Yesterday evening, Ed Chamberlain, Jamie Carragher and guest pundit Craig Bellamy proved that there is life in Monday Night Football after Gary Neville – the pundit who stole our hearts before breaking them by jetting off to Valencia.
I’ll never quite forgive the Spanish club. Most are probably sick of the never-ending-Neville-loving in the media since he took the Mestalla job last week, but I feel obliged to stress in no uncertain terms that the former Manchester United defender is a monumental loss to the Premier League as probably it’s greatest ever pundit.
Neville had a knack of teaching you something new and changing your opinion on a player, a manager, a referee or a club with practically every viewing. Although Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen remain the indisputable kings to many, Neville’s whiteboard analysis took the meaning of the phrase to a whole new level whilst the MOTD old guard’s steady decline resulted in the summarisation of every match as ‘brilliant’ or ‘terrible’.
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Nonetheless, the show must go on, and Bellamy’s debut in the MNF studio showed unexpected signs of promise – although Sky Sports intend to rotate guest pundits until the end of the season and the former Newcastle United man started proceedings by insisting he’s still intent on entering into the world of management as soon as possible.
For an attacker whose natural talent, speed and aggression was seen as his defining traits during his playing days, the depth of the Welshman’s tactical knowledge was incredibly surprising. His discussion of Jamie Vardy, which evolved into a discussion of his career and how the role of the centre-forward has changed in the Premier League since the emergence of Jose Mourinho and Didier Drogba, was fascinating and passionately argued.
Perhaps more impressively, it’s not a subject former right-back Gary Neville could have conversed with such anecdotal detail; more than anything else, it was a sign that Bellamy brings something new to the table and can put a fresh perspective on age-old Carra-Nev debates.
No doubt, Bellamy is still a little rough around the edges. His body language was more welcoming of his former Liverpool team-mate than the camera and his delivery was a little dry. Yet Neville suffered similar issues when first thrust into the MNF studio and Carragher’s scouse accent was almost inaudible for his first few episodes; confidence on camera will improve naturally, whilst elocution can be learnt.
And dare I say it, there were eerie similarities between Bellamy and Neville that caught me off-guard. Lest we forget, Neville too was seen as an unexpected and underwhelming appointment when he took over from Andy Gray in 2012. Most viewed him as little more than one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ever-obedient children, but the obvious intellect behind Neville’s punditry work has almost rewritten the history of his playing days into something more calculated and sophisticated.
Most enlightening, in that respect, was Bellamy’s story of how he became a winger at Manchester City after initially arriving as a striker. He feared for his Etihad future as a centre-forward following the costly arrivals of Emmanuel Adebayor and Carlos Tevez, but saw left winger Robinho as a weak link he could force out of the starting Xi. He not only auditioned himself for that position to Mark Hughes, but relentlessly studied the leading left wingers at the time – Frank Ribery in particular – and adapted his game accordingly.
It’s the kind of attention to detail, ruthlessness and in some senses obsession that made Neville such an acute and effective pundit – the ability to study intricate aspects of the game before working tirelessly to apply them in reality. If Bellamy can devote that same level of drive to his punditry work, Sky Sports may have just unearthed another gem.
Likewise, there is something refreshing about a pundit who isn’t instantaneously associated with a major club. Bellamy has represented nine teams throughout his career, albeit including Liverpool and Manchester City, and his loyalty belongs to nobody in particular except perhaps the Wales national team.
Infamous skirmishes with Alan Shearer and John Arne Riise add further kudos to a character who quite literally isn’t afraid of swinging punches (or golf clubs) at popular individuals. When Bellamy says something, such as Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez being head and shoulders above the rest of the Premier League this season, it is because he believes it to be true.
But of course, there are still question marks over Bellamy’s durability in MNF’s high-intensity arena of debate. He struggled to provide a clear-cut answer, as if aware he would have to slightly contradict himself, when Carragher probed the practicalities of his preference of speed over power in a centre-forward, and his assessment of Aaron Ramsey as a better No.10 than Mesut Ozil was laden with inevitable bias.
The fact of the matter is that it can only take one point ruthlessly dissected by Carragher or one argument of clear favouritism to completely destroy a pundit’s credibility at the impeccably high level the Carra-Nev partnership have maintained over last few years.
Whether Bellamy is offered the role full-time after his impressive debut, misses out to another planned guest pundit – Frank Lampard is in line for next week – or rejects it to take up a role in management remains to be seen.
But obsessive viewers of MNF will have exhaled a sigh of relief at the end of last night’s episode; although things might never be quite the same again without Gary Neville, the future of Premier League punditry doesn’t look quite as bleak as this time last week.