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.
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.
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.