The Making of Monday Night Football
Ping, ping, ping…
It is Tuesday, October 23 and the familiar, first slow then progressively incessant, WhatsApp dings surface.
For six days, the notifications on the Monday Night Football group chat will pass with the regularity of Jorginho.
Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville are the texters-in-chief.
They usually bounce ideas around themes for the show with presenter David Jones and producer Jack Hazzard, while liaising over video clips with his assistant Guy Tutton and sending Will Rickson on statistical hunts in-between their witty takedowns of each other.
The messages culminate in a 17-page information pack that is prepared for this morning: October 29.
It is game day and as such, Sky Studios in the company’s expansive, cutting-edge Osterley campus is in full-on Monday Night Football mode.
Nine hours before they go live to share unrivalled analysis on our television screens, Carragher and Neville push through the glass doors together.
Suit bags and holdalls in hand, their coordinated laughter fills the third-floor office. The former’s iPhone is not working and while one of the production team morphs into a cellular technician, the mapping out of MNF - with Tottenham’s hosting of Manchester City as its centrepiece - continues.
There are multiple conversations occurring simultaneously: Jones and Hazzard are discussing the introduction to the show, Neville is telling Will the numbers pulled on Anthony Martial “shocked the life out of me”, Carragher wants to know how deep the dive into City’s underlying stats can go and Tutton is making sure all the requested clips have been cut by his team.
At 10:30am, the concurrent dialogues filter into one: nine people sit around a long table as the production meeting begins.
It is startling how all-encompassing the agenda is, starting with social media strategy. Carragher insists on greater immediacy when sharing content before pointing out "the Sky Football account doesn’t follow me, how is that possible?"
Neville cheekily jokes "they had to distance themselves from you" and questions the worth of having so many different Twitter handles under the Sky banner.
The team then move through pitches for the major talking points of the first hour and two things immediately become clear: the collaboration in piecing together the show and the challenging of each other.
Neville advocates for a blanket part on Martial to cover an entire section, which would encompass rewinding to wide forwards of the past and how the requirements in the position have altered over time.
Hazzard and Jones disagree that it should be so detailed or so long. Carragher wants to illustrate that City could scarily be performing better than they did last season, but Neville believes it is too soon for such an observation.
There are differences of opinion on all sides of the table, but there is respect and an unwavering appetite to deliver a standout final product.
The meeting ends and clip analysis begins, where there are more requests following new findings.
“Did you see Ross Barkley actively check his run there and realise he has to put his defensive responsibility first?" Carragher asks the EVS operator, before recalling when the Chelsea midfielder failed to do similar for Everton in encyclopaedic fashion.
Everyone is involved in the process, which is ever-changing throughout the day.
“I think Monday Night Football is the best football show and one of the very best on TV in general,” Carragher tells JOE.
“That’s not because I’m on it at all. It’s because of the desire to take analysis to the highest level possible from everyone involved.
“I’ll use Gary as an example, because when I started, he was doing MNF with Ed Chamberlain.
"When I came on, he didn’t have this ‘what are you doing here? This is my show’ attitude.
“He said Monday Night Football is bigger than any individual and we all have the responsibility to make sure it is an outstanding product.
“It’s the same belief across the board - we all realise we’re doing a special show. When we bring a guest on, it becomes all about him - I’ll take a step back because the whole point is we want to hear from him, we want to be informed.
“After the show, we’ll all come into the green room and collectively discuss how the show went. It’s never ‘oh, I did well with that comment’ - we’re not after that.
“Sometimes Gary will be the star of it, sometimes it will be the game itself, sometimes I might have an opinion that really divides the viewers or gets a lot of backing - you never know, but we don’t care about that. We care that we produced a really good show.”
David cuts in, adding: “I’ve worked with ‘Carra’ very closely for three years and what I would say is you’ve seen him today, but not on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the build-up to this in which he is watching everything and reading everything.
“That is part of his daily life and this show may only air on Monday night, but he is thinking about it constantly, not just when he arrives in this building.
“I would say that is the same not just for Jamie and Gary, but all of our best people have that passion in them. I think that resonates with people watching, because they feel things when they watch football, whether it’s excitement of a goal, the sheer relief of a good save, and they want to see that emotion from the people talking to them and in the show as a whole.
“They want to know that we share their love of the game and passion for it.”
There are 11 core members of the production team, with Hazzard, Tutton and Rickson working on every edition of MNF, while the other staff sometimes rotate.
They are supplemented by 20 technical people, including vision mixers, camera operators and lighting directors.
A further crew of over 60 work on the Outside Broadcast of a match, while Sky’s production coordinators make sure everyone is running on schedule.
While the show requires an army, it is inescapable that Neville and Carragher have been fundamental to its success.
The pair are not just the talent: they don’t turn up, get their scripts, get paid and get off.
