Punditry Revolution? Talk Sense.

17 02 2011

Former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain tells an interesting story in his autobiography about Sir Ian Botham’s time as a selector. It’s worth quoting in full:

“The problem was that Beefy is such a legend, people do listen to him. Not only the David Graveneys [Chairman of Selectors] of this world but also people in the street. So you would jump into a cab and the driver would say, ‘That Ian Botham. He talks a lot of sense.’ And I would always feel like turning around and saying, ‘Well, in my opinion Ian Botham was a genius who could do things on a cricket pitch that no other man could before or since, but he couldn’t really explain to you how he did them.’ By the end of his time advising the selection panel, I was virtually listening to what he thought I should do and then doing exactly the opposite.”

I’m reminded of this anecdote when I hear folk on Twitter push for James Richardson to present Match of the Day. Some are calling for Guardian journalists to take up their positions in those punditry seats. In Bed With Maradona, the football bloggers collective, are even trying to launch a TV Revolution, such is the outrage in some quarters at the standard of punditry in this country.

But I wonder. Is there an element of preaching to the converted here? The very nature of Twitter, and indeed life in general, is that – more or less – you gravitate towards like-minded souls. The point is, one has to doubt whether the proverbial cab driver is merrily telling all and sundry that Jonathan Wilson ‘doesn’t half talk some sense.’ The feeling remains that he is more likely to be saying it about Alan Hansen or, heaven forbid, Alan Shearer.

It isn’t as though the idea hasn’t been floated. ITV have dipped their toe in the water with the presence of the football journalist Gabriele Marcotti on their Champions League highlights programme. Marcotti has provided an alternative slant on things – giving details that so many ex-pros don’t, while evidently biting his lip when listening to a colleague describe Inter as Milan for the umpteenth time. But has he really made an impact on the viewer? Could it be that the vast majority are still half-cut on the sofa wondering what the bloke they’ve never heard off with the funny accent is wittering on about?

It’s easy to become immersed in football when you love the game. Such is the depth of information available to the modern football fan. However, the job of mainstream television is to appeal to a broad audience and, all too often I’m afraid, that means the lowest common denominator. Where’s the mileage in delighting one person by providing a Zonal Marking chalkboard analysis, when ten others would much prefer to hear ‘media personality’ Robbie Savage indulging in a bit of – here comes that word – ‘banter’ with the touchline reporter.

The difficulty is that the more high profile the football match is, the more broad the appeal, and the more people will be watching. And that means you get World Cup games that are watched by my mum and my sister. When those games come around, they are the majority – not you and I. Consequently, they’re not going to want half-time of the England vs Germany match to be dedicated to a tactical breakdown of why Mesut Oezil is being allowed to roam between the lines … they want to know why Lamps’ goal was disallowed and what the hell we are going to do about it.

The great thing about football coverage these days is that however much information on the weekend’s games you want to consume, you can do it. There are tactical blogs, financial blogs, humorous blogs and sites focusing on everything in between – many are high quality and they’re all freely available at the click of a button. Twenty-five years ago, until a foreign player had been featured in World Soccer, the only detail you would know about him would come from the Panini sticker album – in other words: club, height, hometown and date of birth.

Maybe you’ll accuse me of under-estimating the general public. But right now, I think we should be thankful for how far we’ve come and enjoy the fact that the game we love is appealing to millions of people at hundreds of different levels in thousands of different ways.

There could well be a revolution one day. Until then, just remember: ‘That Alan Hansen. He talks some sense.’

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20 responses

17 02 2011
Oli Baker

Ultimately, we get the media we deserve. It’s like people who complain that The Wire is not on prime time terrestrial television. Brilliant show, but the reality is, it would get about a tenth of the viewers as a Heartbeat repeat.

17 02 2011
FootballFarrago

Great piece, couldn’t agree more. It’s like people complaining that daytime TV is shite – it’s because the target audience is old people and housewives. Like you say, for proper analysis etc there are so many quality blogs there’s nothing to complain about really. And anyway, I don’t actually mind Alan Hansen, Alan Shearer or Lee Dixon.

17 02 2011
Andrew Benbow

I think it is a fair comment that anyone who can be bothered to stay up until midnight is not a passing viewer, and would appreciate some decent analysis. You are right though, for every Match of the Day there is now a Goals on Sunday, which at least from time to time is enlightening.

17 02 2011
Nik

Brilliant – written similar in my time…

18 02 2011
John

Football’s a game about moments and extreme emotions. Some of the above mentioned bloggers/journalists are in danger of sanitising it into a series of arrows and a sense of self importance. As for Marcotti, his style is to state something really obvious, with enough conviction and a whiff of arrogance, in the hope that the listener forgets they knew it already.

7 03 2011
Josef

Vialli and Marcotti’s The Italian Job point out how the English (as compared to the Italians) are taken with the idea of emotions as the key to the game – are the players working hard for their managers, “doing a job”, putting themselves about and so on.

