Premier League punditry needs a savour, someone who can bridge the gaps between generations, the men in the top floor studios and the feet on the ground, the interests of the corporate world and the ever-changing emotions of the fan bases, and it might just be Gary Neville.
At the end of last Sunday, he may have seemed the unlikeliest candidate, criticising Arsenal Fan TV and defending Arsene Wenger after a 3-1 defeat to Chelsea which highlighted the enormous chasm between the Gunners and the Premier League champions in waiting.
Another late winter collapse, another humbling away defeat to a divisional rival, another Premier League campaign as also-rans; Arsenal fans are all too familiar with the story. They have every right to feel aggrieved and ask questions of a manager who has provided stability but minimal progress over the last decade, and whose sides always seem to become unravelled by the same fatal flaws.
Arsenal Fan TV has become the perfect platform for such grievances, Robbie and the gang giving a soapbox to anybody who dares to stand on it, and the YouTube channel was expectedly busy on Saturday afternoon. Neville’s declaration of ‘embarrassment’ a day later came as some surprise, especially from a pundit who has mercilessly criticised Wenger on multiple occasions before – usually making incredibly valid, almost incontestable arguments.
No doubt, there is a cynical aspect to Arsenal Fan TV. It thrives on outlandish opinions, bizarre recurring characters and the heated emotion little else but the beautiful game can. They ask provocative questions to stirred up participants. It’s not a million miles away from Jeremy Kyle; car-crash human interaction and often, controversy for controversy’s sake.
But the new era of Fan TV – there are now many manifestations in the Premier League – wouldn’t exist if the average supporter felt their views were accurately aired by those in the studios, shaping public opinion with analysis and post-game monologues.
Perhaps at one time they were. But punditry has become an elite cub, self-perpetuated by the old-boy network and its own unique position to educate, consequentially deeming itself above the opinions and emotions of the collective.
Consider the average pundit on Sky Sports or BT Sport; retired in the mid-2000s, now aged between 40 and 60, usually a former Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United player and sharply dressed in a suit that probably cost more than the average fan’s car. They’ve been an insider in the footballing world for their entire lives, they’re now inherently linked to the corporate side of the game, and many of their views stem from romanticised recollections of their own playing days rather than the present.
In short, pundits aren’t in touch anymore and it’s a growing epidemic, the distance only seemingly increasing with every influx of recently retired millionaires. They live in their own post-playing-days bubble of fancy suits and glitzy studios, where their interaction with modern day fans is reduced to Twitter and what they overhear on the terraces.
The irony, of course, is that most footballers haven’t been fans in the true sense of the word since late childhood, splitting affiliations between the various clubs they’ve represented and inevitably viewing the game by looking out from the inside of the touchline, rather than the other way around.
Occasionally, that can be refreshing – a necessary voice of reason and a different perspective, amid the fanatical, hyperbolic and sensationalist realm of ferociously loyal supporters. Yet, the rise of Arsenal Fan TV, coupled with amateur podcasts, key influencers on social media and other internet-age manifestations, shows how alternatives are becoming more popular as more people feel like they’re being left behind. The masses are becoming more engaged by the opinions of their fellow supporters than the affluently attired professionals in the studios.
That’s not the only gripe to be had with modern punditry. On the one hand, analysts have more access to a greater variety of information than ever before; on the other, the actual quality and level of insight hasn’t risen in proportion. Hero/villain for any given game is still the most common post-match narrative, and the superficial hyperbole only adds to the indifference many fans feel.
That’s where Neville, one of the true exceptions, comes in, with his promise to appear on Arsenal Fan TV. They’ve interviewed pundits before, but none with the gravitas, respect, reputation and unquestionable insight of the jewel in Sky Sports’ crown. It’s a meeting between the guy at the very top of post-match reaction and Robbie – a man who had to work his way up from the very bottom. A representative of the emotive fan base versus the most decorated voice from the intellectual punditry elite.
The significance should not be underestimated as juxtaposing sides of the spectrum prepare to argue opposing sides of the coin. If it has the effect expected, and if it sets a precedent for some of Neville’s colleagues to do the same, it could go a long way to shortening the growing gap between out-of-date pundits and the fans seeking new, digital formats for alternative opinions to be heard.
Whether the corporate world of football likes it or not, Fan TV is a growing aspect of the game – Neville, although perhaps involuntarily, is right to recognise it and challenge it. The next step is to accept and embrace it.