More fans want to hear about tactics, want to learn from the game and do not want to be hearing highly paid experts spouting garbage.
Monday Night Football. Arguably the best part of the week for many football fans. Not because of the game itself, but for what precedes it. For the best part of an hour football fans are treated to expert analysis of the weekend’s football by a man who only a few years ago was one of the most detested outside of Old Trafford.
Gary Neville’s rise to pundit stardom has made him a popular figure across the country, his analysis, insight and knowledge of the game gives fans a real understanding of the game. The biggest problem with Gary Neville however is how bad he has exposed the other “experts” as being frauds who speak little sense, provide little depth and seemingly possess little knowledge.
We learn about sports constantly, day after day after day, whether it's from all-sports radio stations, the mainstream sports sites, hundreds and thousands of blogs, hundreds of columnists, all the big TV channels, message boards and social media. We are bombarded with information, opinion and stats that have made many fans "experts". As the common man has improved his knowledge of the game, has increased his depth of understanding, there has become a greater expectation of "expert" pundits to give the fans something more, to educate the knowledgeable population of fans. And yet, it would appear that instead of getting better, these football pundits are getting worse.
Perhaps it is the production company who are restricting the time that these experts can speak, perhaps they are instructed to stick to hyperbole and cliché over tactical analysis which they believe may “bore” many fans watching. Or, perhaps the problem is that these “football experts” who have all played the game to a good level, do not understand the game as much as we are led to believe.
Arrigo Sacchi once said that to be a great jockey, one does not need to have been a horse, and this is the situation we are in today. The ex-pro culture has dominated football media for decades. In years gone by the world of football was a who you know game and in many aspects it still it is. Yet with the rise of the internet knowledge of the game has risen due to fans being inundated with a wealth of information. As the masses have got smarter, the “expert ex-pro” has become a carictature for a buffoon who offers nothing but overhyped cliché.
Of course, your first thought of this type of individual is the famous Paul Merson. Merson is entertaining like a monkey in a zoo, lots of noise and actions yet when you look past this you hear no knowledge, no insight and no understanding of the game. The soccer Saturday culture has become the “boys club” where ex-pro’s who get paid far too much are instructed to discuss the week’s football. The lack of insight is embarrassing.
The Premier League and Champions League is covered extensively by Sky and thus we are overwhelmed with many “experts”, add in La Liga and your weekend is taken up with Sky’s coverage and thus insight.
From the inception of the Premier League and Sky's coverage there was one man who became the " master" of football analysis. Andy Gray brought insight, tactics boards and "technology" to football. It was a very modern approach by Sky and a sign they were adapting to the changing game. Gray however lost his abilities, like an actor who believes his own hype and stops putting in the required work, Gray became a caricature of himself. His soundbites, his over used magic pen and his arrogance all started to define him and he was understandably moved on.
Jamie Redknapp was the man seen to replace him and for a season Sky must have felt justified. His tight suits and allure may have gained a few more female fans, yet the truth was that Redknapp was clueless, he lacked intelligence of the game, lacked intelligence of the English language and showed too much of a bias to his, his dad’s and his cousin’s sides that made him unbearable to listen to.
His attendance at Champions League games effectively made Ruud Gullit take a job in Russia, that’s how bad his views and comments were. It was a shame in all honesty, because I actually like hearing from Gullit and Souness, two men who show a real understanding of the game, the technical and tactical side to it.
When Redknapp wasn’t trying to interrupt them with a pointless comment, he was asking them questions, forgetting that he was not the presenter and that his role and knowledge would appear much smarter the less he spoke. Yet Redknapp cannot resist interjecting and spouting superlatives for mediocrity. Thank god when Gary Neville arrived and brought us genuine insight both tactically and positionally. His experience at Old Trafford gave us real insight into the mind of Ferguson and of opposition sides and managers. It was why we watch and listen to these "experts", tell us something we don't know, educate us. And Neville has done that superbly.
Perhaps Sky will realise that more of these type of experts are needed. It is no surprise to me that Neville, Souness and Gullit, those who are coaches and who have managed at the top level, as well being coached by some of the best in the game, are genuinely interesting and offer the watching fan a real insight. I have been very impressed with Rafa Benitez, whose blog is also excellent, who has been a brilliant addition to La Liga games. His knowledge and tactical insight is refreshing and one can see why he has been a successful manager.
The concern some posit is that these knowledgeable analysts talk in very technical terms which would be offputting to some casual viewers. I disagree, if you treat your viewers with respect they will react accordingly and seek to learn something.
As Sky attempt to make football accessible for all, particularly women, it is an insult that they decide to water down the depth of analysis for superficiality. Football fans want to be taught something and to learn something that they did not see or did not know, this the role of these "experts".
The question is, will it catch on other networks?
At the BBC we are cursed with having to see the weekend’s highlights from some of the most shallow, unintelligent and boring characters on TV. A line-up of Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and Alan Shearer offerrs nothing to the fans except the satisfaction that with Sky+ remote you can fast forward their “analysis”.
Is it wrong of a person to expect more from these so called “experts”? I used to rate Hansen and his analysis, yet it appears Hansen has decided to give up doing any research and offering any tactical analysis. He decides to blame defensive errors for every goal yet often fail to give any justification for his belief, just a simple “not good enough” seems to do the trick. Hansen now says nothing interesting or original, offers no insight. He also has a petty, ridiculous vendetta against Mario Balotelli (‘he’ll have to score ten hat-tricks in the Premier League before I’m convinced by him’). He gives off the air of a bored middle aged man wishing he could play golf all day, surely the BBC's money could be better spent on revamping the MOTD panel?
