Maybe this is why Football Pundits often get it so badly wrong on Newcastle United
Recent idiotic pronouncements from Rio Ferdinand and Paul Merson generated outrage from sections of the Newcastle support. It isn’t the first time half-witted football pundits have irked the faithful, and it won’t be the last, but spare a thought for the poor fellows. They can’t help it.
Football TV and radio have three big challenges: hours and hours of airtime to fill, a need to fill that space without blowing the budget, and a shortage of genuinely exciting news. That is why half of what we hear is comment on unsubstantiated rumours that Geordinho has fallen out with his manager and is off to Real Madras in the Indian league, and meandering debates about whether Joe Bloggs should have seen red and should also be in the next England squad. A little content needs to go a long way.
Punditry is a great way to do it. All that is required is a small studio, optional chair, optional desk, a microphone, two cameras and a fee for the time of the football pundits. It’s a lot cheaper than sending an outside broadcast team on the road. (It occurs to me that this could account for the amount of misreporting of NUFC. No one bothers spending much time in the North East finding out what’s going on. It’s cheaper to ask Dennis Wise to travel 10 miles from his home in London to the studio and ask him).
If you want to pick up a regular appearance fee as a pundit, you need to have something to offer. That could be genuine insight, it could be controversial views, it could be enthusiasm, it could be stupidity, and so on. If you haven’t got something, there are 50 players out of contract every June that will have your job.
We hear a lot less from Danny Mills, Jason Roberts, Graeme Le Saux, Peter Schmeichel and others than we once did – the never-ending parade of retired footballers and recently-sacked managers must have thrown up replacements deemed to be worthier of airtime. It’s a competitive field; not competitive enough as long as Tony Gale is being paid to pile drivel on top of cliché, but competitive nonetheless.
Unfortunately, for the 70s and 80s style pundit who said little more than ‘he stuck that away nicely’ and ‘good play by the centre half there’, (Glen Hoddle will return to the flag for that generation) Alan Hansen came along, and raised the bar. He will forever be remembered for telling the world that Man U’s kids couldn’t possibly win the title they won, but he was clearly better prepared, more observant and more articulate than the Ron Atkinsons and Jack Charltons that went before.
There are some pundits I like – Shearer is OK, Ian Wright is entertaining, and I have to begrudgingly concede an admiration for Gary Neville. And the ability to condense complex arguments into a few words is a gift we don’t all possess. If you want to witness a master of this at work, tune in to Mike Atherton on Sky Cricket. He never wastes a word, and is always clear and direct. The quality of punditry in football is – putting it politely – variable, and they are always likely to say something that gets someone’s goat.
I’ve written a quick guide to some of the nation’s favourite pundits – if your bear the below in mind, they may be less likely to irritate you.
‘I always played second fiddle to Alan Shearer at Blackburn, and I’m second fiddle again with him on Match of the Day. Little surprise then that I have been resentful, angry and bitter since 1992. Instead of therapy, I chose punditry, and try to get my issues out there. I shout over the top of colleagues and say things like ‘he should be banned for life’ if someone launches into a brainless tackle. A lot of what I say is completely ridiculous – and that’s by the standards of TV! – but it makes me feel good to say it.’
‘My speciality is proving myself right. I’ll sprinkle banalities all over my pre-match summary – so bland that anyone could say them. Things like ‘Watford will need to watch out at set-pieces’, ‘With Harry Kane missing, Tottenham will need to look elsewhere for goals’, ‘Palace will need to win the midfield battle’, ‘Let’s see how Everton react to last week’s defeat’ and so on. Then during the game, I start at least 10 sentences with ‘I said before the game that…’.
The beauty of it is, because it’s so bland, it works both ways. Either Watford will or won’t defend set-pieces, Tottenham may or may not score goals, Palace may win or lose midfield, and Everton may react well or not. It doesn’t really matter. I am always right.’
‘Being the less gifted of the Neville brothers, and now finding that I’m less popular than my sister, has made me desperate to be taken seriously.
A psychologist might suggest that it sounds like mum, dad and Alex Ferguson all liked Gary better than me and that I’m on a never-ending quest to prove them wrong. I watch what Gary does on TV and try to emulate that, but I can’t quite get it right. So I say things like ‘this Wolves team is the best promoted team the Premier League has ever seen’ and feel a bit daft when people ridicule me. I felt the same way when Becks chose Gary as his best friend over me. But when I turn the England Women’s Football team into World Cup winners, I’ll have the last laugh and people will love me more than either of my siblings.’
