The Great Football Pundit Debate

Whenever conversation turns towards matters footballing with friends, an ever popular parlour game remains perennial favourite ‘what pundits do you rate?’

Everyone I’ve ever met with even a passing interest in the game holds strong opinions on the matter. It’s a truly divisive issue that can provoke surprisingly heated debate and argument. With the disclaimer that this is based on some very unscientific methodology and a small sample size, I can present some initial conclusions based on said conversations:

– The only pundit (now former) that emerges with near universal approval is Gary Neville
– Almost no consensus exists on the relative merits of all other pundits
– A strong regional accent marks you down, regardless of capability in all other facets of punditry (Carra)
– Lee Dixon and Danny Murphy are the up and comers in the field, scoring relatively well
– Garth Crooks and Michael Owen score almost universally poorly
– Being passionate and opinionated will get you a long way (Wrighty)

What’s most striking though is that in the current multi-channel landscape, with the dozens of ex-pros being paid handsomely to dispense opinion, that there is only a single pundit who scores a high approval rating. Broadly speaking, with a few exceptions, opinions on the rest range from indifference to vehement dislike. Neville stands head and shoulders.


Top of the class

Let’s assume that these opinions are fairly representative of the wider football watching public. I’ve wondered whether this would be a matter of any concern to TV companies. People’s decisions to subscribe to pay TV channels or to tune into matches on terrestrial television don’t ultimately hinge on who is delivering the pre, mid and post-match waffle. It’s a captive audience; punters will watch football on TV come what may. So, perhaps not. This would certainly explain the employment of a few pundits over the years who clearly never had so much as a screen test (Marcel Desailly anyone?)

Yet, Neville’s success and widespread popularity demonstrate two things. Firstly, pundits can be more than incidental appendages to TV football coverage. During his stint at Sky, Neville became part of the spectacle, almost as much reason to watch as the game itself. Whilst not being in possession of viewing stats I strongly suspect that Neville’s presence inflated the numbers tuning in earlier, sticking around at half time and remaining long after the final whistle had blown. Sky will certainly feel his departure.

Secondly, Neville has proven that it is possible to transcend football’s petty tribalism and the fickle tastes of fans to earn plaudits across the board – particularly impressive for a figure as previously divisive as he was. He’s shown that there is a genuine appetite from fans for thoughtful, insightful and nuanced analysis. The standard platitudes, clichés and describing of the plainly obvious simply won’t do. Perhaps they are a more discerning bunch than given credit for.

Which brings me to two football shows I’ve watched in the past few weeks, ITVs Champions League highlights round-up and BT Sports’ European football show. Over on ITV, the ever menacing Roy Keane was digesting Manchester United’s Champions League exit. Apparently it was all due to a lack of desire, heart, bottle, character, leaders. Pressed for a bit more detail from anchor Mark Pougatch, Keane just repeated the same thing over, in a slightly more irritable tone. Wisely, Pougatch didn’t pursue matters further.*
At the other end of the spectrum, BT have embarked on something of an experiment with their excellent European football show. Rather than fill the panel with the familiar cast of ex-pros, they have assembled a crack team of football journalists, marshalled by the sardonic James Richardson. They know the European game inside out, bring lots of insider knowledge and express themselves clearly and articulately. Raphael Honigstein is a particular standout.

There remains a suspicion of journalists amongst ex pros and broadcasters that will probably prevent this experiment being extended to more mainstream football programmes anytime soon. After all, they’ve never played the game to a high level and all that. But, there are signs that things are shifting. Journos are now regulars on Sky’s Spanish football coverage and make occasional appearances on MOTD3 and ITVs Champions League show.

Unless another soon to be retiring replacement for Neville can be unearthed, broadcasters could do a lot worse than to give a few of these hacks more of a run out.

N.B – Not singling out Roy Keane, just the most recent example of lazy punditry I’ve seen.