This website requires JavaScript.
Placeholder image

There has never been so much football punditry - and yet it has never been so bad

Gavin Cooney

THERE HAS NEVER been so much football punditry, and yet it has never been so bad.
With the RTE panel its most exalted expression, punditry was once arranged like an ersatz Supreme Court: a body to which a small handful of white-haired men were elevated because we all believed they had access to some higher level of knowledge. They in turn handed down their esteemed judgements to shape our opinions and, indeed, our lives.
But in recent years punditry has gone a bit more representative democracy. Punditry line-ups are now picked as if they are a panel for a BBC politics programme: each team in action must be represented by a former player who can articulate that fan-base’s views and also embody their personal dramas. How else to explain TNT Sport’s bizarre decision last season to turn Manchester City’s Champions League final victory into a theatre built around the almost totally silent jangling of Joleon Lescott’s nerves?
There have been many malign outcomes to this Newsnightification of football punditry. By stocking panels with representatives from each club, coverage has reflected and then reinforced the petty tribalism from which there now seems no escape. It’s also tantamount to a kind of deconstruction, where objectivity is undermined by the fact everyone is voicing their own subjectivity. Was Martin Odegaard really wrong to celebrate Arsenal’s victory over Liverpool to the extent he did? Or is that just what triggered Liverpool fan Jamie Carragher wants us to think?
One of the great delights in the RTE panel was in the stability of the world it promoted. They curated the canon: there was such a thing as a good player and a great player, and the tenured men of Montrose were the only ones allowed to make these judgements. This was an era of happy simplicity; an age of less noise, less clamour, and less anger.

That’s not to pretend this was a utopia. There was a lamentable lack of diversity in RTE’s coverage of the time, and the panel’s failure to hold John Delaney and the FAI to proper account is the stain that will never be scrubbed away. But ultimately theirs was the golden age of punditry. It was aggravating and hilarious and incisive and unfair and sometimes frankly wrong: but it was appointment viewing because it was, above all, earnest. The game was treated as something that truly mattered, and so the national team’s style of play or Cristiano Ronaldo’s attitude were elevated to matters of national importance.
Nowadays punditry is utterly lacking in the same seriousness. You can hear it in all the laughter, of which there is now much, much more than ever before.
Dunphy sometimes laughed on RTE, but it was either deprecatory toward himself or callous and cutting toward a few of his targets, be it Noel King, Steven Gerrard, or Landon Donovan’s ex-wife.
On Match of the Day, meanwhile, Gary Lineker would deliver a bad pun with a smirk, but previously it would be met with a grudging grimace and a jaded wheeze from Mark Lawrenson. Nowadays panels are filled with truly uproarious laughter, usually at things that are not obviously funny. Roy Keane was a merciful exception, but Sky’s coverage last Sunday consisted of Theo Walcott looking into Micah Richards’ eyes and trying to make him laugh. Why should we watch this?
Jamie Carragher, meanwhile, is living an interesting kind of split existence. On Monday nights he is still delivering brilliant and serious analysis for Sky, but in midweeks he joins Micah Richards and Thierry Henry on CBS’ bizarrely jocular Champions League coverage, which is mostly screaming, thigh-slapping laughter at things that do not appear to be jokes. Film critic Mark Kermode has always said that the more a cast said they enjoyed making a comedy movie, the worse that movie would be – this is salient to football punditry, too.
Punditry panels are no longer the place in which the game’s serious issues are discussed: one of the reasons the game is in the state it’s in is because the largest platforms have largely steered clear of debates about sportswashing, state ownership, multi-club models and financial inequalities.
But with the banter quotient now out of control and rendering vast tracts of English coverage unwatchable, we must turn to one banished saviour, and to the man ironically most associated with the word. We talk, of course, about the haughty, reproving voice of Qatar and the exiled conscience of England, Richard Keys.

Keys is now pundit and presenter all wrapped up into one, and he is the obvious inheritor of Eamon Dunphy’s earnestness for the ridiculous. Is there anything more watchable right now than Keys? With his exquisite air of injured sanctity, polishing his grudges and straddling his hobby horses above the ambient whirr of Bein Sport’s air conditioned studio?  What else is more compelling than Keys righteously objecting to the utterly trivial? Take his recent tirade against players’ cutting holes in their socks: he punched out the words that ‘It.Must.Stop’ like he was talking about a recent spate of road deaths.
Where Bill O’Herlihy’s anchor job was to facilitate the stars, Keys is out there in Qatar, facilitating his own star. Andy Gray is now little more than a nodding foil; a companion pony kept around to soothe and draw out the best from the Stallion of Doha himself.
Keys’ latest piece of theatre, in which he accuses Xabi Alonso of lacking ‘cojones’ for refusing to leave ‘Bayer Leicesterkusen’, is patently magnificent. He is wrong of course – the brave decision is to stay put with an inferior team and ask the biggest clubs to wait for him, rather than the other way around – but RTE panel fans know that being completely wrong does not mean you’re not compulsively watchable.
Needless to say, Richard Keys is having the last laugh.

lire la suite