‘I am surrounded by idiots. Honestly, apart from Gary Lineker, there is no one at BT Sports with a brain. All I do is state the bleeding obvious and that makes me look like the Brain of Britain in this place.
The TV people tell me to try not to look at my colleagues like they are morons, but I ask you – Robbie Savage?! I need to get out before I hit someone. Did someone say there’s a job going at Oldham? I’ll take it.’
‘I have a constant need to be validated. When I retired, my ultra-cool fashion brand was poised to take the world by storm. What Dr Dre did for headphones, I was going to do for clothing. I was the king of Altrincham, the coolest dude in sport.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite happen that way. Instead of seeing my stuff next to Chanel and Armani on the catwalks of Milan, it’s obscured by mountains of Donnay socks and Slazenger polo shirts at Sports Direct – the place where charvers go to shop and brands go to die.
But I’m such an astute businessman, I know that minus one hundred and forty million is actually the same as zero. Apparently, it was my grasp of these matters that persuaded Mike Ashley to go into partnership with me. The people at BT Sports have started to look at me as if they think I’m a bit dim. My agent thinks I should start wearing glasses in order to convey gravitas. I just want to be king again.’
‘I have nothing to say. Literally, nothing. My brain just won’t work quickly enough to come up with the stuff my colleagues do. That’s why they gave Carragher my old job. If you look at the television closely, you can see me wince with pain whenever a colleague says something I wish I’d thought of.
Recently they started putting me on TV with Alex Scott. She’s a girl, and I can’t understand how she knows a lot more about football than I do. In my defence, I know a lot more about hair and beauty products than she does. I am aware that I’m underperforming, and I’m terrified of losing my job, but I do have James Corden as my best mate. I’m sure if I ask him, he’ll help make me a star in the USA.’
‘I’m still here! People still pay me to spout my nonsense! Richard Keys too! I can’t believe it either!
I haven’t said anything interesting for 25 years but the people I work for in Qatar think I’m relevant! And I’ve found that if I surround myself with pundits as gormless as me and Keyesy, it doesn’t matter! What a life!
I’ll tell you my trick: 20 years ago, I perfected my serious face and my banter face. When I narrow my eyes, furrow my brow and purse my lips, everyone knows I’m about to say something VERY IMPORTANT. And when I sit back in my chair and exchange a cheeky smile with my mate Keyesy, everyone knows they are going to hear some LEDGE BANTZ. I am neither interesting nor funny, but it worked 20 years ago and it still works now, especially with an audience who often don’t have English as their first language. It’s only a matter of time before the world realises I’m a buffoon.
The world will also run out of places willing to employ me. It’s already run out of women willing to work with me. Me and Keyesy will need to look for a place where no one has heard of us, and that’s why we pray for an end to the war in Syria.’
‘Be fair – with the amount of drink I’ve put away over the years, it’s a miracle I can say anything at all.
And let’s face it, to get the Gillette Soccer Saturday job, you only need to say out loud what’s happening on a TV screen positioned 10 inches in front of your face. Even I can do that some of the time.
Once, Tommo switched my set over to a repeat of Midsomer Murders without me noticing. I couldn’t work out why Southampton had fielded a vicar, a farmer and the Barmaid from the Barley Mow, or why Neil Warnock seemed to be accusing one of them of murder. Luckily, I have the commentary in my ear, and the great Jeff Stelling to my right, so my mistakes can be corrected easily.
Ask me a question about Rafa Benitez or the virtues of wing backs and I blurt out the first thing that comes into my head, which is mostly empty save for the odds on the 2.40 at Newmarket. My constant failure to pronounce non-British surnames correctly would get me the sack in most jobs, but everyone knows I’m as thick as mince and that’s enough of an excuse in this game.
And – just in case anyone is in any doubt – TV stations helpfully point out which of us are thick by using our nicknames. So it’s Jamie, Gary and Graeme rather than Carra, Nev and Souey for the people who may say something helpful, but Merse, Kammy and Sav for those of us that are paid to sound daft.’
So please hesitate before you feel like criticising football pundits. They could be saying it because they are angry, desperate, biased, ill-informed or just plain stupid. They can’t help it.
If you would like to feature on The Mag, submit your article to [email protected]