Some people would prefer to watch the football without any pre-match, half-time and post-match comment and analysis. Others, like myself, feel that this is the time to get set-up for the match and it can be the difference between eagerly awaiting a match and switching the channel to something boring like gardening. The pundits and co-commentators, then have a crucial role to play in the enjoyment of a football match, so I’ve taken a sample of the good, the bad and the ugly to see just what it takes to be a quality football pundit.
Gordon Strachan: Mercurial as a player, he has shown a fair deal of intelligence in his dealings with the media whether in the written form or on the television. He is not a heavyweight hitter as a pundit, but when you watch and hear him, you can see why he’s a delight to have on the television. He most certainly isn’t bland or boring. The way he can dissect a game and pull out elements of it that determines the success or failure of a team makes sure he is not just in the game for the quips. It also shows why he was so wanted as a manager when he was and you can tell that he would be more than welcome back in the game if he so chose.
Alan Shearer: I understand the thinking. Here is a man who has scored loads of goals for England and the various clubs he’s played for. He has been one of the best at the top of his profession. He can string a sentence together without sounding like a buffoon. So for name value and football credibility he’s worth having as a pundit. Having said that, he is very boring. I’ve been told in articles and interviews about him that he has an amazing sense of humour and is a real go-to guy, but that doesn’t transmit across the air waves with his punditry. He is rather a dull pundit, even if he was a great footballer.
Gary Neville: This man has taken to punditry like a duck to water. In a style very reminiscent to his playing he is not spectacular or flamboyant. The little brou-haha with Villas-Boas was a storm in a teacup over an off-hand comment. Neville is a solid, hard-working pundit who puts a lot of effort into presenting aspects of the game that we don’t always appreciate. He is Mr. Reliable when it comes to offering that insight and the greatest compliment you can pay the guy is that in as much as I enjoyed Andy Gray, I don’t miss him on Monday Night Football because Neville excels in the role.
Jamie Redknapp: Sky from time to time often puts Neville and Redknapp together for match analysis on their live games. This makes sense, because as well as your solid, unspectacular, proficient, competent and insightful commentator (which is GNev), you want someone to literally talk off the top of his head any old stuff that he can come up with. Jamie Redknapp fills that role like a hand fits a glove. Redknapp is like the bloke in the pub who spouts out his opinion without thinking it through and that can work sometimes, but often just sounds dumb. I am not at all insinuating that Sky have got him on the strength of his looks, but I am suggesting that the brains wasn’t the killer aspect to the deal.
Graeme Souness: Some pundits actually look like they are thinking through what they are going to say before they say it in order not to offend anyone or to keep the charade of a great match going. Souness is not that type at all. Roy Walker would love Souness because as the catchphrase mantra suggests, Graeme says what he sees. If a player is playing badly he’ll say it. Not prettying it up. Not making excuses, just declaring what’s wrong and also giving further insight into what should be done about it in a forceful and intelligent manner. It makes for good punditry and compelling viewing especially when he waxes lyrical on a matter, be it the supreme nature of the current Barcelona side or the death of the tackle in the modern game.
Robbie Savage: I’m pretty certain that some pundits get their opportunities because of their sparky nature and how they can be a bit of a media darling anyway. Savage comes across that way. Sometimes he comes across as an attention-seeker who will say anything just to see if it will spark off anything. As such, he may very well have a good footballing brain, but it’s not really the thing you’ll remember from his time in punditry. Just as he rubbed people up the wrong way as a player, some of the things that come out of his mouth on TV can go down the wrong way. Still, at least he endeavours to bring life to football punditry.
Gareth Southgate: I used to give Southgate tremendous grief for being such a plain and bland pundit. If you’re not cracking jokes or saying something controversial and strong you can appear somewhat tepid and mediocre. That’s what Southgate was guilty of for a long time in his punditry career. To be fair to the guy, though, I think he’s improved. I think he’s found his spot is to specialise in the tactical analysis and solely on that and to offer what he can based on what he sees. He can also play the calmer role if you have some hot-head types in the studio. He’s not great, but he’s made progress.
