FOR a program that has consistently won its Thursday-night timeslot for 19 years, The Footy Show remains a remarkably polarising proposition.
The show's staff are preparing yet another grand final special next week. As always, it will be broadcast live from Rod Laver Arena. Again, some 14,000 fans have bought tickets to the show.
James Brayshaw, who is in his seventh year co-hosting the program with Garry Lyon, suggests the polarising nature of the program is intrinsic to football broadcasting itself.
''If you're at a dinner party and people begin to talk about football commentators, there will be a person who loves a caller and three others who can't stand them,'' he says. ''In sport, everybody has a very strong opinion. Richie Benaud and Dennis Cometti are the only ones who seem to avoid it. With The Footy Show, people either love it or can't stand it. But it's an iconic show in this town.''
We're seated at a cafe three doors down from Triple M's South Melbourne studios, where Brayshaw hosts a weekday drive program. Brayshaw has been calling AFL matches at Triple M since 2001, where he skippers the station's two most important AFL broadcasts: Friday night and Saturday afternoon. It's in the latter slot Brayshaw flourishes.
The Saturday Rub, a two-hour program that ostensibly serves as an elongated match preview, has provided some of the most entertaining radio of the year. The on-air group, comprising Brayshaw, Lyon, journalist Damian Barrett and Danny Frawley, chat in a loose manner about all things football.
''The two hours before the game has become its own show,'' Brayshaw says. ''Our program director calls it a breakfast show within footy. Very rarely in those two hours do we get bogged down in the really serious footy, because I'm not sure that's what our audience is after. If you want earnest footy analysis, you don't listen to Triple M.''
One of the more intriguing elements of the show has been a set of tapes recorded while Frawley was head coach at Richmond. The tapes document Frawley's time in the coaching box during a match and were mysteriously leaked to Barrett. Frawley has intimated that legal action is pending if Barrett continues to play them on air.
''Danny is now a performer,'' Brayshaw says. ''It's quite extraordinary. The guy who came from Richmond so straight and self-conscious has become a juggernaut. The tapes fell into Damian Barrett's lap. And Danny is happy to laugh at himself, because you have to on Triple M.''
Another change this year at Triple M was the return of Sam Newman. Brayshaw's Footy Show colleague appears each Friday from 6pm-7pm.
''When MTR folded he became available,'' Brayshaw says. ''He fits our listenership perfectly. But he doesn't call the game with us. He hates the game. He gets too wound up in the umpiring and the way the modern game is played. He is definitely a unique performer.''
Brayshaw has had some controversies this year. He was, for instance, bemused by News Ltd journalist Warwick Green's column on The Footy Show and Triple M. Among Green's thoughts: ''Increasingly, The Footy Show is becoming must-not-see TV of a Thursday night.'' Further, he wrote, Triple M Footy is ''blokes world; Sherrin dripping in bourbon and coke''.
''There are six groups doing footy on the radio,'' Brayshaw says. ''There are other options. If you don't like that style of footy entertainment, listen to someone else. But I get annoyed that there's not enough acknowledgment of the huge slab of the audience that does want to listen to that. The [ratings] say we're doing something right.''
Brayshaw, of course, is also chairman of the North Melbourne Football Club. It's a conflict of interest he shares with the man he replaced at The Footy Show, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire.
A low point for Brayshaw and North this year was a game in which they were eviscerated by Hawthorn in Tasmania.
''Losing by that much, I thought at the time, we had more things to concern ourselves with rather than where the president sat,'' he says.
As for North Melbourne-related stories on The Footy Show, Brayshaw sees no conflict.
''When a North story breaks on the show, [his colleagues] go hard,'' Brayshaw says. ''That's good. Otherwise, people will watch and think they looked after me because I was a mate.''
Brayshaw says the only time his role as president and host affected him was while hosting The Sunday Footy Show. So last year he quit the program. ''I found it too hard,'' he says. ''I loved everything about the show. But if North won that week, you look smug, and if we lost, you look like a sook. So I needed to pull out of that position.''
Brayshaw also contributed to Channel Nine's Olympics coverage and will again be part of its cricket commentary team this summer. But this week his mind was mostly on The Footy Show.
The addition of Barrett has re-established the show as a place where footy news is broken on Thursday nights, a legacy of McGuire's tenure as host. But Newman, Brayshaw says, remains its wildcard.
''There's no controlling Sam,'' he says. ''There never has been. It's not scripted, there's no autocue, we don't know what he's going to do. To me, that's the appeal of the show. Nobody, the hosts or the audience, know what's going to happen next.''