This type of thing is (1) intangible and (2) subjective. Football is about both emotions and tactics. Only morons insist it’s one or the other.

18 02 2011
John

Goals on Sunday enlightening?! It’s ‘Kammy’ wearing crap shirts, bellowing that irritating laugh and exchanging crap banter and mild xenophobia with an equally crap member of the old boys brigade. I think the best balance in terms of punditry is when you have Souness and Gullit on Champions League coverage, both have sufficient gravitas to engage the casual viewer, but can also add genuine insight. Plus they generally ignore that irritating little Thunderc*nt Redknapp

18 02 2011
FootballFarrago

@John – don’t agree with the Marcotti comment. Yes, he does have a certain ‘I know more than you about this’ attitude, but that’s usually because he does – especially when he’s sitting on a sofa occupied by Robbie Earl or Andy Townsend. He really is an expert, and often brings in information that I doubt you did know before he mentioned it. He’s in the same class as James Richardson for me, someone who has been engrossed in the game for so long that he oozes knowledge.

18 02 2011
John

Can you name me one thing he’s said, that I didn’t know, before he said it? Thought not, so your point is based around a flawed premise

7 03 2011
Josef

well, how could someone know what you knew before he said it? you could always claim you knew it even if you didn’t?

18 02 2011
John

Having the time on your hands to do research isn’t the same as being able to look at a football match and offer insight. A football match is a live thing, each one different. Just because he’s extensively studied the career of Paolo Di Canio for example, doesn’t mean he can tell me what is going to happen in the heat of a contest. Roy Keane talks about the best players being able to judge the ebb and flow of a contest, for me, the best matchday pundits are those who can give an idea about that. For example, Paul Merson doesn’t have a masters in journalism, but if you watch him on Soccer Saturday he always gives an excellent idea of this. Most people don’t notice this as they can’t get past his limited vocabulary, but he’s actually really good. So Marcotti may be able, through his research and contacts, to offer us an inside scoop or a bit of history. But I wouldn’t want him as a matchday pundit

18 02 2011
FootballFarrago

Paul Merson. Jesus. I’m not even going to bother to fight my corner, we obviously have very different views of what makes a good analyst (next you’ll be saying Chris Kamara is the man).

18 02 2011
Liam Blackburn

Excellent article and I agree with many of the points. As much as I and many others would like to see the Footbal Weekly team on MOTD we already have the pod where they have more freedom to do what they want compared with what they would do on the BBC.
What annoys me is when someone like Shearer, who is I imagine handsomely paid, can’t even do his research on someone like Hatem Ben Arfa. But perhaps as you say, this simply doesn’t bother the average fan? I’d like to think it does but the ignorance of many fans continues to amaze me and this isn’t just the TV viewers but those who go to games too.

18 02 2011
GhostGoal

Agree Liam, Shearer is a joke.

I’d still like to know how many MOTD viewers knew about Ben Arfa – I’d guess about 10% personally so Shearer could argue he is just being “everyman” … the problem is that he should be there to give insight!

5 09 2011
Chairman (@INFTH)

Not every fan has to be a scholar of the game. While people like us who read, think, live football have our own place, those who are just in it for the beer and emotion do too. The blogosphere is our place, the TV their’s.

19 02 2011
tictacticuk

Nice article. Doesn’t mean BBC et al are doing it right though, even with faces the layman can recognise in Shearer, Merson etc.

A good pundit will have extensive knowledge of whatever event they’re covering. They don’t need to bore the everyman with every single detail, but should have the basic media skills to filter out the wheat from the chaff and keep things not only interesting but understandable.

There are too many pundits who either don’t have this knowledge or don’t have this media type skill (or both in Shearer’s case) and over the years there have been far too many pundits on the wrong end of each spectrum.

So yeah, there is an art to punditry and this so called revolution has a point in rooting out a lot of the bad eggs, but revolution is probably quite strong a word when all we really need rid of is 3 or 4 key bastards – Shearer, Redknapp, Ian Wright (forever please), Andy Gray and Keyes now gone, and I’d like to see the back of Chiles and the end of the queasy BBC cliquey, pally, know it all smugness.

19 02 2011
2nd Yellow

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a higher standard of knowledge and insight than we currently have. Neither is it impossible to have matey banter alongside it.

Most other sports have former professionals in their media coverage, but it’s fair to say that the stereotypical English footballer isn’t exactly renowned for his intelligence as compared to other sports.

TV coverage in other sports – cricket, tennis, NFL – manage to provide this type of analysis during play, let alone for a highlights program hours later.

19 02 2011
GhostGoal

Cricket and NFL are good examples of how ex-pros can give real insight.

12 04 2011
TV Review – Controcampo | The Football Express

[…] have defended the nature of the show, rightly in my opinion, for trying to reach the mass audience and using personalities that the […]

5 09 2011
Chairman (@INFTH)

Great article.

I must say though, to an American you guys seem so spoiled. On our Premier League broadcasts, we’re lucky if the host can pronounce the name of each team let alone tactically analyze a game of football.

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