They pour themselves into the before and after of MNF, and are relentless on the day of the shoot itself. There is not an aspect that escapes either, down to the timing of clips.
Bar an afternoon spinning class and a quick lunch, the pair's conversation never stops around the show until they depart Sky at midnight.
And the next day, the preparation starts again via WhatsApp.
“I think the two people most in charge of football content on this show are the two of us because we have to deliver it,” Neville says.
“If we get given stuff, it won’t feel like we own it, we won’t be passionate about it.
“This is a team game, though. It always has been, always will be and if that ever stops, there’ll be trouble.
“The arguments we used to have in the past when I was on it every week used to be unbelievable. Unbelievable, I’m telling you!”
Hazzard, who was assistant producer back then under Scott Melvin, laughs as he terms them “constructive discussions”.
That generates collective howls in the green room. “Have you ever heard Neville argue?” Carragher asks, zinging in “constructive isn’t a word I’d associate with it.”
Risk and reward…
It seems such an obvious win. Pour in a Manchester United legend that embodies the very essence of the club, whisk in his Liverpool counterpart of the same esteem - foremost of rivals, who deconstructed games in a more cerebral way than most of their colleagues, two men never short a strong opinion - and whip them into the benchmark of football programming.
There is no better partnership in the game's broadcasting, but there initially wasn’t total conviction that the Neville-Carragher combination would work.
The former had been manning the show alongside Ed Chamberlain from the 2011-12 season and in early 2013, Sky decided they wanted the Liverpool defender on board when he retired.
“I actually said ‘no’ to doing the show when I first got offered it and was told that I would still be doing it,” Neville recalls.
“After a few months, I remember telling the producer at the time that we have to make sure the show evolves otherwise it will get stale and I’ll get stale. We couldn’t let that happen.
"I remember I was in Norway at an event for United supporters when the call came through from the producer. He said, ‘listen Jamie Carragher has been heavily courted by another TV station, we want him at Sky, but he’s told us that he’ll only be interested if it’s prominent shows. He wants to do stuff like MNF.
“I replied that it was absolutely the right thing to bring him over.
“A lot of people at Sky thought it was a massive risk because the show was successful and they were resistant to change, but I was a supporter of the move.
"If I said, ‘no way, I’m not working with him’ it would have had a big influence, but I was 100% up for it.
“When Jamie came in it was a risk because you don’t know how the chemistry is going to be, how the public are going to receive it, but it was obvious from early on it would work with some of the comments.
“I said something about a burglar and that was it then, we just knew we'd work off each other really well.”
That exchange came on August 19, 2013 during Carragher’s debut on the show as City scorched Newcastle United 4-0.
They were discussing Robin van Persie’s brace for United against Swansea that weekend and his ability to thieve space regardless of how tight defenders are.
Gary: “Marking Robin van Persie is like having a burglar in the house – but you don’t know which room he’s in.”
Jamie: “You’d be under the bed.”
Gary: “You’d be the burglar!”
And so began the endless stream of quick-witted soundbites they have supplied, with Carragher highlighting “no-one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville” as his cause célèbre of the show.
"I wasn't on social media back then, which is a big regret of mine," he teases.
"I wish I was on just to see how it took off on Twitter."
The Bootle-born straight-talker admits there was a helpful naivety at play when deciding to join Sky and their flagship offering.
“I wasn’t daunted at all,” Carragher says. “I didn’t really think of the chemistry we’d need for the show to work. It probably only started to hit me when I was already a few months into TV, when you start to understand the process more, how important that kind of thing is. I was too inexperienced at first to look at the big picture.
“I don’t think anyone really knew what would happen when you threw the two of us together: Sky, Gary, me…”
Hazzard wades in, noting: “It was a big risk at the time, it may not have felt like that to you, but I remember when I first heard about it. Scott Malven called me and said: “Carra is joining the show” and it was like “oh, are we sure about this?”
“We thought what we had was great, it worked, it was well received. No-one really knew how it would impact MNF, but it has definitely made it better.”
The twosome can be “a huge, demanding double pain in the arse” as per one account, but there is appreciation at Sky for how much care they put into every facet of MNF.
“I think they’re brilliant, which makes my job tricky at times because I’ve got to concentrate on what I’m doing, but get absorbed by their answers,” Jones says.
“I don’t know exactly what they’re going to say until we’re actually on air and sometimes I find myself just sat there thinking ‘that’s so good, that is so good’ before going ‘shit, have to concentrate on what I need to do next.’
“It’s great the way they’re able to take all their professionalism and insight and put it into their pieces, which they have to go through really carefully because every word can be misconstrued. And how they’re able to balance all that under the pressure of live TV is incredible.”
Real takes, no gimmicks…
There has been a nagging curiosity as to how much of the acuity and high-pitched ding-dongs on MNF are manufactured rather than raw.
