Experts or ex-pros: time for a change in football punditry?

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For the past 14 years the Oxford Dictionary have released their word of the year. In 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump, came ‘post-truth’, defined by the OED as ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping debate or public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. It diagnosed a sick age where empty visceral appeals have more impact than a serious investigation into the essential truth of a subject. Football punditry has been displaying these symptoms for years.

The flashy studios of Sky and BT are arenas where cutting-edge insight and intelligent, objective approaches to understanding the game largely take a backseat. Instead, the popularity of pundits such as Roy Keane exemplify how they are instead sensationalist hotbeds of provocation, characters, contrived narratives, feigned outrage and engineered polarities of opinion. And when it isn’t so highly-charged, viewers can almost invariably expect inane conversation, essentially glorified pub talk from a cast of ex-pros who rehash the same old tired clichés as they struggle for articulation and fail to unlock a deeper level of truth.

There are of course some anomalies, the likes of Liam Rosenior are considered a rare breed for their measured delivery and eloquence, but the prevailing consensus is that former players who were experts at playing the game are not automatically experts at analysing it. The vast majority rest on their laurels while others, despite their best efforts, scarcely captivate the audience or bedazzle with agile knowledge of the game at large.  

While there is certainly value in hearing the experiences from those who have played the game first-hand, many believe that the balance should be redressed; that the analysis should be reserved for external and objective voices who have devoted their lives to observing the game – the statisticians, the authors, the journalists – who are overflowing with specialist and inexhaustible knowledge on certain subjects.

Viewers can expect inane conversation, essentially glorified pub talk.

These experts would undoubtedly be better equipped at stimulating the mind: offering originality and clarity of expression, thriving in debate as a result of their eclectic interest in global leagues, the cultural and political forces that influence events, drawing on history as a way of understanding the present, and in some cases knowing these ex-pros better than they know themselves. Such voices, however, seem exclusively reserved for podcast or radio – not fit for the screen, not good enough personalities, not visually appetising, not ‘entertaining’ enough.

Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have helped to advance tactical explorations and give football punditry a more serious and thoughtful face, but realistically the majority of their observations are intuitive; elementary in comparison to the stuff we might find on podcasts such as Tifo, or in publications like The Blizzard.

For all our complaints and yearnings for a more fair landscape, however, is this sort of thing really desirable on our screens? Is this what the average football fan truly wants from a football pundit: cool, logical, reasoned, rational? This sort of ‘more profound, less energetic’ analysis is not fit for screen, because logically it doesn’t correspond with the frenzied drama that we demand from watching football. Thus the drama continues in the studio in the form of lively verbal jousting, rather than a defusing the pace and calmly digesting what has just happened.

However, is the role of television not one of visual stimulation and entertainment – an embracement of the false, a product designed to entertain rather than elicit intellectual ponderings? Where Brecht’s epic theatre was designed to elicit a ‘think not feel’ response, isn’t the act of watching football the exact reverse: an escape, an illusion, a conscious effort to resist the inconvenient truths of real life?

Football is a visceral experience. We enjoy being enraptured by the shiny lights of the studio, the funky touchscreen tactical boards, the dramatic music, and seeing our idols from yesteryear appear on our screens, no matter how vacuous they may be. They are trained in being characters, and their theatrical impulses, their performances, raise football to a suitable level of urgency and seriousness; we can unwind and not thinking too deeply but instead switch off and unconsciously buy into this colourful universe.

Football is a visceral experience.

Fans come for the match and pay no real attention to the analysis – granted, because we have become accustomed to vapid discussions, and haven’t fully experienced an alternative – but fundamentally because it’s not really what we came to see. When watching a game on the tele we don’t come for the punditry, but the heart-racing moments, the on-field action, drawing our own conclusions and sharing instinctive responses in the group chat, or with others in pubs and communal spaces where the post-match analysis is drowned out anyway.

History shows that we only remember and value the visually striking and the comic – Henry putting his hand on Jamie Carragher’s thigh, Kamara’s ‘dunno Jeff’ or Jamie Redknapp highlighting a corner flag. So ultimately, while a panel full of Jonathan Wilson’s would be a feast for the mind, such discussions can’t be turned into hilarious GIFs, or provide opportunities for clickbait or fierce debates on social media.

Indeed, why would broadcasting companies strive for truth when they can perpetually reinforce engagement by inviting moral outrage, raising topics such as who should be England’s third choice goalkeeper to a matter of life and death? Clearly truth is of little import. It has got to the point where our anticipation of inane conversation and blunders overrides our investment in what is actually being said.

And do we really want an expert with an accent of authority when we can scoff at empty comments made by these ex-pros, poking fun as they fumble over their points and resort to cliché? The longevity of Paul Merson and Steve McManaman would indicate that there is value in incompetence, as they serve the function of provoking frustration and engagement from fans. I don’t believe we want substance; perversely, we enjoy the meretricious emptiness of it all.

But is this a bad thing? Do we need a culture shift? Can there be a single truth in something so partisan and divisive as football anyway? Why strive for it?  Is this aversion to intellectual stimulation an indictment on us fans, that we would sooner embrace the post-truth unapologetically than make football a more intellectually demanding arena? I don’t believe so.

In football punditry, nowadays truth is of little import.

Football is inherently ridiculous, it is that opportunity to unleash the frustrations that build up throughout the week, get impassioned over things that by and large have no real consequence; the arena where you are justified to be irrational. This is different, of course, when shining a light on social injustices such as racism, sexism and corruption, but these tend to be done well and taken seriously in its own time, and in fact ex-pros act as authoritative voices on these issues; more conducive to change given that they are idolised by the masses.

But otherwise, when the politics is removed, football is essentially theatre, and companies exploit that through the many technological possibilities of television. Fans enjoy the illusion of football and it needs the theatricality, the controversy and the ideological divisions to sustain its illusions – or else it would run dry. This isn’t to say football shouldn’t be intellectualised at all, but punditry isn’t the appropriate arena for that. Such discussions are better reserved in retrospect for genuinely thoughtful modes like podcasts, books or newspaper columns – more solipsistic, personal experiences as opposed to the demands of entertainment when watching with your mates.

Though football punditry has its pitfalls – notionally it isn’t fair that ex-pros are automatically favoured over the experts – they don’t necessarily warrant an upheaval. Even if not the most articulate, fans ultimately enjoy seeing their footballing idols, who relay their charming anecdotes to satisfy our voyeuristic instincts, provoke debate through their bumbling incompetence and, ultimately, reinforce a sense of tangibility in our often disorientating footballing universe. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Image: [Ross] via Creative Commons

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