Should Gary Neville take Roy Hodgson’s advice and turn his back on Sky Sports to become a full-time manager, my hatred for British punditry will reach unprecedented, unimaginable levels, somewhere between my hatred for malfunctioning self-checkout machines and George Osborne.
A singular linguist, I can’t compare British efforts to football analysis abroad. But for the sake of our European and South American football-loving brethren, I can only hope it’s in no way reminiscent of the line-up of balding, crocked ex-pros dominating UK airwaves whose collective vocabulary limits at five synonyms and five antonyms for ‘good’.
Indeed, had you no prior bearing on the beautiful game, you’d find it impossible to distinguish between West Bromwich Albion’s ‘excellent’ goal and West Ham’s ‘fantastic’ build-up play, Arsenal’s ‘woeful’ defending and Aston Villa’s ‘shocking’ man-marking, because they’re all lazy, sensationalist descriptions to validate opinions we’ve already made ourselves.
Unfortunately however, that Alan-Shearer-inspired style of analysis is just the tip of the ice-berg.
Alongside the Newcastle legend we have Jermain Jenas, still yet to string two coherent sentences together on Match of the Day, Garth Crooks, whom after predicting fourth-place Southampton would finish bottom of the Premier League this season has been demoted to red-button duties by the BBC, Paul hater-of-public-speaking Scholes and monotone duo David James and Owen Hargreaves of BT Sport, who probably wouldn’t sound out of place as key note speakers at a Dentistry conference, and Michael Owen, a pathetically pro-Liverpool, suicidally-voiced former England star seemingly trapped in the eternal purgatory of reanimated clichés.
And then there’s the small issue of Robbie rent-a-rant Savage – the poster-boy of everything wrong with British punditry, the footballing equivalent of Katie Hopkins. Even his Witchfinder-General-come-Duran-Duran-inspired attire isn’t enough to distract from his punditry atrocities, not least including accusing Conference side Dover Athletic of not playing with enough passion upon losing 4-0 to Crystal Palace, a club four divisions higher than them, in the FA Cup’s third round.
For a footballer so infamously average, to the extent that he represented a Derby County side that picked up just eleven points during the 2007-08 Premier League season, the audacity in which he hyperbolically criticises even non-league footballers the most minor of inevitable indiscretions, often shrilling and shouting into the microphone as if they can actually hear him, is genuinely laughable. You can hear that brand of ignorant insight by eavesdropping on the largest lout at your local pub, without having to pay BT Sports’ yearly subscription fee.
But if Savage is the anti-Christ of British punditry, Gary Neville is it’s undisputed saviour; the titan of the interactive whiteboard, the master of the slow-motion replay, the lord of tactical insight, the prince of impartiality – despite his obvious ties to Manchester United. In fact, the Old Trafford icon tends to be more critical of his former club than most, and once even ripped into his own brother Phil – whose unfortunately already been lost to the punditry mediocrity on BBC- in a fantastic testament to his own professionalism.
Neville’s not afraid to reveal a controversial opinion, such as defending Diego Costa for his ‘stamp’ on Emre Can, but the difference between his views and other pundits’ is that they’re always sourced in absolute fact – even if it requires dragging you kicking and screaming through endless tiny details to prove it – one of the two golden rules of Monday Night Football, according to The Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson.
I’ve seen the former defender spend ten minutes continuously re-rolling three frames of film to decide who’s at fault for an initially seamless goal, twenty minutes debating the specialisms required to play at wing-back, half an hour discussing the developing role of No.10s in the Premier League and the best part of an entire show trying to force Howard Webb into admitting referees indeed do make mistakes from time-to-time. Despite how arduous that may sound, he delivered it all with a passion, sophistication and humour that made every second – even when you don’t wholly agree with him – thoroughly enjoyable.
That’s real punditry – the ability to teach the viewer something new every time they watch, avoiding hyperbole and populist opinion as much as possible. In the same vein, it’s probably what will make Neville an exceptional manager; that incredible eye for detail, that supreme knowledge and experience of the game, that energetic, assured tone to his voice.
England too seems the perfect job for him. He’s got popular appeal, a CV that isn’t besmirched by club football’s hire-and-fire culture and the required playing experience, with his 85 caps spanning a twelve-year Three Lions career.
His ascension to full-time coaching, however, would be a monumental loss to British punditry. Neville is unequivocally the greatest UK pundit of his generation and at this moment in time, virtually irreplaceable to Sky Sports. Although there are some decent pundits out there that have gone unmentioned in this article, such as Jamie Carragher, Pat Nevin and Graeme Souness, none can quite galvanize an audience, informing and entertaining with a modern and technological twist, in quite the same way.
Right now, Neville is the star player holding the rest of the British punditry team together; without him, it’s little more than a babbling rabble of clueless ex-pros, sensationalising their way through every highlight in the hope that it makes them sound remotely meaningful. In the former Manchester United star’s future absence, punditry will plummet into the dark ages.