Stalling for time

Five-thirty comes around and I sit down to watch Manchester United vs. Liverpool. A little banner at the bottom of the screen says that kick-off is delayed. A few hours earlier a swarm of fans protesting against United’s owners managed to wriggle their way into the stadium and started lighting flares and throwing camera stands and kicking footballs into the goals. Apparently you kick footballs into goals to protest against corporate greed. The presenter is promising “information as we get it” and keeps reiterating that he hopes to bring us the game soon. But the teams are holed up in a nearby hotel and apparently aren’t leaving until the last old granny walking her dog has been cleared off the path between the hotel and the stadium to ensure the players’ safety.

I’m about to turn the TV off, but don’t because I realise that a different kind of spectacle is unfolding. The presenter finds himself in a predicament where there’s no big match to show but all the ad slots have been bought and he has to stall for time indefinitely and make sure the viewers stick around and watch. An awkward few minutes follow as he puts a series of banal questions to the three pundits sitting alongside him, desperate for them to play along.

I feel sorry for him. Nobody who hasn’t had to kill time in front of a waiting audience knows how much pressure he’s under right now. I know it from when I’m going over a lesson plan five minutes before teaching a class and I realise that they already covered these materials in the previous semester. When this happens, your whole body suddenly becomes both hot and cold at the same time and your instinct is to cook up some excuse to cancel the lesson and get the hell out of there. But then you see the students arriving, and they see you, and five minutes is now three minutes and you’ve got other teachers flying in and out of the staffroom and the coffee machine’s buzzing and the photocopier’s going and it’s now two minutes to go and your stomach starts to churn and you desperately scratch around the shelves for some worksheets or something you can teach them but you find nothing so you say fuck it and you stride into the room and shout “good afternoon, class!” like nothing’s the matter and sixteen bored, expectant pairs of eyes burn holes into you as you stagger and squirm and stall for time.

At this point what you’re looking for is some kind of spark that will get your students going by themselves, taking the pressure off you. It’s slightly easier as a language teacher because you can remind your students of the importance that they speak. This is harder to do when you’re teaching maths or history. The TV presenter is looking for the same spark, firing banal questions into the pundits’ midst until one of them catches and sets off a debate. It’s not a way out – each conversation will fizzle out soon, but it gives you at least a few minutes to think of the next spark and if you can string together enough of them eventually the lesson will end.

How desperately he needs his pundits to play along. He turns to Roy Keane and stutters a question about how far Man United are from being able to challenge Man City for the title. Roy seems bemused at first – it’s a face I recognise from my students when I ask them a question they’ve answered several times already – and the presenter is practically begging him to say something. He says they need to sign Harry Kane and Jack Grealish. Micah Richards jumps in to confirm that those two are indeed good players and among their strengths are their ability to ‘buy fouls’. Graeme Souness, sitting on the other side of Keane, takes exception to this ‘buying fouls’ nonsense and launches into a bizarre rant about cheating and integrity which ends with him calling for all the current referees to be fired and replaced by better, more cynical ones.

Where he expects anyone to find these refs nobody knows. But at least it’s got the conversation going and you can see the presenter’s shoulders drop by about half a metre. It’s the same as when my students finally buy into the material and start a debate among themselves and I can relax knowing that this will chew up enough time for me to think of more questions. Sensing that the buying fouls topic has some legs in it, he decides to get everyone’s two cents and goes to Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville standing by the side of the pitch. They repeat what the other pundits have already said but in slightly different words. This continues for a while until, finally, the game is cancelled.

top image © Reuters

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