How football shows are getting it wrong – and how they can put it right this season
First, a test. What immediately springs to mind if you hear or read the name of Alan Shearer?
Is it 1) the much-feared, brave-hearted, prolific Premier League and England centre forward whose goals almost ended ‘30 years of hurt’ at Euro 96?
Or 2) the tiresome, repetitive pundit who is paid extravagantly to sit on the Match of the Day sofa and ruminate on the league he once graced and the ‘years of hurt’ that continue to stack up?
I really wish it was 1) but it’s 2), isn’t it?
Let me just say this: I have no reason to believe that Shearer is not a decent guy. For all I know, he could be a bastion of benevolence, some magnificent hybrid of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. But, to me, he sums up all that is wrong with modern football punditry.
The clichés? The lack of insight masked with sincerity? The lazy generalisations passed off as profound observations? The fact his reputation on the pitch apparently excuses his moribund mutterings off it? Shearer ticks all those boxes.
Match of the Day is one of the few remaining ‘appointment to view’ programmes on Britain’s TV schedules – it’s a show punters will arrange their evening around. And yet I know plenty of folk who now record it on Sky+ in order to enjoy the action while skipping the post-match analysis.
Who can blame them when the standard of TV punditry has sunk so low? Here’s Shearer, sporting his trademark sincere expression, explaining how West Brom manager Roy Hodgson engineered a 3-2 victory at Sunderland last season that helped them move clear of the relegation zone: “Well, he’s used all of his experience, he’s got them well-organised and they are getting results.”
Just read that back a few times. What does it mean? You can hazard a guess, sure, but what exactly is Shearer telling us? What is so special about Hodgson’s “experience”? How is it helping him get results? What does “well-organised” actually mean? Are Albion holding their positions in midfield, are they simply more aware of their defensive duties… or is it something else?
It’s the kind of empty rhetoric of which a politician would be proud and it sits neatly alongside other classics from the Shearer canon such as “they look nervy” or its twin brother, “they look focused”. Filling the void of technical insight with cod-psychological guesswork is simply not good enough.
Here’s Exhibit B. Marseilles winger Hatem Ben Arfa, a recent loan signing for Newcastle, spanks a shot into the top corner to secure three unexpected points at Everton in September 2010.
Cut to Shearer: “No one really knows a lot about him.” Really? Ben Arfa may not be a household name but, like Karim Benzema, he has long been considered one of the rising stars of French football. He has played 23 times in the Champions League – three more than Shearer, incidentally. But the point is this: even if “no one really knows a lot about him”, a man paid to analyse the Premier League and its players should be capable of the most basic research.
But that seems to be frowned upon on Match of the Day. Remember the Slovakia-New Zealand World Cup match in 2010? Lee Dixon had the temerity to pick out a player to watch – Marek Hamšík – only to be ribbed by Alan Hansen, a man who has been on that sofa so long he might as well be a cushion. The message from Hansen was clear: preparation is beneath me and it should be beneath you too. Once again, that’s just not good enough.
‘An utter buffoon’
Frankly, if I wasn’t weak, reluctant to fiddle with wires, worried about waking the kids and strapped for cash, I would have thrown the telly out of the window long ago. But is it just me? Is everyone else clapping enthusiastically at the input of Shearer et al while I sit in the corner tutting and growling like the bastard son of Albert Steptoe and Nora Batty? A quick show of hands from The Sport Collective (because we all live together, of course) convinced me otherwise. The vitriol spurted from every pore:
“I can’t stand Steve Claridge. He is an utter moron who just says things as if they’re fact, when it’s just his brainless opinion.”
“Frankly, Jamie Redknapp isn’t intelligent or articulate enough for that job. It’s all clichés.”
“Alan Shearer is dull, dour and not remotely insightful. When he was a player, we were always told what a great laugh he was in real life. Still waiting, Alan.”
“Too many football pundits are present or very recent former players who have too many loyalties to really give a balanced view – I’m talking about Jamie Redknapp, Danny Murphy, Alan Shearer, Steve McManaman and the like.”
