Pundits on the BBC's Match of the Day have been told to be more "opinionated" and "animated" as the flagship football show begins its 50th anniversary season amid unprecedented levels of competition in sports broadcasting.
Key contributors including Alan Shearer, Robbie Savage, Rio Ferdinand and Ruud Gullit will be encouraged to be more outspoken and critical in their match analysis as the programme attempts to fill a void left by the departure of its assertive chief pundit Alan Hansen after 22 years.
Mark Cole, head of football at the BBC, told The Independent the show would give an enhanced analytical role to presenter Gary Lineker, who will also be encouraged to be more opinionated. MotD’s latest pundit, Phil Neville, has been given support and advice - including from Lineker - following criticism of his commentary at the World Cup in Brazil, Cole said.
But he rejected claims that the BBC needed to revolutionise the MotD format in the face of media criticism that it has not kept pace with fiercely competitive commercial broadcasting rivals such as Sky and BT Sport. "You can't just reinvent the wheel," he said of the show's mainstream appeal. "There's a difference between what the audience thinks Match of the Day should be and what journalists think Match of the Day should be."
Noting that MotD records high audience appreciation ratings - despite criticism on online football forums of the show being anodyne and outdated - and is watched by 10m a week, Cole said "we have to be careful that we don't alienate the audience". Sky's showpiece Monday Night Football show, on which star pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher decipher the action with the aid of high-spec technical gadgetry, would be seen as "too long, too intricate and too complicated" by many MotD viewers.
But he admitted the show was taking a stricter line with its pundits, acknowledging that "in previous years we have been a bit nice". Star players had not been offered the broadcast coaching which they themselves might have appreciated. "Even top players want to keep improving," said Cole.
The team has especially sought to improve the broadcasting technique of Shearer, who after nine years is MotD's most experienced analyst. "We have worked really hard with him - that's Alan prompting that. Since he drew a line under his managerial aspirations he has allowed the handbrake to come off. He has taken the gloves off to some extent and said I will be even more punchy and forthright."
Cole said the BBC's own research showed Shearer was regarded by the public as the best football pundit on all channels. "There has been some criticism within the press, but he constantly performs unbelievably well in all our audience research."
Neville's appointment followed a difficult experience co-commentating on England's opening World Cup game with Italy. "He had a bad night at the office," said Cole. "He was really hurting that night when I spoke to him but he dusted himself down the next morning."
The former Manchester United and Everton defender performed better in a studio context in Brazil and will gain further experience commentating for BBC Radio 5 Live this season. Cole said Neville was an astute observer of the game and would continue to develop as a broadcaster. "The thing is to get that animation across, to show your excitement at various stages and to have that range of tones. He knows that’s in his locker. He needs to be a lot more animated."
Neville has taken advice from Lineker, who experienced difficulties of his own when he first made the transition to broadcasting. The former England striker is entering his sixteenth season on MotD and Cole wants to make greater use of "one of the best sports presenters on TV" with his mainstream appeal as host of major events such as the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games. "He knows the answers as well as the questions and we want him to get his own opinion in more and more,” he said. “We think Gary can be even better - some of that side we see on social media with him.”
Lineker takes intense interest in the dynamics of the show. He has advised Savage to be "the modern-day Jimmy Hill", provoking reaction with outspoken comment. "It's okay to have people throwing the remote controls at the telly" after strongly voiced criticisms, said Cole. "We want all the guys to offer opinions. But it needs to be balanced and they cannot be changing their minds next week. It has to come from the heart."
Whereas Sky's pundits might have 13 minutes to give their tactical insights, the MotD team must deliver a "very punchy three or four minutes’ segment".
MotD has been criticised for not shaking up its line-up of analysts with the inclusion of a woman. Cole explains the policy: "Anyone on that panel of punditry should have played top-flight football and that's our position." Presenters Jacqui Oatley and Gabby Logan will feature in the show next season.
Speaking ahead of the launch of a BBC documentary on 50 years of MotD, to be shown on 22 August, Cole - a Bristol Rovers supporter - denied the common accusation that the show's running order is dominated by the biggest clubs. The only Premier League team not to feature in a lead game last season was Aston Villa. His choice of pundits is also designed to avoid claims of team bias and he notes that "there's something about that Liverpool dressing room that makes players into pundits", with Mark Lawrenson and Danny Murphy already among the MotD team. Neville "offers" a United background.
Current Premier League managers and players will appear as occasional guests on the show to give contemporary insights.
During the coming season, MotD will reflect its five decades of history in the opening sequences of the classic Saturday night highlights show.
"You cannot just sit down with a blank piece of paper," said Cole in the knowledge that 59 per cent of viewers of this half-century old institution are over 45. "People have built this show up as part of their lives on Saturday nights."