The curious existence of minute-by-minute football commentary

Tulip speculators in the 1600s. Zeppelin pilots in the roaring 1920s. Minidisc manufacturers in the 1990s. Some jobs rage brightly, but briefly. One minute you are surfing the zeitgeist, the next you are beached as the sands of time shift beneath you. I think I’m in increasingly shallow waters.

I’m one of the minute-by-minute merchants – thumping keys like Eric Morecambe to turn action into updates on the BBC Sport website. I say minute-by-minute. You might say live text, clockwatch or rolling blog. But you know what I mean. Those short paragraphs that slither into view too slowly as you follow a game from afar.

Perhaps this virtual room of typewriting monkeys would claim a definite term if it was going to be around much longer. Rolling online reporting, which came into its own once bandwidth got broad enough to keep pages fresh, seems set to choke on Vines and slip beneath the surface of a thousand hooky video streams brought into life by the same technology.

For the time being though, for this brief golden age, tens of millions of people each season still get their live fix from someone doing little more than dispatching a telegram while sitting in front of their TV.

Tottenham’s draw with West Brom on Monday recorded one and a half million hits on the BBC Sport site alone. That is only just shy of the number of copies of the Daily Mail sold each day. Those figures make them arguably the most widely read sports journalism in the country, but the Pulitzer Prize committee probably aren’t contributing. Because if a live page is an inevitably unsatisfying way to follow a match, it is an unsettling way to report one.

That is inevitable when former Catchphrase host Roy Walker’s mantra of “if you see it, say it” is as high-minded as you can rise for a guiding principle. You don’t have enough time for anything else. Those reading – generally on the move, on the sly or on the bog – certainly don’t.

You hammer down your stream-of-consciousness take on what is unfolding – tiptoeing though Wojciech Szczesny’s name and inexplicably forgetting where the ‘I’ goes in ‘Fraizer Campbell’ – all the time trying to forget the hundreds of thousands of people looking over your shoulder. A quick scan for spelling and syntax, patch it up, and throw it over the top of the trench to the jaws of an insatiable public before starting all over again.

Fortunately football survives this field-hospital journalism pretty well. Chances come and go as punchy packages of action. Add in cards, subs, stats, the choicest chants, the touchline joshing, some amateur tactical observations, all to a soundtrack of the match’s overall mood music and you aren’t short of material.

There are clear dotted lines to snip the words around. The meat comes off the bone pretty easily. By contrast, carving a paragraph out of three minutes of good boxing feels like detailing warp-speed surgery. A rugby match is often won and lost out of sight in scrums and breakdown. Picking the fallers, favourites and fatalities out of the Grand National fences is an exercise that strays close to blind panic.

There are going to be mistakes. And no other sport’s followers are keener to let you know they’ve noticed than football fans.

Stupid tiddlers make up most errors. An assist handed to the wrong man or last year’s stadium sponsor getting airtime paid for by this year’s. Occasionally, however, you get a clown-car pile-up where no amount of cutting and pasting will cover the cracks.

Last April, Ben Bloom of the Daily Telegraph was given the task of covering the press conference announcing Jurgen Klopp’s resignation from Borussia Dortmund. Only once the ever-quotable Klopp opened his mouth did it become clear that the press conference was solely in German, a language Bloom didn’t understand.

Left alone and centre stage, Bloom turned looming disaster into social media triumph as he appealed for help from the public, bemoaned the failure of Esperanto and pieced together the clues from Google translate.

There are text commentators who never make mistakes. Or style them out with panache. Most matches can also be followed by an automated feed generated by a computer. Fast, ruthlessly accurate, but – perhaps because Deep Blue and his predecessors are too busy mucking about playing chess – they lack a certain something.

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic found the net with a 35-yard bicycle kick against England in 2012 – a goal as surreal as a Salvador Dali cheese dream – this is how the bots reported it: ‘Goal! – Sweden 4 – 2 England Zlatan Ibrahimovic grabs a brilliant goal from a long way out to the top right corner of the goal’.

And his drilled daisy-cutter seven minutes earlier? ‘Goal! – Sweden 3-2 England – Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores a brilliant goal direct from the free kick from a long way out to the bottom right corner of the goal’. Undeniably true, but if you had the imagination to fill in the gaps there was no way you would test clean post-match.

Twitter is never as tongue tied. An army of better-qualified, better-positioned observers training their sights on the same game is formidable opposition. But within every timeline they have to compete with the white noise and echo from other accounts as well as a character limit that clips the wings of even the most succinct.

For the moment, and especially with the help of the video, audio, pundits, pictures, graphics, bells and whistles we throw in at BBC Sport, I think the coherent narrative of a good minute-by-minute is still in front.

If newspapers’ best efforts are just tomorrow’s chip wrapping, then ours are megabytes that bite the dust as soon as the next entry flushes them down the page. But despite their near-instant expiry, despite the looming challenge to the format, for the moment, at least, these pages are pretty close to the white heat generated by live sport.

They are how lots of people find out about the stuff that they care about, the stuff that think-pieces and phone-ins feed off, the stuff that matters. There is a thrill in that and I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

The curious existence of minute-by-minute football commentary
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