“Ray Wilkins is just a nice guy who wants everyone to be nominated for Footballer of the Year and no one relegated.”
“Alan Shearer [there he is again] often does little more than describe exactly what the pictures quite clearly show, often repeating what the commentator or host has just said, all dressed up in the cloak of expert analysis.”
“Phil Thompson is an utter buffoon. And that’s from a big Liverpool fan.”
There’s a lot of anger out there. For what it’s worth, I’d throw Robbie Savage into the mix as well, a man who has done for 5 Live’s football coverage what Scrappy-Doo did for The Scooby-Doo Show – his appearances turn an entertaining, comforting production into something that makes you want to swing your fists into a wall.
But why is there so much antipathy towards the likes of Savage and the sofa-warmers of TV punditry, whether it’s the BBC, ITV, Sky or beyond? To understand that, you must ask this: what is a pundit for?
Style over substance
To my mind, a pundit is there to tell the public things they don’t know or can’t see for themselves. They have got to be the ‘technical advisors’ of the programme, the people who identify and explain what the man in the street cannot.
For a recent example, take the North London derby at White Hart Lane in April. Rafael van der Vaart scored Tottenham’s first equaliser in a pulsating 3-3 draw with a shot that beat Wojciech Szczęsny at his near post. Now everyone in the ground plus those watching on TV could see that Szczęsny might have done better while Abou Diaby was guilty of failing to track his man.
But there were two other significant errors: first, Laurent Koscielny followed Roman Pavlyuchenko when the Russian dropped deep, leaving space behind him for Van der Vaart to exploit. And Johan Djourou, having seen Koscielny advance, should have filled the area his defensive partner had vacated. No pundit I watched or read mentioned either of those two mistakes – and yet, without them, Van der Vaart would have not had the chance to embarrass Szczęsny at his near post.
Some shows don’t have the means to highlight these tactical matters – the video technology exists but the equipment is costly. But the big boys do, so why not use it better? The depressing answer is that not enough TV pundits have the wherewithal to pick apart football matches and educate their viewers.
If there is a general lack of tactical awareness among TV pundits, the problem is exacerbated by producers who don’t understand football and are just happy to hire ‘faces’. Shearer must know all about attacking play because he was a great England striker, wasn’t he? If only it were that simple. In reality, a player will only truly grasp tactics once they have taken their coaching badges. Until then, they might know exactly how to do their job in the context of their team, but they won’t see the bigger picture because they are unlikely to scrutinise their sport as a whole.
In his heyday, Shearer could probably thump a header past you while simultaneously placing a bet and downing a pint, but that doesn’t make him a student of the game. And yet there is an almighty assumption in English studios that there is no better pundit than the man who’s been there and done it on the pitch. As a result, the viewers are fed style over substance and look enviously to countries such as Italy, where there is a greater thirst for tactical insight and a willingness to deliver it. Serie A has its troubles but punditry is not among them.
And let’s be clear: English football fans are not a bunch of Neanderthals who couldn’t give a toss about tactics. They go online in their droves and hoover up insightful blogs and articles. There is a market for tactical books such as Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid and websites such as Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking.
But here’s the quandary facing those same football enthusiasts: you can get your fix of intelligent debate online or in print, but if you want to see the matches live on TV – or even watch the highlights – you have to stomach pundits who insult your intelligence with their witless witterings.
I’d bet the house that Shearer and Savage would take Wilson and Cox to the cleaners on the pitch. But I’d certainly want Wilson and Cox to tell me how they did it once the boots are away and the chalkboards are out. Neither man, to the best of my knowledge, has won a major trophy. But football fans gravitate towards their work – as they do established and respected journalists such as Paul Hayward and Martin Samuel – because they want to learn about the game they love.
So when cerebral commentary exists online and in print, why are we force-fed low-grade punditry on TV? The fixation with familiar faces – regardless of their knowledge – is one reason but another explanation lies in the haphazard manner in which pundits digest their football on any given Saturday.
