sky Sports. I can’t remember a Sunday that wasn’t Super. I can’t remember a Premier League goal that wasn’t met with hairy-handed applause and an invitation for the goalscorer to “tek a boo”. I’ve watched so much Sky Sports that I’ve probably become sexist by some sort of strange televisual osmosis.

Funnily enough, it’s exactly that sort of affinity that has led to the pair’s undoing. One gets the sense that they thought they were bigger than the channel – bigger than the game, almost – and were untouchable. It’s a feeling backed up by leaks from inside the corporation.

All the evidence suggests that Sky themselves aren’t entirely displeased by the demise of Keys and Gray. In the ill-fated Talksport interview, Keys alluded to “dark forces” at work, and unless Emporer Palpatine has made an unlikely comeback one can only imagine he’s alluding to some sort of internal plot. Fleet Street corridors are awash with conspiratorial whispers about lawsuits and legislation. Sky have had countless opportunities to support the duo and provide some PR protection. Instead they’ve fuelled the mob with more leaks. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark, and it’s not just Dennis Rommedahl’s crossing.

Perhaps Sky’s reasoning is less sinister than many imagine: they might feel, as many have suggested since the storm broke, that the double act had become tired. Sky have the audience that Keys and Gray were hired to generate and sustain. Now is an opportunity for progression.

The quality of football programming was a hot topic this summer, with a lot of focus on the terrestrial channels’ substandard coverage of the World Cup. As online commentary becomes increasingly sophisticated, television is caught between trying to keep up with the most engaged fans and pleasing the masses.

Sky have, in the past, struck that balance better than most. People may snipe at Gray’s iPad and touchscreen nonsense, but there were often salient tactical points underlying his analysis. Gray was objectionable and occasionally plain unlikeable but, in my humble opinion, often rather good at his job – especially when compared to the “he played really well” punditry of messrs Shearer and Lawrenson.

Replacing Keys presents no great challenge. As much as he might consider his role significant (ie. relaxing players with sexist “banter”), he now operates in a world where every sportsman he encounters will probably have as much media training as him. It’s a fairly simple anchoring role, and one for which Sky can probably afford to promote internally.

David Jones of Sky

Jeff Stelling seems an obvious choice, though his commitments to Channel 4 might prove problematic. On Monday night, Keys was replaced by Sunderland fan and veteran of Sky Sports News David Jones. Jones’ articulacy and intelligence shone through, and he did his chances of making the step up no harm at all. He’s also very much au fait with the modern football world – he’s an active presence on twitter, and does his research by checking up on a wide variety of blogs and sites. In his Talksport interview, Keys stated with some pride that he doesn’t engage in such activities – perhaps if he did, he’s realise quite how out of touch his views are.

I can understand the campaign to get James Richardson a regular television gig. His work on the Guardian podcast has been absolutely superb, and ‘AC Jimbo’ developed a near fanatical following. However, I’m not sure his face would fit. His irreverence and sideways look at the game doesn’t seem an obvious match for the bombast of Sky. A more considered role on a programme akin to ESPN’s excellent ‘Between the Lines’ might be more appropriate.

Back to the problem of replacing Gray. Jamie Redknapp is inoffensive but for that to be his primary qualification tells you everything you need to know. His Dad is too busy actually working in football. Sam Allardyce has the gravitas but not the glitz.

Michael Cox of Zonal Marking put forward the controversial suggestion of David Pleat, whilst Paddy Barclay took time out from retweeting abuse from angry scousers on Twitter to suggest one from Stewart Robon, Gordon Strachan and Graham Taylor.

Again, I think Sky have something better in their ranks. Graham Souness is not everybody’s cup of tea, but he’s one of the most entertaining pundits on television. He’s not afraid to break the status quo and make a bold statement. And he has played and managed at the very highest level – not that that’s a pre-requisite for intelligent punditry, but it does lend credibility.

Sky’s choice will ultimately be led by protecting their investment in football and retaining their audience. I simply hope they don’t squander an opportunity to once more be innovators, as they were so impressively twenty odd years ago. There is a definite appetite for intelligent discussion around the game. Balance the inarticulate but credible ex-pros with informed journalists. Open the debate out on social networks. Football is an incredibly social experience, so it seems odd that two men sat in studio should be left to dictate the agenda alone.

Gray and Keys were dinosaurs, and are now all but extinct. Sky, however, must seize the opportunity to be at the cusp of the evolution of football programming.

22 Comments »

  1. Smeghammer February 4, 2011 at 11:40 am -

    What about Gabriel Marcotti, his knowledge of the world game is second to none and he does not hold any bias to any English team.
    Other than that I would recomend either Keown and Dixon as both come across as having excellent tactical awareness and the ability to get their points across.

  2. North Bank Ned January 27, 2011 at 11:33 pm -

    Sky could do a lot worse than bring Warren Barton over from its U.S. cousin, Fox Soccer. His technical analysis is more than half way decent and he has the credentials having played for both England and in the Premiership. He also has experience as a coach and as a club owner with the San Diego Flash in the MLS.

  3. Holloway2Holland January 27, 2011 at 5:53 pm -

    From what I’ve been reading it seems that everyone who has ever met or worked with Gray or Keys despises them. I’m surprised they lasted as lond as they did. I even heard that there’s a quote in the Sun from Gray’s mum; she’s reported as saying:

    “Andy? I never really liked him.”

  4. James January 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm -

    A return to John Barnes Football Night seems the only viable option to me.

  5. Fred Dibnah January 27, 2011 at 4:50 pm -

    Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, Alan Smith, anyone other than Jamie Redknapp, Ruud Gullit, Graham Souness and the two super twats, Robbie Savage and Andy Townsend.

