Why Football is losing the English punditry war

Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville

The Premier League boasts a collection of some of the finest sportsmen on the planet, and yet seeks to subject its viewers to a standard of punditry that wouldn’t be out of place in a Primary School. In fact it is safe to say most 10 year olds have a better grasp of the English language and ability to form a cogent argument than the likes of Paul Merson and Mark Lawrenson. A move away from the continued treatment of fans as simple-minded morons is key to solving this problem

Whilst speaking to FATV in Istanbul, Gary Neville expressed his belief that pundits should gain coaching qualifications in order to improve the quality of TV analysis. In regards to the structure of the badges he said: “We have done a lot of video analysis this week on the course. It is becoming a critical point of football now. The fans want more, they demand more.”

The former Manchester United defender was initially greeted by harsh criticisms over his appointment to the Sky Sports Monday Night Football team. However, he has since emerged as a leading light in a field of relative mediocrity due to his ability to break down key moments and then give the viewer in depth analytic insight. This is in stark contrast to many of his colleagues who simply feel regurgitating the previous 90 minutes into a tidy minute long summary is satisfactory for the average viewer.

Neville picked up on this exact point when speaking to the association TV channel stating: “From a broadcasting point of view, they don’t just want telling that the ball has ended up in the back of the net, they want to know why it has ended up in the back of the net. They want to know who made the mistake, why they made the mistake, how they made the mistake and how to rectify the mistake.” Most worryingly of all, Neville appears to be in a minority who see the need to move away from the spoon-feeding approach to football punditry.

There is a worrying trend that the role of a pundit is simply to act as an alternative to having the subtitles running during a match. This is by no means a criticism of the way in which a company such as Sky run their broadcasts in general, but just particularly football. Fans of Golf are able to witness countless hours of coverage with past professionals expertly dissecting the strategy and swings of the competitors on show. By contrast, the average football fan who tunes in on a Saturday afternoon is subjected to a motley crew of ex pros who without fail leave fans with less of a clue after viewing than before. As Merson stumbles between non-sensical points and Phil Thomson continues to inundate your club with showers of needless unfounded criticisms the natural reaction is to flee to happier climes at the BBC. Here you encounter football luminaries that include Alan Hanson and Mark Lawrenson who frequent the studio of an evening to treat viewers to now infamous pieces of knowledge. During the recent Confederations Cup Final between Spain and Brazil, Lawrenson expertly highlighted the fact he knows less than the average viewer by exposing Lucas Moura as something of a relative unknown on the world stage, someone who is of course a crucial part of the plans afoot at Paris St-Germain. This follows a history of gaffes made by the BBC pundit including a high profile blunder when failing to discern between Arsenal’s Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho on A Question of Sport.

The suggestion that pundits should take coaching badges is however a somewhat uneasy one to make. In an era where fans feel alienated by the franchise that football has become, a hierarchical approach to punditry is totally wrong. Neville’s, push for pundits to have coaching badges could just add heed to this worrying transition by giving a sense that opinion must be qualified to matter. In the end everyone’s opinion when expressed with a degree of argumentation to substantiate it is as valid as the next persons, something that is often totally absent from many current pundits repertoires.

Playing the game need not be a pre requisite for a world-class pundit, and in fact opinions independent of a playing career may offer interesting insights. Football needs to take a lesson from other sports that select their pundits based on ability first and foremost whilst making popularity and previous playing history a secondary consideration. The current problem is that broadcasters seem to have naively found comfort in selecting any old ex professional to fill the berth, when instead they should be searching through the plethora of talent out there to discover someone who won’t simply waste a seat but will offer the sort of insight that fans yearn for.


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