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REVIEW: Football League Tonight - Episode 1

With the new season has come a brand new prime time highlights show on Channel 5 but much like Reading on Saturday, Matt believes there's still a few kinks to be ironed out in the format.

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Last month, I spent a few days holiday down in Devon. We returned back to Reading on the Friday that most schools broke up, driving against a sea of traffic as thousands of families queued the other way down the M5 in the vague hope of getting to their Cornwall caravans before midnight.

Suffice to say, we felt pretty smug going against the grain and enjoying an open road as everyone else endured snarling tailbacks on what the media dubbed ‘Black Friday' for traffic.

That all changed though when we stupidly decided to stop off for a quick comfort break at a service station just outside Bristol. I still kick myself for making such a dumb decision. The service station was one shared by both sides of the road, and filled - and I mean filled - with travellers embarking on the Great Summer Getaway.

We realised too late. We were stuck in a queue that snaked around the entire Service Station, with no opportunity to bail. The car park made the mass post-match exodus from the Madejski Stadium look civilized. It was hot, sweaty, and drivers were being pushed to their limit.

In all, it took us almost an hour and a half to get in and out of the Service Station. All for a quick trip to the toilet. I was fuming. I just wanted to get home. I vowed there and then that it was the most pointless 90 minutes of my year.

And that was genuinely the case. Until 9pm on 8th August 2015. Because that's when I settled down to watch Channel 5's new Football League highlights show.

I use the word ‘highlights' loosely. You've probably heard a little bit about how bad this programme was. Well everything you've heard is correct.

Beforehand, I was quite excited. Not because I was desperate to see Reading miss a 96th minute penalty, but because it was at least nice to have the option to do so without having to make it past Stoke 0-0 Swansea and a final round-up of the Lottery numbers.

So what was so bad about it? It's difficult to know where to start. Let's begin with the studio audience. A studio audience on anything other than Question Time or a comedy panel show is bad enough. A studio audience on a football highlights show is terrible.

Now I know football crowds throw up all sorts of oddballs. But the people they found to populate this audience was something else. Who the hell were these people? The type who decide that standing in a bland studio in Isleworth has the makings for a good Saturday night, I guess.

What were they there for? Besides awkward laughter and portraying football fans as extras from Lord of the Rings? The presenters did engage with them on the odd occasion, but when they did, they comically neglected to give them a microphone, resulting in a couple of minutes of awkward silence and yet more baffled looks.

Yet this was the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the show was just as chaotic. The match clips darted from the Championship to League One, League One to League Two, and back to the Championship again.

You had no clue when your team would be on, which match would be next, and whether your game would get a bit of analysis, extended highlights or a flash-in-the-pan clip of a goal and not much else.

The opportunity for Channel 5 to offer something genuinely useful and exciting (and in a decent timeslot) is huge. And as the saying goes, "it's not about whether you failed, it's about how you respond." Next Saturday should be interesting.

The punditry, when it did come, was frustrating too. Adam Virgo - despite a penchant for starting every sentence with "as I say", even when he hadn't previously said anything at all - wasn't bad at analysis, but an ex-footballer should be there to describe why what you've already seen happened, not introduce the footage in the first place.

And when ‘special' guest pundit Martin Allen joined proceedings, forcing him to introduce the other League Two matches was a recipe for complete disaster. Here was someone who'd spent the afternoon overseeing a 2-0 defeat for his team - I doubt he'd even had time to digest his own side's goals, so asking him to dissect the day's other matches was always going to be a car-crash.

Indeed, when Allen responded to presenter George Riley's question with "Well, what do you want me to say?" he was pretty much summing up what we were all thinking.

As for the presenters themselves - well here, the jury is still out. Kelly Cates is excellent. She's shown previously that she can ably handle live broadcasting, is personable, charming and clearly knows her stuff. Riley got a bit of stick on Twitter but I'm willing to give him another go as well. He's excellent on Radio 5 Live and if he goes down the more serious ‘sports journalist' route, like colleagues Mark Chapman and Pougatch, then I think he could be good on TV too.

The problem is that Riley seemed intent - whether it was his decision or not - to be the new Tim Lovejoy instead. Everything seemingly required some football ‘banter' as opposed to displaying genuine passion or knowledge about lower league football. He wanted to get by on being your mate, who'd sacrifice watching actual match action for a chance to take the piss out of a football shirt, when really we just wanted someone who was able to introduce Crewe Alexandra v Port Vale without getting their names wrong.

I could go on. And I'm very tempted to do so. But my blood pressure is reaching Bristol Service Station-esque proportions, and you should all be spending time on this site moaning about the Reading performance itself, rather than the TV programme broadcasting it.

But I will end on a Reading related note. Because ironically, so did Football League Tonight. Yup, we had to wait until 10:15, the very last game of the entire show, to see our match. I'm not precious enough to moan about us being last - although I've already highlighted the stupidity of jumping around the leagues - but I will moan about their coverage of Tshibola's ‘Ghost Goal'. Was it over the line? Wasn't it? We wanted to know, and ironically, so did the presenters. But instead of clearing that up for us with another replay, Riley announced that "we'll have to take another look after the show to really decide." Well great, cheers for that.

It pretty much summed up everything that was wrong about Football League Tonight. It substituted any sort of worthwhile highlights or accurate and insightful analysis for inane chatter, pointless banter and cheesy gimmicks (oh, I didn't even get on to the ‘spinning tables', did I? You'll have to Google that one, I can't face anymore).

Partly it's down to the time slot. Saturday evening at 9pm is a great time for Football League highlights. But at this point the chances are that few will have seen their team's game from that day, and even those that were in attendance won't have seen it again. Emotions are still raw. At this point we just want to see what happened, and maybe get a bit of expert analysis on why.

If Channel 5 insist on having a Football League based Soccer AM-style show, then the time and place for that is later in the week, once the highlights have been shown, once fans have got their heads around the results, and once the initial reactions have all died down.

Luckily, part of me thinks that Saturday's backlash to the programme was so severe that much of it will change. Much like the BBC had to switch focus when they cocked up their Wimbledon highlights show in June. In fact, I think even the presenters expect the show to change now, judging by their Twitter comments since too.

I really hope it does. The opportunity for Channel 5 to offer something genuinely useful and exciting (and in a decent timeslot) is huge. And as the saying goes, "it's not about whether you failed, it's about how you respond." Next Saturday should be interesting.