As for his supporting cast, Alan Shearer was a great player, yet is not a good pundit. His lack of knowledge and tactical insight leaves him the role of simply complementing goals yet doing little else. Even Hansen argues against everything he says, subtly telling the watching public that his guy doesn’t know what he is on about. His lack of knowledge of anything outside of England, or even the top four, is laughable and one wonders why the BBC feel the need to reward old professionals with a job they are clearly not cut out for.
And then there’s Mark Lawrenson. If Andy Gray believed his own hype and became a mockery of himself then Lawrenson has taken it further. He appears to have become the comedian of BBC punditry, competing with Linekar for the worst one liners. When commentating he treats the football match as a distraction to his stand up show. He offers little on Match of the Day as it appears he is just too tired to even comment and at times I am sure he is being propped up by some invisible steel rod.
It really is painful listening and watching the BBC’s coverage, it appears to have decided that it can’t compete with the might of Sky so we’ll make it entertaining. It is an insult to the country and to the people that we are treated to this utter drivel.
ESPN need to improve their domestic coverage
Over at ESPN they have Gabriel Marcotti on their screens, perhaps a man more suited to radio, yet whose insight and knowledge is better than any of the other ex-pro’s of which ESPN rely on. His career as a football journalist makes him literate, gives him a strong vocabulary and makes him knowledgeable about the game. This sounds like a good combination of football punditry for me.
Yet for the majority of their “big” Premier League games the panel is comprised of Robbie Savage, Keegan, Barnes and the “tactical expert” Craig Burley. It is fair to say that ESPN need to make vast improvements to improve their coverage and analysis. Burley offers nothing when he gives his “Neville type” screen show, he looks more like a child moving pieces around arbitrarily.
Yet their coverage and analysis is nothing like that of ESPN in the US. If you want to hear entertaining commentary and analysis, look no further than the Geordie Ray Hudson and Irishman Tommy Smyth, these two make a mockery out of “soccer” analysis yet will entertain you much more than Mark Lawrenson.
Over at the ITV I was impressed with their coverage at the Euro's as Roberto Martinez offered some real insight and gave a real understanding of the game of which his fellow guests Keane and Carragher could only marvel at. Adrian Chiles looked at him like he was speaking Spanish yet we have now returned to the Keane and Southgate show where perhaps because they are pitchside fail to see what is actually happening in the game itself. The analysis of the Madrid vs City game where Keane argued that City had playing "positively" was utterly baffling.
The expert sidekick. The co-commentator.
And then there are those co-commentators whose remit for analysis is to tell the viewing public, those are watching the same screen as these “experts”, exactly what is happening on the screen at that time. My favourite three for this "state the obvious, say what you see"analysis is Mark Bright, Martin Keown and my number one, Gerry Armstrong. All three offer nothing to the viewing fan except a spot of light entertainment. Simply telling someone who is on the screen at that point and what action he is carrying out makes one believe that the job of a co-commentator is perhaps the easiest job in the world.
Yet football is more than that isn’t it? Or am I expecting too much? It is a a very sorry state of affairs. Licence fee payers deserve better and those who a lot of money to watch and I am sure “learn” are not being shown the respect that they deserve.
A new generation of expert analysts
The past several years has seen the rise of podcasts, blogs and social media, it has given to the rise of the real experts, those who unfortunately were not lucky enough to be footballers yet who have a knowledge and insight of the game with more depth and understanding than your Merson’s and Shearer’s.
Twitter has made stars of many football writers and although Henry Winter and those from Fleet Street on the Sunday Supplement have started to gain notoriety, the real gem of football analysis and insight comes from the Guardian. Through their columnists like Daniel Taylor and European experts like Paolo Bandini and Raphael Honigstein along with Sid Lowe, the Guardian is becoming the go to place for an enhanced look at football across the continent.
Add to this the best tactical writers around at this time in Jonathon Wilson and Michael Cox from Zonalmarking.net and we are seeing the rise of the Guardian’s domination on football insight. Having the loveable yet knowledgeable James Richardson hosting the weekly podcast Football Weekly means that those not keen on reading are able to listen on their ipods to some genuinely good analysis of the weekend's football. After a few weeks you will feel a damn sight smarter and knowledgable about the weekend’s games than after watching Soccer Saturday and MOTD I tell you.
I believe we are entering a new era of football and importantly football analysis. More fans want to hear about tactics, want to learn from the game and do not want to be hearing highly paid experts spouting garbage.
Too many of these ex-pro’s are relying on mistakes of referees for penalties and red cards which will allow them to fill their five minute slot at half time. These “decisions” allow these men to deflect their lack of knowledge of the game. How often do we hear some of these pundits talk of formations, tactics and styles? Most of the time we are bombarded by 20 replays of a decision which was so marginal it takes 20 replays to see if contact was made!
As football analysis becomes more in depth on the internet and in newspapers, the coverage on TV is becoming more laughable and idiotic. Sky and the BBC should take note of this change in football fans psyche and understanding and start to realise that fans want more than clichés, they want insight and in depth analysis. Gary Neville has given us a glimpse of the future of football punditry, let us hope it arrives sooner rather than later.