  6. Biscuitbum January 27, 2011 at 2:12 pm -

    Dixon would be my choice to replace Gray. He`s easilly the best on MOTD but is a distant 4th in the pecking order to Mr. Misery, the Preston Irishman, and the toon`s Mr. Personality by-pass. Stewie Robson is also very perceptive with his comments and analysis, and it`s hardly surprising that if he appears on ATVO and writes for the Arsenal programme, he would want to appear to the outside world as too unbiased.

  7. Joe Kellett January 27, 2011 at 2:00 pm -

    All we need now is to get rid of the arch anti Arsenal idiots Linekar
    and Hanson.

  8. Sunday Roast January 27, 2011 at 11:29 am -

    Barry Venison anyone? Drag him back from LA… his comments on Five were intelligent and insightful and he does have an acting career (Mike Basset)

  9. chris January 27, 2011 at 11:19 am -

    I do second the call about Lee Dixon, he’s easily the most astute of the BBCs pundits. Robbie Earle is also out of a job, and was one of the only decent things about ITVs coverage. Stewart Robson’s analysis whilst well informed is very dour and negative I find.

    I also think Charlie Nicholas or Alan McNally could step up from Soccer saturday. I dont think Merson, Le Tissier or especially Thompson fit the bill at all )for different reasons).

    Souness probably the obvious choice though I guess.

  10. Obvious choice January 27, 2011 at 11:09 am -

    Adrian Chiles to be released from ITV purgatory and “prove” Sky loves the housewife. Sidekick to be busty blonde stunnah to reinforce this proof. Sky’s “20 years since we invented soccer” celebrations put on hold whilst all footage of Keys is airbrushed to incorporate Jeff Stelling instead.

  11. MC January 27, 2011 at 10:32 am -

    Maybe this is what Martin O’Neil has been holding out for!

  12. herbert chapman January 27, 2011 at 10:31 am -

    martin keown would be a great choice-well educated & knowledgeable re the game & the added bonus of seriously p*****ng off the manure supporters!

  13. GF January 27, 2011 at 10:17 am -

    My vote goes for Clive Anderson (although maybe a bit too light hearted) and Charlie Nicholas. At least we’ve got rid of those 2 anti-Arsenal idiots, time to balance things up a bit.

  14. James January 27, 2011 at 10:13 am -

    Please not David Pleat!! The man is an idiot with a whinny horrible voice and is tottally biased to spurs! What about Martin Keown?

  15. gavsteed January 27, 2011 at 10:00 am -

    Souness is great…when he’s on RTE, when he’s on Sky he’s too shackled by them and can’t say what he really wants. You should here him giving out about some of the players on RTE, that video of him is very good.
    Dison is very good the few times I’ve seen him on MOTD, it’s great to see the back of Gray, Keys i didn’t mind so much he mostly stayed out of the way, mostly.
    They needed to clear them out anyway and replace them with a new team, let’s hope they get it right and give us someone who’s not afraid to speak their mind and give fair analysis of games.
    Stewart Robson, i’ve listened to him commentating on Arsenal games on Setanta and he’s rubbish, he’s completely against Arsenal, I know he works for ArsenalTV etc. and doesn’t want to come across as biased or whatevr but come on there’s a limit like. Never has a good thing to say about us.

  16. Darren January 27, 2011 at 8:47 am -

    What about Richard and Judy taking over? They won’t offend. And Graham Norton as a roving reporter? Maybe even Lassie doing a ‘where are they now special’? What a load of bollocks the world is becoming. (though I did find Gray and keys annoying – but is that the point right now?)

  17. Shard January 27, 2011 at 8:38 am -

    Living in India I really don’t get to hear much from these people. Stewart Robson though does seem to talk sense mostly. He’s not pro Arsenal exactly. In fact, sometimes he goes a little too much in the other direction and criticises Arsenal too much. Don’t think it ever descends into abuse though. And tactically he seems quite astute. Would be a good choice I think, but it’ll probably never happen. A former Arsenal man allowed to become the voice of football in good ol England? The phrase pigs might fly comes to mind..

  18. hutstar January 27, 2011 at 2:22 am -

    Steve McManaman is doing a great job with ESPN; any chance he will get a look in?

  19. Randy Dutch January 26, 2011 at 11:25 pm -

    Sky will probably go out and hire a bloody woman. It’s PC gone mad, I tell thee!

  20. Sam January 26, 2011 at 8:27 pm -

    What a superb article. I too would like to see David Pleat get it, but he too can be irreverent (intended or otherwise) and I agree that this isn’t a quality valued by the Sky hyperbole machine. I hadn’t considered Souness before now, but, on reflection it would probably work. I just hope they don’t go shopping at the Terrestrial networks – all terrible.

  21. Nigel January 26, 2011 at 7:56 pm -

    This is the tip of the iceberg; we could only hope for the end of Sky; the evolution of football programming can really only come when they get out of it.

  22. JJDeede January 26, 2011 at 7:39 pm -

    Good article to highlight fairly important decisions by Sky Sports. The format isn’t bad.. eg the half hour tactical thing after the last Sunday match is even with Gray, can be very interesting. So maybe he wouldn’t be technical enough, but for sheer entertainment value,and this is supposed to be a sport that entertains, you haven’t mentioned the inestimable Paul Merson. I’d just love to hear more analysis of Glen Johnson’s defending. From the same Saturday team, the rather too serious but very perceptive Charlie Nicholas would keep the Scots flavour, and he can press buttons. However, best of the ex-Gunners (much better bet than the many former ‘pool pundits IMHO) would be Lee Dixon. David Jones would be a perfect anchor man – well said on that.

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