It never really went away, but now it's back. After a two-week break to refresh, revive and reboot, the embattled 23-year-old Footy Show made its return with revamped credits, a new set and a strong show of unity.
Following a Braveheart spoof and a credits montage celebrating the way they were, the reinstalled host, a slim-line Eddie McGuire, returned after a 12-year absence. Alongside co-host Rebecca Maddern, controversy magnet Sam Newman and comedian Dave Hughes, he bounded on to the set of the show that made him a TV star and opened with his trademark exclamation: "What a big week it's been in footy!"
Hughes' reference was to Newman's sour previous performance when he essentially staged a silent sulk on live TV as a demonstration of his dissatisfaction with the direction that the show had taken and its curtailing of his antics. It's a testament to how significant Nine – and McGuire – see him as being to the program that his tenure survived that tantrum.
Now, happily reunited with his longtime pal and former on-air partner, the often-grumpy and frequently combative Newman was alert and engaged, not so much let "off the leash" as persuaded to become a more of a team player.
Though there had been some speculation about her possible marginalisation in the new order, Maddern, who joined the show last year as its first female co-host – and probably one of the few women who'd ever set foot on that stage unless she was singing – remained in a prominent position. Which is appropriate as she's done a commendable job, clearly knows her footy and has a news background that helps with interviews.
The Footy Show has always been a blend of footy news, teams and tips, comedy, music and a touch of vaudeville. Getting the tone and the mix right, and keeping the energy pumping, has long been its challenge and that spirit had been noticeably flagging this year, a slump reflected in its ratings.
During Hutchison's short-lived stint as co-host, viewer numbers plummeted to a once-unthinkable level, averaging well under 200,000 in Melbourne. Nine was spurred into action when Seven moved its low-budget, good-humoured AFL talk show The Front Barfrom its post-game slot on Fridays up against it, and the upstart consistently attracted more viewers.
The reboot began with bounce and enthusiasm, but as it ballooned to an unwieldy two hours and 20 minutes, the production began to run out of puff, eventually racing through the final rounds of tips.
The emphasis was on news and access: interviews with Richmond coach Damien Hardwick and captain Trent Cotchin, a cross to Geelong captain Joel Selwood, recovering from ankle surgery, an interview with recently axed Gold Coast Suns coach Rodney Eade, and contributions from news man Damian Barrett, initially about the fate of jailed former champion Ben Cousins. But no Stevie J or Jobe.
During the discussion of the hotly debated rules about tackling, Newman did manage to assume his customarily contrary position, declaring AFL to be a "strong, brutal, virile game" that was in danger of being "over-sanitised" by penalties that threatened to rob the contact sport of its oomph. But this was clearly Newman in good-behaviour mode.
Regulars Billy Brownless and Shane Crawford made brief appearances, a quick assurance of their places in the production, featured in a Back Up the Truck segment, promising truck-loads of gifts to lucky viewers. There was a Gogglebox spoof called Footybox and a new segment for Hughes with Back to the Twos, offering a selection of recent clips of coaches going wild. Stayers who held on to the bitter end, and managed to get through the fairly shambolic Sam's Mailbag, were rewarded by the reliably entertaining Almost Footy Legends.
McGuire's return will no doubt prompt a curiosity-driven ratings spike. The test for The Footy Show will be to hold that attention. One week at a time.