Formats Unpacked: Football Cliches
How a podcast about football and language captured attention in a crowded market
Thanks for choosing to open today’s newsletter. I know I’m competing for your attention with a long list of fascinating newsletters that are sat in your inbox. I’m guessing you opened this because you’re interested in Newsletters + Formats. Maybe it was Formats + Football. Or even Newsletters + Language.
When faced with an overwhelming choice, it’s usually a bunch of triggers that help us decide how we spend our attention. It’s rarely just one thing. Great formats often turn popular subjects into a niche through combinations. That’s exactly what the format I’m unpacking today did.
What is it?
Football Cliches (a podcast)
What’s the format?
It’s a podcast of two halves. In the first episode of the week, host Adam Hurrey is joined by a rotating lineup of guests to analyse the cliches and commentary that accompanies the weekend’s matches. There is a second weekly episode called ‘Mesut Haaland Dicks’ (named after three footballers). It’s a bit like a Europa League version of Desert Island Discs. Guests such as Keir Starmer, Jamie Carragher and Tom Rosenthal talk about three tiny things they love about the game and three equally obscure things they hate about it. It’s been described as the spiritual heir to fanzines and the gleeful radio shows of Danny Baker and Danny Kelly.
In a landscape of infinite football content, there are no easy podcasts at this level. But Football Cliches has found its niche and it’s top drawer.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
The magic is that it takes the language of football very seriously and discusses it in a very funny way. It’s for people who care almost as passionately about language as they do their favourite teams. For those less familiar with the unique language of the beautiful game, allow me to explain.
Football commentary is riddled with bizarre words, phrases and metaphors, borrowed from all walks of life. We talk about attacking defenders that are “swashbuckling”, fast-moving midfielders getting on their bikes, and center-forwards who “know where the onion bag is.” And then there’s the debate about what we mean when we use such language. An overhead kick is often mistaken for a scissor kick or even a bicycle kick. Or are they really just the same thing? I’m not sure if I’m honest. Thanks to Football Cliches, there’s now an adjudication panel to preside over such matters.
Host Adam Hurrey found a football niche when he wrote his book of the same name back in 2014 but the podcast didn’t launch for another six years. Perhaps the gap was due to the fear of running out of cliches, or it getting repetitive or a bit boring - like a game that needs a goal. Thankfully, football commentary is the gift that keeps on giving, and with 142 episodes already in the bag, the show is showing no signs of losing the dressing room. Whist the likes of Richard Keys and Andy Gray are still in work, this show will always have talking points in its locker.
The beautiful language of the beautiful game is constantly evolving. A fairly recent phenomenon is the player’s post-match apology on social media after a defeat. After their humiliating defeat to local rivals Man City this weekend, United winger Jadon Sancho posted “Apologies to the fans… It’s not good enough. We have to look at ourselves as players and work hard to make things right. We will keep on fighting.” Fans HATE this because the only place we want to see our players perform is on the pitch, not on Twitter. But that wasn’t the most interesting apology of the weekend. No. Newcastle’s Jonjo Shelvey gave birth to a whole new genre of apology when he said sorry for his team’s win over Brighton, live on TV. Apparently, his performance didn’t match his own expectation. HEAVENS ABOVE! WHAT NEXT? APOLOGIES FOR POORLY SCRIPTED APOLOGIES? Unbelievable, Jeff!
As already mentioned, launching a new football podcast takes guts. I subscribe to 11 different football podcasts, many of them with two or more episodes per week. So how do you capture the attention of a football audience in such a competitive space? In the case of Football Cliches, it’s all about Venn diagrams. People frequently talk about their audience in broad terms. But audiences are like a patchwork quilt of many small audiences with adjacent interests. A couple of decades ago Football was represented in the media by live games and analysis (pre and post-match). That was it. In the 90s radio shows like Danny Kelly and Danny Baker, as well as TV shows like Fantasy Football, began to reflect the humour that had been popular in football fanzines since the early 70s. But then things changed!
When podcasting came along, football fans with all sorts of uncatered for niche interests decided to start their own. Just type the word ‘football’ into your podcast directory and you will see what that patchwork quilt really looks like. There's something for almost everyone. If you’re interested in football and data there is the Football Fanalytics Podcast, for football and transfers, there is the Transfer Window Podcast, for those who are interested in the business side of football, there’s the Football Business Podcast, for scouting obsessives there’s the Scouted Football Podcast, for tactics it's the Football Tactics Podcast and for money, there’s the Price of Football podcast. I could go on and on but nobody likes extra-time and penalties.
Adam Hurrey found a football niche and turned it into something wonderful. I discovered it by listening to other shows designed for niche groups that make up the football audience quilt. And I make space for it in a busy week of listening because it’s a lot easier than hanging out IRL with my language-obsessed, football-mad friends. Like all the best ideas, it’s obvious now you see it. But there was a time that nobody wanted a podcast about football and language until someone cared enough to make it.
Episode quality varies largely on the weekly performances of the players, commentators and fans who rarely let you down. So episodes that stand out are often defined by facts you discover that you just have to share with someone. For instance, Keir Starmer’s Sunday league team is called Hommerton Academicals and the league he plays in features a team called Brixton Monchengladbach.
Thanks for reading today’s unpacking.
The subject of fandom and how fans engage with digital content is something we’ve done a lot of work around, not just at Storythings but also working in our previous roles at the BBC and Channel 4. If you have a problem getting fans to engage with your content, we’d love to help you.
Get in touch if you have a favourite format that you would like to unpack. I’d love to see more unpacking of formats I know very little about.
OK. Until next week.