James Richardson is a football broadcaster, podcast host, and journalist who specialises in Italian league Serie A. His love for all things Italian was sparked by a girl he met in Rome, 1990, which resulted in him learning the language and the league. That girl started a chain of events ultimately creating one of the greatest football shows of all time, Channel 4’s Football Italia.
26 years after it debuted, Football Italia still holds a place in the hearts of those who watched it every week. “There were a unique combination of circumstances in the early 90’s that caused it to be successful and the biggest factor of them all was Paul Gascoigne. Everyone was desperate to see just how he would get on in Italy.” Says Richardson.
“On one hand, because it was the biggest test an English footballer could have at the time and secondly because he hadn’t played anywhere in 18 months.” Gascoigne missed the entire 1991/92 season after suffering a ruptured cruciate ligament in his right knee while playing for Tottenham Hotspur. During his recovery, there was a media circus about whether he would sign for Italian club Lazio or not, which he eventually did for £5.5 million.
“We were all really interested to see how he would do, whether he was still Gazza. So you have that and the fact that it was essentially the only football that was on TV because Sky had just taken the English First Division away.”
“It was also in Italy where we had just had a really successful World Cup with Italia 90. There was a great vibe around those stadiums, those same grounds where we had seen the World Cup take place. All the big stars of that World Cup were still playing there. It felt almost like a window into another world of football.”
“You wouldn’t have those things now, not least because everyone’s schedule is saturated by football.” That certainly is one of the difficulties for the modern football fan, a wealth of options and limited time makes it difficult to know what to watch. “I think certainly for Football Italia, doing a proper highlights show with context of who these players are and what these games mean is something that we really don’t see all that much of on TV [nowadays].”
“We don’t get a proper Spanish show or a proper Italian show. We were doing something along those lines on BT with the European Football Show before it was cancelled, but there will always be a place for a show like Football Italia.”
Nowadays you can find Richardson on BT Sport’s Champions League Goals Show. Hosted on BT Sport 1 it has a panel of experts, one for each of the top European leagues, who watch all the night’s games giving opinions and analysis on the action as it happens. The most attractive aspect of the show is that every goal is shown, allowing the viewer to have a rounded knowledge of the week’s action.
Having a panel of experts rather than pundits was something Richardson was adamant about from the outset. “Whilst a former pro can give you a unique insight on how to play the game, when you’re dealing with foreign matches there is no point in having someone with only a cursory knowledge, or someone who has just read some research notes into a fixture. They won’t be able to give you anything beyond truisms, whereas an expert or journalist will be able to really bring you information that you wouldn’t otherwise get.”
“Unless the pundit is someone who has maybe played at that club ten years before, most of the time you’ll be giving them more information than they are giving you, which is not really the right dynamic for pre-game or post-game analysis. I’m really a strong believer that pundits can be ex-players, only ex-players can know what it’s like to be on the pitch, but equally, in terms of summing up a game it’s not like they are the only one who can do it.”
“If you were to buy a newspaper and all the match reports were written by ex-pros, I don’t know how much fun that would be. We trust journalists to do the job of reporting and analysing in print and in other forms of media so why punditry should only be the province of former players is something that I’m not clear on.”
“I guess that’s just the way it’s always been done but particularly as I say with foreign matches, the staple of English pundits that float around don’t really have any expertise to bring to it. It made total sense to use people that actually know and understand what these games are and BT was completely on board with that.”
With the results of the show being so positive there have been calls to introduce experts and journalists to other programs such as Match of the Day. “I think everyone in the country has a view on what they would do if they were in charge of it and it’s difficult because it kind of belongs to everyone.”
“Equally it’s extremely difficult to plot an editorial course that’s going to upset the least amount of people, but I do think you could do that more with shows like that. It is a show that, in as much as they try and do other things, has a lot of things they haven’t tried to do yet.”
Another potential opportunity is for Match of the Day, highlight type, shows of different European leagues. “I think one of the issues is an audience for that because things are getting increasingly fragmented. Sky did have the rights for La Liga and then they, for whatever reason, decided it wasn’t a viable thing. BT got rid of the European Football Show and I guess [the] audience was probably a significant reason for that.”
“I think now that everyone watches television on demand it means that people can catch up whenever they want. So I absolutely think there is room for a highlights show for things like the Italian and Spanish leagues. Everyone loves to see Italian or Spanish goals but most people would struggle to find 90 minutes of their Saturday or Sunday night to sit down and watch two foreign teams in a league which they might not have too much skin in themselves.”
“A properly put together and explained highlights show though is always something that will be popular, perhaps even more so than the live games.”
With BBC, BT Sport, Sky, and now Eleven Sports owning rights to different leagues it is becoming increasingly difficult, and expensive, to keep up to date with what’s going on regardless of the format. “You need three subscriptions now to watch the biggest leagues. I think it must be really hard for the average viewer. It costs me a fortune but then it’s kind of what I do anyway.”
“Then again if you go back 20 or 30 years nobody really expected to be able to watch all of these things on TV. We had a brief period in which suddenly there was everything all over the place and now we are reverting to an era in which you maybe specialise in one league. There’s no question about it though, it is frustrating for a lot of people to not be able to follow the sport they love in different countries.”