In the production meeting, neither Gary nor Jamie divulge the full scope of their opinions, but does that change during the rehearsals at 15:30?
The answer is no: the run-through serves as an opportunity to check the flow of talking points, that the correct graphics are lined up and to tick off that clips are readied on the touch screen.
So, sitting in Gallery 4 on Floor 1 there is amazement when the post-match appraisal from Tottenham’s 1-0 defeat to City turns into a fiery debate, which has Carragher facepalming and Neville frothing.
Gary: “What are you shaking your head at?”
Jamie: "I'm shaking my head because they have a net spend of £29m!"
The only discussion over Spurs that day had centred around Mauricio Pochettino’s future given the intriguing timing of his quotes.
With the Real Madrid job available, the Argentine went off-key for the first time discussing matters at the club, relaying that Tottenham are “not completely focused on winning titles”.
In the production meeting, Carragher had floated pointing a finger at Daniel Levy, to which Neville simply responded that he doesn’t think it’s right to blame him.
That was it. The conversation moved on, there was no real flicker of conflict during the rehearsal but the outcome was TV gold.
As the work in the gallery - sourcing of new stats, cropping of clips for the touch screen - ramps up, so too does the argument.
“We are aware that when there’s conflict, people do want to watch,” admits Jones.
“As long as it’s passionate, measured, not too silly and people don’t start insulting each other, then it’s good.
“Some of my favourite moments on this show are when I’ve felt that I can drive a wedge between them on a subject, sit back for five minutes and let them go at it.
“People will send messages on Twitter saying ‘feel sorry for Dave, he’s just sat in the middle like a spare part’ when in reality, that’s perfect in my job. If I think one of them is going too far, I’ll step in with a question and I’ll also be speaking to Jack through that.
“He’ll say ‘we need to move this on,’ but he’ll also appreciate if I think let’s just let it go a little longer.
"We don’t find conflict when it’s not there. A lot of the time, because they think about football in very similar ways, they do agree on the salient points in the game so when they do disagree, it’s quite novel and fresh for all of us.”
Neville’s assessment of previous Tottenham sides was also entirely unexpected.
"Tottenham for 30 years of our lives were spineless and soft, flaky, rubbish. You could be 2-0 down against them and think you would win 5-2. That's just the way they were. You knew that one little bump during the game and they would fall over it.”
The commentary in the gallery was uproarious.
“He’s just gone in.”
“Why don’t you say what you really mean?”
Hazzard, controlling matters in front of his multiple-screen set-up, applauds at the way the debate is unfolding, but constantly reminds all three in studio to keep it moving.
He is the voice inside the head of Jones, Neville and Carragher, prompting them and making sure the direction and tempo of the content is right.
Variation in pace is important, but the duo are now providing fillers for newspapers, content for radio segments, a further TV discussion on the matter and easy clicks for websites around the world.
“We don’t go into a show and think, ‘let’s make headlines’, but in the roles we’re in it’s better to be setting an agenda than no-one being interested in what you’re saying,” says Carragher.
“I wouldn’t say something I didn’t believe,” Neville adds, admitting that at times he feels at conflict with his thoughts given his disparate experiences as a player, manager, owner of Salford City, businessman and pundit.
What is crystalline and crucial to state is that neither have their own interests that they're trying to promote.
From 10am through to midnight Neville and Carragher are quite simply who they are - both happy to state they are emotionally invested in the results of their former clubs, that they tend to be more critical of them, as well as that they’ve gone too far on occasion.
Above everything, they strive to inform their audience.
Game face on…
How do two men who weren’t the most technically gifted as players nor automatic templates as pundits excel and set the standard in both fields?
Why did managers trust them so much and why do Sky now?
“We weren’t the most skilled footballers, but we had a focus and determination to be the very best we could be, which we’ve carried into this job now,” Carragher says.
“I watch every other show, I see what everyone else does and I think: I have to be better than that. It’s non-negotiable for me.
“I see Sky Sports and Monday Night Football as me playing for Liverpool and the other shows out there as the opposition.
“It doesn’t mean that I am better than them, it doesn’t mean that I do better analysis than them, but in my head, that is what I always strive for.
“I think I’ve got to improve on this, I should think more about that… I look at who is performing well for the other teams, and as was the case as a player, you drive yourself to want to be better.”
Gary is in opposition slightly - he doesn’t pay attention to the competition, dropping in: “I personally prefer to work off our standards rather than anyone else’s.”
So what are MNF’s conventions?
“I think it has evolved. The level of analysis has improved on other shows and how quickly tactical footage and discussions spread on social media has made it harder for us,” Carragher explains.
“We don’t want to do something that has been done elsewhere - that’s another reason I watch all the other shows, to make sure we’re providing something fresh.
“A lot of time we’re not looking at goals. The best way to describe it is Gary and I mirroring the team meetings we will have had as players with the coaching staff on a Monday morning.
