Amazon TV experiment proves that football with no filler doesn’t work

<span>Illustration: Matt Johnstone</span>
Illustration: Matt Johnstone

As Johan Cruyff once pointed out, in football the clock is always your enemy. If you’re winning the clock moves too slowly. If you’re losing it’s always going too fast. The clock only really tells you two things: how much chasing you still have to do, and how much longer you’re going to be chased. This is the source of its power too. In a game that has no formal structure beyond the half-time break, no set phases, just the steady depletion of time, the clock is key to the entire spectacle, the ultimate source of all tension, fear, pain, joy.

All of which perhaps explains why Amazon Prime’s Every Game Every Goal show is, for all the undimmed maestro-power of Jeff Stelling, the most painful, jarring and genuinely exhausting football programme ever devised. This is the football TV show as category mistake, a bravura production that expresses above all else a profound misunderstanding of its subject matter. Albeit in a way that is oddly reassuring, at a time when the game feels more than ever up for grabs.

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Week one of Amazon’s Premier League rights-slice came to an end on Thursday night. Week two will fall over the Christmas period, with just one more year to run after that, Amazon having not secured a package in the broadcast rights round announced earlier this week. It has been a very interesting interlude. Prime has been good in many ways, employing a vast miscellany of broadcasters, presented here at the start as a kind of festive chorus line, a punditry Band Aid: Jim Rosenthal, Steve McManaman, Francis Rossi, Sting. Gabby Logan is excellent in the role of chief anchor. Ally McCoist has reached a point where he doesn’t really need to say much at all, just offer up Ally McCoist noises, Ally McCoist energy, enshrined now as the nation’s wise, fond footballing uncle.

It all flew by pretty much as you’d expect until we got to EGEG, a show with an undeniably mouthwatering premise as a kind of NFL Red Zone-style affair, with a brief to cut to every key moment in every game as it happens. No filler. No crusts. Just all jam all the time.

Wednesday night brought six games across a four-hour span presented from a kind of faux high-rise hotel suite, like the set for a drug-deal-gone-wrong movie of the mid-90s, by the apparently iron-bladdered Stelling.

Jeff remains hearteningly unchanged. He still looks like the handsome man from a 1950s advert for razor blades. There’s more gloss and TV sheen, moments where he looks like a very convincing and youthful waxwork of Jeff Stelling. But he still has that unique ability to speak fluent uninterrupted football, to add full stops and commas and grammar to the free verse.

With him was Dion Dublin, the football equivalent of Magic FM, and a surprisingly mesmeric Tim Sherwood, who looks good these days, grizzled and lived-in, like a minor Soprano cousin filling out the room at a sit-down. Siobhan Chamberlain was the most on-message, working very hard to say coherent stuff and ease the weirdness in the room. Nedum Onuoha, at the far end of the sofa, just seemed to know.

This format works well in more regulated sports with natural breaks and set plays, where the state of play is instantly grasped at every cut. It works on Soccer Saturday or TNT’s excellent The Goals Show, because those are basically sitcoms. You’re there for the characters. But football in the raw, with a loose brief to gabble in real time over the pictures? What is the interest, really, in witnessing, an isolated “key moment”? Without context or down time or the silences between the notes, there is no narrative here, just noise. It feels like dilution not addition.

The best part was the presenters being forced to wait a full 24 minutes for a goal to talk about, filled with stuff like “LET’S GET STRAIGHT BACK TO THE AMEX WHERE THERE’S A CORNER”.

But as things kicked into gear we got complete sensory overload. It was delicious and moreish, but it also felt like living inside the internet, a place of inane overstimulation, like being stabbed in the eyes with a needle covered in football, a place where all information is basically noise and colour and people going: “Aargh,” and: “Oooh,” and: “No!”

This a broadcast format that is trying to kill time, to rip the clock off the wall, to erase the spaces and the silences, to make this stubbornly unscripted sport into a homogenised product-noise. And frankly, miraculously even, given its endless micromanagement, football just doesn’t work like this.

The net effect of EGEG was a sense of pride in the enduring quality of the Premier League, which is in the middle of a brilliant, restorative season, and which, for all its glitz and modernity, still relies on narrative, on the music between the notes, no matter how hard its administrators might try to process it into something else. This matters a great deal right now. There is a battle along these lines in all sports, the desire, weaponised by digital media, not just to own the content but to reshape it, to make it more addictive and consumable, ever closer to the sporting equivalent of a tube of Pringles.

There have been some attempts to get at football, to make its chaos more biddable. Directives forcing players to hurry up mid-game. The (perhaps) unintended consequences of VAR. Time is key once again. Those two great immovable blocks of 45 minutes each half, a Victorian idea of what sport should look like, have proved unsurmountable, insisting that elite football remains one of the few non-bite-size elements in the popular culture.

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Hence the EGEG-style attempts to add instant eyeball grab, all the while failing to understand that this is football’s enduring strength. Don’t believe the market research that says kids don’t like long things (translation: market researchers don’t like long things). The fact football can lag behind the NFL and IPL as advert-drivers is a function of its best feature, those clean open spaces, the sense this thing is still happy to be boring or quiet sometimes, to simmer at its own pace.

There is perhaps a reason why Amazon let its Premier League rights lapse, why Apple didn’t bid at all, and why the overall TV deal still went up this week. This is a product that doesn’t actually need to be sliced into something new.

Zoom out a little and, for all the madness around it, perhaps modern football will stand as our own version of Hollywood in the golden age, or music in the 1970s, debauched and overblown but still at its centre something close to high art, still Prince and Apocalypse Now, still Messi and Pep.

Back in the EGEG studio the evening wound down into a glaze of fun exhaustion. Jeff kept going, as he does, still pumping out that free jazz. By the end Tim looked like a man on an epic 5am comedown, sitting on the kerb, staring at the kebab shop lights, talking about the twins. There was above all an air of quiet heroism at having got though it all. We’re safe for now. The game is good. We will not be shunted off into some streaming future-world just yet. The present is, against all odds, chugging along just fine thanks very much.

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