The best way to comprehend football is to sit in a stand with the whole pitch laid before you and immerse yourself for 90 minutes. You can see who is on the ball, the movement of others and the space they create. It’s the bigger picture. Saturdays are very different for Messrs Shearer and Hansen. They may be surrounded by monitors on which the story of the Premier League day is unfolding, but they cannot give their full attention to a single fixture. Instead, they’ll half-watch anything up to eight games, monitoring the key moments and talking points but little more.
That’s usually OK for the first two or three games on Match of the Day but, long before the end of the show, the likes of Shearer have lapsed into lazy generalisations about teams they haven’t actually watched carefully. It’s easy enough to say that “Bolton hit Kevin Davies early and picked up the pieces” or “Manchester United passed it well and, in the end, Blackpool couldn’t contain them” but it’s essential to explain why – and you can’t if you haven’t seen more than the goals and near-misses. What’s worse, those lazy generalisations will be regurgitated in pubs up and down the country from fans who don’t have the time or inclination to dig a little deeper.
Enough of the doom and gloom. There are, of course, some excellent football pundits out there, including a fair smattering on TV. For instance, here’s The Sport Collective’s James Gill on the relative merits of Jamie Redknapp and Gordon Strachan:
“I don’t need Redknapp to tell me that ‘Rooney is quality’ – my mum knows that. What I want is an insight on something I don’t already know and Strachan gives me that in spades. He spots things I wouldn’t see and offers anecdotes on people that us mere mortals have no way of knowing – his comments on Eric Cantona lacking social skills at a Leeds FA Cup tie earlier this season were fascinating. He ticks every box.”
Bravo, Strachan. Other favourites of The Sport Collective include Clarence Seedorf (“engaging, knowledgeable, the only good thing about the BBC’s World Cup coverage”), the RTÉ panellists Johnny Giles and Eamon Dunphy (“they openly court controversy… their debates are much more stimulating”), David Pleat (“he can explain the technical movements players have made”) and even the former Sky behemoth Andy Gray (“at least he made it sound exciting”).
I’m a big fan of Pleat, who adds gravitas and tactical insight to TV commentaries or 5 Live, where he pops up increasingly these days. Dixon, schooled by perhaps the most intensive defensive coach of recent times, George Graham, is probably the most clued-up of the Match of the Day brigade. And Pat Nevin, another 5 Live regular, offers the cerebral insight that Savage patently does not.
So there is genuine hope. There are standard-bearers: pundits who study the game, dig for relevant information and provide their viewers or listeners with a quality product. Which begs the question: how on earth does someone like Shearer get away with opting out of the same rigorous approach to his job?
Of course, it’s all very well to dwell on the problem, have a pop at the pundits you don’t like and then walk away. But that serves no purpose if you don’t suggest a solution as well. We know what we don’t want, but how do we get what we do want? For what it’s worth, here’s my programme for action, a simple set of proposals that can raise the standard of punditry – especially on TV – and make the football-watching experience educational as well as entertaining.
1. Learn from other sports
Every sport has its shoddy pundits but football would do well to watch, learn and execute the methods that make rival shows sing. Once again, The Sport Collective has been on hand to dish up examples of where other sports get it right while football gets it wrong:
“In cricket, the likes of Mike Atherton and Richie Benaud are magnificent analysts of the game. They talk about the thought process, the individual attributes of a batsman or bowler and they go in-depth. The likes of Nasser Hussain are not afraid to criticise former teammates. Listening to the likes of Aggers [Jonathan Agnew] is like going to some raconteur’s house for afternoon tea. You almost feel like part of the family.”
“Formula One punditry seems streets ahead of football. It might be down to the intricate nature of the sport but both Martin Brundle and David Coulthard give an in-depth knowledge of the sport and nuggets no one else would know while still getting across the message of a complex sport that the layman can understand.”
