“I was excited as soon as I saw the fixture list – I knew there’d be no trace of a debate in the office over who’d get the assignment. Villa vs Stoke? That’s a game for Roderigo, all day long.”
Roderigo Mellencamp, the man they call ‘Mr Nil-Nil’, has been working as highlights package editor on Match of the Day for thirty years. In that time, his reputation as the master of creating silk purses from what others may consider to be pig’s ears has grown to the extent where his name is now synonymous with shanked chances, rattled crossbars and narrow midfield battles. We caught up with the great man the morning after one of his signature works – Saturday 8th December, Aston Villa 0-0 Stoke City (Running order position: last).
The Football Ramble: So, Roderigo – how do you making entertainment out of a game like this?
Roderigo Mellencamp: My word, how do you not? I’ve always been interested in the role of the highlights package as a form of portable memories. If I asked you to describe your recollection of the last game you watched, you’d go through goals, major flashpoints and any moments that reinforce your overall impression of how both teams play, correct? Well, in a 0-0 you don’t have those first two aspects to get in the way of the third. Your memories of a 0-0 are as pure a distillation of those teams’ identities as could possibly exist. To me, that is unspeakably beautiful.
But in this game, Stoke had one attempt on goal, and that was off-target. What are you distilling at this stage?
Frustration, rage, obduracy… Stoke City! This match was the expression of an entire philosophy – Stoke were travelling to the team who have scored the fewest goals in the league, and yet they didn’t shake from their core identity of doing everything they can to ensure they don’t concede. That shot off target, by the way, ended with Jon Walters embroiled in anger because he thought he should have had a corner rather than the goal kick that was awarded. That’s a gorgeous moment of Stoke, that incandescent pursuit of a restart – I’m delighted we were able to capture it.
And Aston Villa? Is their essence on display in this package?
Certainly. They want to score, they want to be a ‘proper’ football team, but they are bound by who they are, and who they were. Alex McLeish has always been a great friend to my work, and Villa are still caught in his inertia. You can see that they try to coerce themselves into a cogent attack, but it always ends feebly, an easy collection for Begović. It will take them years to become a different Aston Villa – and again, with every image of a ball trickling from Benteke’s foot to the keeper’s arms, I think this video installation expresses that struggle perfectly.
Surely though it’s difficult to find five minutes of material from this match?
Oh, no, not at all! There is so much more I would include – let me demonstrate. In the 32nd minute of this game, Eric Lichaj attempted a long, diagonal ball forward to Brett Holman on the left. Of course, he misjudged the pass and it went over his teammate and arrived at Geoff Cameron instead. The Stoke player then saw Walters in space, so attempted his own diagonal ball back across the pitch, which spun off the wet turf and out of play. You can see it already, can’t you? Right back to right back, intent and failure, then you restart. Such symmetry, such repetition, such visual poetry.
I suppose that would sum up a game between Villa and Stoke…
More than that, it would sum up the whole sport of football! Everything in this game is symmetry and repetition! All those rituals of being a fan: going to the pub before the match, kick off at 3pm, sing your songs, half time pie, cheer, despair, back to the pub, then home to relive the experience on Match of the Day. Then do it again and again, game after game, season after season – right back to right back, then you restart. If I could, I would have looped that passage of play 38 times and expressed the match as succinctly as anyone possibly could.
But you didn’t?
No, the producer would never allow it. Aimless passes aren’t a ‘highlight’ as the public are trained to think of the term. Besides, if we did anything so radical, it would confuse Alan Shearer.
And no one wants that.
Nicol Hay watches a lot of sport and then writes about it. It's a compulsion, and he needs help desperately. His blogging can be found here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.