“When the manager is going through video analysis, he doesn’t show the goal and say ‘what a hit, well done’, it’s more the patterns of play, positioning and I think we like to put that element across.
“Let’s take Jose Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp, for example, say they’ve just had a goalkeeper make an error. They’re not looking at the mistake itself, but the moves leading up to it: how did that come about and how could it have been avoided?
“Instead of showing you something you’ve probably already seen, we want to focus on the details behind it too.”
Gary expands by revealing the methodology behind building a segment.
“We need to know the story,” he emphasises.
“I’ve watched United’s last five games live - Valencia, Newcastle, Juventus, Chelsea and Everton. I’ve paid attention to Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford playing wide for the club over the last few weeks and the lack of understanding over the position at times has alarmed me.
“At other times, their talent has been incredible and amazed me. So I’m torn between whether they’re genuine top players, the kind you want United investing in over the next three-plus years, or whether they’’ll ever get there.
“So when Martial turned down his contract last Thursday in-between being influential against Chelsea with two goals then scoring one and winning a penalty against Everton, I think he did become the story. He became, to me, the most interesting subject to tackle.
“Then when the stats you requested come back and you see how good his goal contribution numbers in comparison to Leroy Sane and Sadio Mane, you know you have a really good discussion point.
“And actually, what you’re hoping for is your analysis helps Martial in some way.”
Carragher interrupts, cackling: “Do you think Martial watches MNF?”
Neville swiftly responds: “Somebody from United will be watching and maybe they’ll see something they haven’t before.
“We’ve got a team of 30 people in stats, we have unreal camera angles that the clubs don’t even have access to, and when you consider the time we have to pull all this together, it can be helpful to people really.”
Carragher and Neville strike a balance between extracting insight from people in the game and keeping a distance to ensure their opinions aren’t tainted in any way.
“I don’t like talking to someone I’m going to discuss because it can alter what I’m thinking,” Neville reveals.
Carragher, who spoke to Barkley for his section on the 24-year-old’s evolution, agrees.
“If you have close ties with people in the game, it can compromise what you say. That’s one reason why I don’t really have a big relationship with Liverpool - I’m fine with everyone, but I don’t actively go to the training ground to meet the players. I don’t speak to Klopp either, because I know people expect me to be really honest when it comes to Liverpool.
“It was different this week because I was planning a positive piece on Ross, whom I know as a local player.
“I just wanted to get some more information on what I found in the clips - what has the manager has asked of him and how he has changed his style.
“It’s not the norm, but I did feel the piece needed some insight from the player himself.”
Neville and Carragher manage to knit together deep analysis with a light-hearted atmosphere and discourse that switches from acerbic to amusing.
“It does feel like you’re doing three different shows - the first hour is intense, you’re at each other saying ‘come on, let’s get this right, let’s start strong’. It’s the really serious bit,” Carragher says.
“You feel like you relax a bit after that, watch the game and get to analyse a few new things. The last hour, you’re warmed up and you can have a bit of a laugh.
“I think why it works is because the two of us don’t fancy ourselves and are very comfortable laughing at ourselves.
“To give you an example, I watched the Roberto Pereyra goal and I put in our WhatsApp group that it reminded me of Thierry Henry’s goal against Liverpool.
“That could’ve given someone the idea to use the clip in the show and take the piss out of me, but it doesn’t bother me - it’s a good laugh.”
Everyone on MNF is obsessed with the advancement of the show, not least Neville, who believes Sky should be trailblazers in terms of virtual reality.
“A show that doesn’t change is dead,” he insists, saying that “every so often we need new technology, a new set, a new concept, new content or else people will get bored of it.
“I don’t do MNF all the time now for that reason, we needed to shake it up. The shows with Jurgen Klopp and Wayne Rooney as guests were sensational.
“That’s good for us and we have to search for the continuous progress of what we can achieve with MNF.”
Carragher nods, saying: “You don’t want to be called old-school in this job. I think as soon as that happens, you’re finished.
“You don’t want to be talking about ‘in my day’. You can relate your experience on something, but don’t force the opinion that the game can only be the way you experienced it.
“We have to evolve just as the game does.”
A joke is always scratching the surface among the MNF team and so it’s no surprise that talk of change has presented an opening for a punchline.
“Nev, are you going to be less difficult to work with one day, then?” a crew member pipes up before Floor Manager Frankie Unsworth comes in to lead Neville to studio, responding “don’t worry about them Gary, I think you’re just lovely".
When they reach the set, there are two packs of peanut M&Ms waiting for the 43-year-old.
“Not everything has to change,” Neville smiles, before the countdown to air.
The phenomenal next four hours with the show live are a credit to the work that has preceded it and the passion of everyone involved.
If Monday Night Football continues to set the standard and forces competitors to upgrade, we - the audience - are the true winners.