“Steve Davis is an excellent snooker pundit, his natural intelligence affording him the ability to understand what the viewer wants to know. He and Willie Thorne, in particular, are very good at describing the technical qualities a player has just displayed to make a shot, while Davis – because he went through the mill at the top for so many years – can give a fascinating insight into how you handle the pressure in what is a very psychological sport.”
“Tennis players are often oddballs with incredible memories for points played and players’ weak points, so they often make good pundits. Therefore, the better ones – John McEnroe, Virginia Wade, Michael Stich and Mats Wilander – are very good at dissecting the action and also articulate enough to get their views across on technical matters.”
Why do other sports regularly outflank football when it comes to punditry? I don’t want to be offensive or guilty of making sweeping statements, but it’s worth noting that footballers are generally less educated than, say, a former England cricket captain such as Atherton. There are eloquent football pundits – some of them are mentioned above – but most former pros would hardly claim to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. Add that general lack of articulacy to the studios’ insistence on famous faces and you have a recipe for mediocrity.
Savage is a case in point. His defenders describe him as “a character” who entertains his listeners and viewers. Even if you agree with that, it’s hard to deny that the balance between analysis and entertainment shifts too far towards the latter when Savage is on air. Cricket, F1, snooker and tennis – to name but four – do not fall into that trap. Nor should football.
2. Promote diligence and honesty
First things first. If you can’t be bothered to do research, you shouldn’t be on a frontline football show. The examples above – Shearer’s breathtaking ignorance about Ben Arfa, Hansen’s mocking response to Dixon – should have set alarm bells ringing at the BBC. Did anyone pick them up on it? Or are Shearer and Hansen so established that they are beyond reproach? If a pundit’s job really is to tell the punter what they could not know, hold them to it because the bleeding obvious will not do. And if the likes of Shearer fail that test, bring in someone who won’t.
While we’re at it, how about some honesty? Back in the Seventies and Eighties, no more than three fixtures would be featured on ITV’s The Big Match because they were the only ones graced by television cameras. The late, great Brian Moore and regular guest Jimmy Hill could focus on those games because they couldn’t see the others. If Hill had spent the final part of the show pretending he knew what had happened in the day’s other fixtures, Moore would have laughed him off the set.
So why do pundits pretend now? The Match of the Day team cannot skim-watch half-a-dozen games that kick off and end at practically the same time without filling the gaps in their knowledge with assumptions and generalisations. Get them to focus on one or two games each – preferably with different kick-off times. For the other matches, pull in reporters who were there, saw the full 90 minutes, spoke to the managers and players and are far better placed to talk coherently about what actually happened.
3. End the ‘old pals’ act’
Shearer may be one of the finest strikers England has ever produced. Redknapp may be handsome (so I’m told). Savage may be irreverent (again, so I’m told). But they have been hired because of their names, faces and reputations on the pitch – not because of their eloquence and tactical nous off it.
The success of José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger demonstrates that you don’t need to be a top-level player to become a top-class coach. The same goes for punditry. The theory that you need a hatful of international caps to be an authority on the game was debunked long ago, so let’s freshen up the TV panels with lesser known, better judges of football.
We’ve all got our favourite football writers and bloggers. I’ve mentioned Wilson, Cox, Hayward and Samuel but there are so many who bring more to the table than Shearer, Redknapp and Savage. Two decades of Hansen has drained him as much as it has drained us, so it’s high time for a change in personnel. And if we must have ‘football people’, draft in a few coaches. At least they should know about tactics.
4. Pressure from presenters
“They’ve got to get in their faces.” It’s one of Shearer’s stock phrases and arguably his most vague. It’s usually directed at lesser sides, apparently incapable of stringing two passes together, whose only hope of success is to snarl and snap at more cultured opponents. Yet Shearer’s crude instruction could easily be designed for the man opposite him in the Match of the Day studio – Gary Lineker.
