Tuesday 19 March 2019

A mistreated old favourite draws parallels with the illusion of the Magic of the FA Cup

During the traditional Saturday night FA Cup quarter final between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United, Beeb co-commentator Martin Keown uttered the phrase "by the way" no less than eight times, four in each half, and six times nonsensically.

I was surprised to find the re-emergence of btw (by the way) after an absence of some years since former Beeb reliable, Mark Lawrenson, made the saying his own. In happier/less scrutinied times, Lawrenson was a mentor to junior pundits like Lee Dixon, before being eventually marginalised for suggesting that some male players should wear skirts and going on about penises live on air, making Gabby Logan blush.

An early btw example of peak Lawrenson might be "Chelsea have got an abundance of quality...and they'll have plenty to spend in the summer, by the way". Impressionable pundos like Dixon, awed by the emphasis present in Lawro's two-point reflection, subtly brought btw into his own game, and in time even hard-headed individuals of the opinion world like Alan Shearer, could be heard concluding an already important view with a btw add-in.

The btw virus quickly spread across the airwaves, even cross-channels, as decipels of the new art like Andy Townsend of  ITV began to regularly insert btw's into their analysis, taking advantage of Lawro's schoolboy/girl error in not securing a patent. Townsend took advantage of Lawro's lack of business acumen to liven up the dreary world of Clive Tyldesley internationals from Wembley hosted by Steve Ryder. Dixon, meanwhile, secured a move to ITV after Euro 2012, possibly on the back of his increased btw brilliance, and almost definitely because of being constantly interrupted by  Shearer.

Eventually, btw became a victim of the modern game, soon sounding as antiquated and irrelevant as other dying aspects of the game, such as dribbling wingers, two men up front and stadium announcers who read the teams out like adults. Lawrenson's most famous catchphrase was suddenly heading into the abyss with him.

Yet, as many Brexit voters would no doubt be delighted to hear, Keown's use of btw at Molineux symbolised a change back to how things once were...and not just by using a btw, by the way. Keown, sharp eyed as ever, noted that Wolves were playing with two up front, adding that "partnerships are coming back" (just not in the top six). Emboldened, Keown watched one of those Wolves forwards, Diogo Jota, have a shot saved by United reserve goalie, Sergio Romero, and then commented on the action replay, "he could have lifted it over the goalkeeper for me... all credit to the keeper, by the way".

This, though, seemed a confusing use of a btw, a classic case of a simple saying complicated by a human being. Keown did no better when talking all over Jota’s goal late in the game to put the home side 2-0 up.

"Look at his pace, by the way", he urged us, forgetting the fundamentals that the pioneer, Lawro, had put in place all those years ago, and omitting to execute the two-statement approach.

Still, lacking in quality Keown's btw's were, they did at least deflect attention away from some of his other remarks, such as "Wolves are just letting Mancheter United have the ball" (the opposite was true throughout the game, a point Keown later conceded), "VAR would have sorted that out" (fair play to Guy Mowbray for questioning that statement) and "Lukaku's coming into top form" (any newbies to the game who saw the currently injured striker's attempts to score from six yards out at Arsenal the previous week might have considered that avoiding putting the ball in the net was the aim of the game).

Higher standards could be found in the gantry, where Ian Wright only once said "in respects of", while Paul Ince quickly recovered himself after again falling foul to describing his old club as "Manc United". A recent career portrayal of Incey on a streaming channel reminded us of his inability to be able to say "Man" whenever "United" is the next word, and now that he is, like Alan Partridge, back on the BBC after a long absence, would have been reminded of his conduct. Sold abruptly he may have been by the Old Trafford club, the shortened use of "Manc" in the title of his old team might be viewed as inflammatory to fans of the Red Devils up and down the county. While it is endearing to see such a snarling, hateful figure on the pitch wobbling his words out like a frightened rabbit off it, one only has to recall Lawros's penis episode to understand how quickly a star can fall. Luckily, Incey's indiscretion this night came while replayed footage of Jota’s saved shot was being shown, enabling Gary Lineker to hastily hold up a placard with the words "Manchester United" on it. After this, Incey referred to them only as "Manchester United". He even went on to make a joke about Brexit, which visibly drew a moment of panic and self-doubt from Shearer.

Fair play to the Beeb for addressing this skill gap where other institutions fail to educate their staff. When - oh when! -  for instance, will Pep Guardiola of Manc City be made aware that his star wanes ever more by insisting that the opposition had "only one shoot" on goal. I'm sure he'd like to be corrected, as I understand he's quite keen on details.

Elsewhere in the Cup, VAR was also shotting itself in the foot by not being in the right place at the right time to prod the referee, like a pizza flyer to a cupboard-bare family, and show that at Swansea, Sergio Aguero was in an offside place, minutes after Raheem Sterling was in a morally bankrupt place to turn the tide against Championship opponents and progress to the semi finals. That very championship status of Swansea's was the reason VAR wasn't in the building, as clubs below the Prem are unworthy of it's attention. While VAR was busy overturning an arguable red card at Molineux, at least one clear and obvious error was allowed to breathe at The Liberty Stadium.  After years of moaning about "inconsistency" blighting the game, it's apparent solution seems to be actively promoting it.

But who are we to judge? VAR is the new ruler in town, cowardly and unseen and expensive and shiny and new, as opposed to The Ref, middle aged and cheap and visible to a baying crowd. The Ref, or at least almost all of his/her's authority is dying out, all because, as we are told, "there's some much money involved now/"the stakes are so high"/"football is a business", and to that end we must not allow any errors to be tolerated, even if sometimes crowds and matches are galvanised by injustice and having to fight adversity, and that sport, like life, isn't perfect, by the way.              



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