Martin Keown: Here is a football pundit who comes across very different to how he appeared as a player. In his playing days part of the brief was to send the fear of God down his opponent either by reputation or by a ‘welcome to the game’ tackle that left its mark. Not a totally dirty player this brother was tough. As a commentator the man is far more considered and thoughtful. He is not reticent in expressing his opinions, and at times they can be strong, but he always comes across as though he’s not rash in his conclusions – unlike a few of his tackles. Although he may never win an award for punditry his considered manner makes him one of the better ones on television.
Roy Keane: Do not mess with Roy Keane. That was the message you got when he played. That was still there in his eye as a manager. That remains there as a pundit. Just as he was a no-nonsense midfielder, so he’s a no-nonsense commentator. He will not call a spade an important digging implement. As forceful as he was as a player, so is he as a pundit and yet he is not a bludgeon ignoramus spouting his views because he’s the only one who is right. Here is a man that talks from conviction and he demands attention on the strength of it.
Alan Smith: If what Alan Smith said was all we had from him then it would make for a fairly interesting read. Fairly interesting. Not totally engrossing. Just fairly interesting. What he says tends to make sense. He’s not a controversial guy for the sake of it. He won’t make a rod for himself with outrageous statements. He’ll play it sage with some observations here and there about what’s going wrong or right in a game. And yet, I cannot think of a man whose monotone Brummie accent has the power to heal insomnia more than Alan Smith. The most exciting I heard him was in some lager/beer advert. That drone of his can seriously be a health warning. How he got a job in broadcast media on the strength of that must truly be a tale of not what you know but who you know.
Mark Lawrenson: Apparently familiarity breeds contempt and sometimes when you’ve been in a position for so long you can begin to take it for granted. You can live off your laurels and trade off what everyone expects from you until you begin to come across as a parody of yourself. I would argue Mark Lawrenson is in that position. He still conveys the comments of a man who knows his football and is passionate about the game. Yet with that now he’s developed a side-line in quips and gags that is meant to be entertaining but it’s rather getting a bit tired. Sure you don’t want your pundits to be monotonous robots giving mundane lines that tells you what you’ve just seen. What we don’t want, though, is an act that’s getting old and rather stale.
Alan Hansen: Once upon a time Liverpool were the dominant force in English football. At the heart of the defence was one of the classiest centre-backs ever to grace the British game. When Hansen retired from the game he transitioned into punditry and before too long became one of the classiest pundits in the game. At one point he and Lawrenson were the dons of football punditry – again the most dominant in broadcast football. Yet now, the class is starting to fade. It’s probably typical of the BBC that rather than remaining dynamic in their pundit selections they’ve played it safe and stuck to what we know, even if what we know is becoming less of what we want to know. Hansen is still a class-act, but he’s been surpassed now, but being part of such an institution, I’m not sure if Hansen is even bothered by that as long as he keeps getting the calls.
The Pundits – An Overall Verdict
There are plenty of other ex-pros making their money from offering their opinions on the box – this was just a sample. It’s interesting how they cover football from the late 1970’s to the modern era. Being from one or the other does not make you a better pundit. Indeed in my opinion the two best pundits on television at the moment represent both ends of the scale.
I don’t have to watch the analysis and stuff, I can just watch the match, but I like hearing and engaging with what the ‘experts’ are saying. For that to work they need to know what they’re saying and deliver it in a clear and convincing manner. They don’t have to be outrageous for the sake of it, but they do need a bit of life about them. If they are able to bring across elements of the game that the viewer would not necessarily appreciate that’s even better for the enjoyment of the game. So the pundit needs to be lively, informed, expressive and yet considered.
No one has the full package. Each has their own flaws and failings – but then we all do. As you’d have noticed I think some have approached or are approaching their sell-by-date. Some are surely more in the game for their name rather than the quality of punditry they offer. Some are outright boring. Yet some are making strides in their game.
For all that, though, my dream team pundit line-up only needs two pundits. At present those would be Gary Neville and Graeme Souness. The mix encapsulates the spectrum that you get in the game – passion, insight, controversy, playing-it-safe, informed, aggressive. These are pundits who could tell you they speak from experience by showing you their medal haul, yet that alone doesn’t make you a great pundit. They ally this experience with a knowledge of how to explain things and how to make compelling football television in the way they effectively communicate. It makes for great viewing to watch these two on television and it does what all quality football broadcasting should do in its use of pundits – it enhances the enjoyment of the beautiful game.