He’s no Des Lynam – in fact, he’s no Jeff Stelling either – but there’s no doubt that Lineker has worked extremely hard to transform himself from the callow, stilted presenter who first sat in front of the cameras to the smooth operator who now fronts the Beeb’s football coverage. And yet Lineker and his ilk could do much more. Presenters should be more pushy, more punishing, and challenge their guests to make the leap from saying what is happening to saying why it is happening.
Remember Shearer’s comments about Hodgson at the top of this article? If only his exchange with Lineker had gone something like this:
Lineker: “So, Alan, how would you sum up Roy Hodgson’s impact on the West Brom squad since he arrived at The Hawthorns?”
Shearer: “Well, Gary, he’s used all of his experience, he’s got them well-organised and they are getting results.”
Lineker: “Would you care to elaborate on that?”
Shearer: “Well, Gary, like I say, he’s got them well-drilled and they are picking up points.”
Lineker: “Yes, Alan, but how? What has he changed at Albion?”
Lineker: “OK, we’ve got to move on to the next game but, frankly, that’s poor from you.”
It would sort the wheat from the chaff, would it not? There’s more chance of me ending up on the Match of the Day sofa than Lineker putting Shearer on the spot like that but you sense he has it in him. Every now and then, Lineker crosses the line from presenter to pundit to make a wry observation, usually on a hapless striker. And we need the likes of him to be more assertive, to put pressure on pundits to make them perform. If the pundits rise to the challenge, keep them. If they wilt, make them walk.
5. Demand more from producers
It’s all very well questioning the standard of punditry but football shows will not necessarily improve unless producers raise their game too.
Put yourself in their shoes. All a producer or a director wants is a programme that runs smoothly from their point of view. There’s a fair chance they won’t know about the tactical side of football so they won’t notice if someone like Shearer is talking sense or not. As long as the show unfolds without a hiccup, as long as the cameras are in the right position, as long as the backdrop is straight and provided the presenter doesn’t swear, they are happy.
We need more from them too. Do producers tell pundits what is expected of them before they go on air? Or are they left to their own devices under the assumption that the so-called experts have done their research and know their stuff? One pundit told me how he was implored to cut down on his tactical analysis and “make it sound like you are enjoying the game”. If that is not an isolated incident, it’s another cause for concern that needs addressing.
6. Speak out yourself
Here’s the problem. Match of the Day’s ratings are sky high, the viewing figures for live football on Sky are extremely healthy and ITV is not doing badly either. Is that down to a high standard of punditry? Of course not. It’s because those channels have the rights to show live matches or highlights and they have a captive audience. In this case, high ratings are not a ringing endorsement of the product. It’s a reflection of the stark choice facing supporters who can’t get a ticket to see their team in the flesh. Watch it on TV – poor pundits and all – or miss the game.
The powers that be will point to those ratings and declare that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but we deserve better. So if we want to raise the standard of punditry, it’s time to speak out, write in and phone in. Let’s stop settling for half-baked analysis and botch-job punditry and demand more. If we don’t, Savage will keep on picking up Sony awards despite his obvious limitations.
We’re all responsible – the public, producers, presenters and, of course, the pundits themselves. But, ultimately, we need shows like Match of the Day to take a stand as well. If it can shake off its ‘old pals’ act’ and stop hiding behind the security blanket of rights and ratings, the viewers can get what they deserve – thoughtful, eloquent analysis of the sport they love, and not just great action. New media outlets provide those qualities in spades – now it’s time for old media to catch up.
It doesn’t look good though: the new season started with a new face on the Football Focus sofa – Sony award winner Savage himself. Now what was I saying about getting the balance right between information and entertainment?
As the status quo reigns supreme, it’s hard to avoid the following conclusion: the only way to get TV executives to switch on to the problem with punditry is to switch off our TV sets and choke Shearer et al of the ratings that sustain them.
I’m ready to do that. Are you?
With thanks to: Simon Cambers, James Gill, Chris Harris, Matt Majendie, Paul Gadsby, Sami Shah, David Norton and Nick Metcalfe
If you enjoyed this, then read Rich Hook’s Premier League and NFL piece “Held to Ransom”