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IAN LADYMAN: ‘Sky Sports’ pundit cull is tough to watch’

It comes to most of us in the end, the tap on the shoulder. Time to move aside for someone new, someone younger, someone brighter and – sometimes in the world of television – better looking. It’s painful but it happens and always will.

It happened recently to Clive Tyldesley, replaced as ITV’s lead football commentator by Sam Matterface, who is 24 years younger. 

Tyldesley didn’t take that one particularly well while over at talkSPORT Alan Brazil will no doubt tell us one day what he really feels about losing a chunk of his breakfast slot to Laura Woods. I think we can guess.

At least at SKY there has been some generosity of spirit from Phil Thompson, Matt Le Tissier and Charlie Nicholas after they were removed rather abruptly from long-running slots on Jeff Stelling’s Soccer Saturday show. They leave with dignity and having offered kind words, no matter what they really feel. There is much to be said for that.

Without a doubt, this feels like a statement from SKY. The decision has been attributed to cost cutting but almost inevitably the culling of three middle aged white men from a flagship show has TV’s ongoing search for diversity at its root.

It jars simply because it’s so obvious but that doesn’t make it wrong. SKY is the face that televised sport presents to the world in this country and as such it must seek freshness and it must evolve.

But it’s a gamble, too. This is a show so uniquely successful that rival stations BBC and BT Sport have all but copied it. Just like a football team, it’s not always important who you let go but who you replace them with. With this in mind, taking out a whole forward line in one go feels particularly significant.

So SKY’s next move will be much-analysed and undoubtedly some of the station’s recent moves feel like missteps.

Sky Sports News is much improved of late but its Transfer Talk show has too often featured presenters who look young, funky and different but who also have no more gravitas or authority than those making so much unnecessary noise on Radio 5 live’s Sunday morning abomination ‘The Squad’.

The search for a more youthful audience from both platforms is so naked as to feel almost desperate. It is understandable but does it work?

Time will tell us, just as it will reveal whether many of the disenfranchised viewers and listeners who have felt compelled to seek their pleasures elsewhere during those time slots will ever come back again.

The Soccer Saturday debate has several layers. It is, first and foremost, Stelling’s show. The 65-year-old is an imperious broadcaster who drives and carries it to an extent that you could place three rag dolls to his left and people may watch anyway.

Equally, it could be argued that ex-pros like Thompson have not played for so long that they have lost their relevance. But, by the same token, are we not told that young people no longer watch TV anyway? 

If that’s the case, and Soccer Saturday is being routinely watched by grandfathers in their cardigans, then why remove pundits who they remember and associate with? Stelling’s rapport with co-presenters he considered to be his friends will be desperately hard to replace and it may well be that SKY are chasing an audience that is just not interested anyway.

What is undeniable is that it never feels good to watch people have their careers taken away from them.

It has been ugly to see so many talented BBC journalists eased aside in recent times and it is hard not to sympathise with someone like Scott Minto, brave enough to make that desperately tough transition from footballer to TV anchor only to be cut loose after 13 years as an increasingly watchable presenter of SKY’s EFL and La Liga coverage. 

One would imagine the former Chelsea and West Ham defender will resurface again soon. He is talented enough.

The one thing none of this feels like is a surprise. The world is changing and judgment comes quickly and from all sides. 

The slight irony is that the one place criticism of Soccer Saturday’s all white and male dominated panel will have originated is Twitter – a strange world inhabited by folk who will not watch it anyway

But that doesn’t always matter anymore. Perception – more than ever – is important and it feels like SKY have reacted to a change in the direction of the wind.

Thompson, Le Tissier, Nicholas and Minto just happen to be the first to be blown out of the door. One imagines there will be others.

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