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Do Sky Sports still care about Spanish football?

This article was written in August 2011 just after Sky Sports had decided not to renew Mark Bolton's contract and had revealed Scott Minto as the new lead presenter for their coverage of La Liga. But a year later, Sky showed that they were still committed to Spanish football by  announcing that every game that Barcelona and Real Madrid played throughout the next season would be shown live. For the 2012-13 season we've often had as many as five live games a week from La Liga, as well as some excellent debate and analysis in Revista. I've often found myself watching more Spanish football each week than Premier League football. I couldn't have been more wrong to question Sky's committment to Spanish football.

Do Sky Sports still care about Spanish football?

Has a foreign football league ever generated as much interest in Britain as La Liga does at the moment? Perhaps Sky Sports reporter Andy Burton’s gormless description of Sergio Aguero as “quite some player” after his Manchester City debut on Monday night suggests it’s still not quite popular enough among their own staff. Given its current popularity with the viewers though, why did Sky Sports decline to renew popular long-time host Mark Bolton’s contract, only to then replace him with former player Scott Minto, who is making his first appearance as a presenter?

Not since the early 90s golden era of Football Italia with James Richardson has a British presenter become so popular and so synonymous with a European league. Back in the pre-internet, pre-Zola at Chelsea days of 1992, Italian football felt like an impossibly exotic dream world full of wonderful players we normally only got brief glimpses off at major championships every couple of years, many of them attracted by the post-Italia 90 afterglow (and money) of Serie A. As if that wasn’t enough, we also had the unfolding saga of Paul Gascoigne’s years with Lazio to simultaneously cringe and marvel at.

Back then, we got one big game on a Sunday, a highlights show on Saturday mornings and an entertaining newspaper review from Richardson. These days we have the luxury of seeing at least two live Spanish league games a week – most of them in HD – along with Revista De La Liga, an in-depth highlights and analysis show. We don’t even need the sideshow of a British player belching his way through his host country’s airports to hold our attention.

It looked as if things could only get better with Sky’s Spanish football coverage, so when they announced back in June that Mark Bolton would not be presenting the programme this season, it seemed like an odd decision to take. Why disrupt a winning formula? Bolton had spent six years presenting Spanish football for Sky Sports. His knowledge of La Liga was comprehensive and passionate. Surely that was an asset to Sky’s coverage? Bolton’s tweets immediately afterwards also strongly hinted that he had been fired, making the situation even more bizarre.

The news of Bolton’s replacement was eventually broken roughly five minutes before they went on air with coverage of the Super Cup first leg between Barcelona and Real Madrid on Sunday evening when regular guest Guillem Balague tweeted a picture of Scott Minto on the show’s set. You could be forgiven for thinking that Sky had anticipated the howls of displeasure and were trying to keep it quiet until the last possible moment.

It’s not that Scott Minto was bad. He was okay. Apart from a slightly clumsy pronunciation of Karim Benzema’s name, he didn’t make any glaring mistakes. Wisely, he steered clear of Lineker-esque puns and excessive chumminess with his guests, but then almost anyone who has been paying attention to the business end of the Champions League for the last few years should be able to discuss the big name players from Barcelona and Real Madrid without too much trouble. We all know who they are now. Even Paul Merson has belatedly come to admire Barca’s pressing game, even if he can’t pronounce their manager’s name correctly.

The real test for Minto won’t come now or during Wednesday’s 2nd leg. It will come in mid-season when he has to talk knowledgeably about a less glamorous fixture like Mallorca against Bilbao. Mark Bolton could talk effortlessly about each club, their players, their managers and their history because he had followed Spanish football intimately for a number of years. No amount of research will help Minto bluff his way through if he hasn’t done the same. That may be the most disappointing aspect of all, that Sky don’t think Bolton’s knowledge of Spanish football was valuable enough to their viewers; that we’ll be happy enough with a grinning link man asking expert guests for their views, rather than engaging in intelligent debate.

Does this reveal anything more about Sky’s attitude towards Spanish football? It certainly tells us that they are prepared to treat their La Liga shows as a training ground for rookie presenters. Out of all the football presenters they have, weren’t any of them available for a few hours a week? Not only did Sky slap Mark Bolton in the face by parachuting in Ben Sheppard as a Premier League presenter ahead of him, now they’ve replaced him with a trainee on all of their Spanish football coverage as well. No wonder he was annoyed.

Bolton himself seemed quite touched by the attention his replacement was receiving on Sunday night, tweeting: “I knew you guys were loyal but I didnt expect this to be Trending worldwide!!! Thanks for your support.”

This is the last season of Sky’s current contract to broadcast La Liga. Is it possible that they are preparing to bail out? Do they think Spanish football is a fad that is ready to go the same way as Football Italia? Those of us who have come to regard Spanish football as a welcome supplement to the usual diet of full-blooded British football will be hoping that’s not the case.

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