Every Monday evening, before my weekly game of poker, I play a few frames of snooker. Or rather I used to play snooker. Now I just hover my cue over the table as I look up to the telly utterly captivated by the intelligent and brilliant analysis of the weekend’s games by Gary Neville on Sky.
Neville has taken the art of football punditry in this country to unparalleled heights this season, far exceeding his predecessor Andy Gray for depth and insight. More impressively still he backs each thought up with an array of considered examples, clearly explaining exactly why this team failed to break down their opponents or why a manager’s masterplan paid off handsomely.
When his forensic analysis is compared to the Match of the Day lot or Southgate and Townsend on ITV it’s akin to comparing Poirot to the policeman off Balamory.
Most surprising of all is how balanced and reasoned his views patently are, to the extent that when this man who has Manchester United embedded in his DNA, and has openly admitted in the past to hating both City and Liverpool, offers a negative opinion on either club you know that his lifelong bias is not clouding his judgement.
He believes in what he says and what he says is often thought-provoking and illuminating. Relying on substance-free condemnation – a trademark of Hansen and something Gray too was guilty of – is not in his armoury as he patiently and calmly lays out exactly why Dalglish has failed to get the best out of Anfield’s midfield or why City temporarily struggled to win away from the Etihad. With Neville it’s all in the details and it is delivered as part tutorial, part courtroom summation.
Yet at the start of the season, as he was unveiled as Sky’s new man, there was a significant amount of United-hating fans who were genuinely aghast at the appointment and threatened to cancel their subscription. They suspected a ‘rag-fest’ on the channel. They feared a glint in his eye following a defeat by City or Liverpool or hour-long eulogies to Ferguson’s genius. I too fell into this bracket and if he had uttered so much as ‘Becks’ in his nervy debut I would probably have never tuned in again.
But there was far more to it than that. Neville, as a player, wholly represented all that was reprehensible about Manchester United throughout their dominating rejuvenation from the early nineties onwards with every negative trait that Ferguson purposely instilled into the club coursing through his veins.
There was arrogance in abundance, an inherent sense of entitlement, and a rather annoying habit of overly celebrating big game victories in front of away fans, all packaged together in a face so punchable your hand would instinctively curl into a fist on sight. His features were so rodent-like you half suspected he watched Roland Rat as a small child and plaintively cried out ‘Daddy?’ to the screen. He was also hopelessly incapable of growing a moustache.
Ferguson possessed the same arrogance in spades but he was the man at the helm responsible for turning United around. Cantona shared the confrontational manner but that was all wrapped up in his ego and genius.
Neville meanwhile was a functioning right-back with a mildly impressive propensity to over-lap.
He was a mutant lab rat from an evil experiment – a mouthy gimp boy – and it is fair to state that for several years I, like most, detested the personification of t*** more than Hitler and Thatcher combined.
And now we were expected to tune in and spend lots of quality time together all cosy-like?
Gary Alexander Neville deserves due credit and praise for his remarkable televisual reinvention but we too are worthy of significant kudos. Us, the fans, who by our very nature are trenchant in opinion and viewpoint – who are partisan to the very core – were willing to give our arch nemesis a fair chance and when he came through we had the magnanimity to acknowledge it.
Right from the very start, following Neville’s shuffling, awkward first time out covering, ironically, City’s opener to Swansea, the tone of the compliments betrayed the genuine reluctance and turmoil within. The forums were filled with comments such as ‘Don’t shoot me but….’ ‘Is it just me or was rat-boy actually quite good just then? Right, I’m off to bathe in bleach’ ‘He may be a c*** but…’
As time went on, and weeks turned into months, this soon turned into an open and defiant appreciation. ‘I don’t care. Neville is the best pundit on the box by a country mile’. ‘It’s so refreshing to hear common sense being spoken’.
Bizarrely the man who best illustrated a supporter’s capacity for hatred was now responsible for revealing our Christian side.
But before we get the kaftans out and enjoy a love-in there is a deeper truth to his success that is truly depressing.
Yes Neville is extremely good at providing detailed analysis of formations, tactics and passages of play. But in Spain or Italy – or indeed in America with their helmet-and-shoulderpads version of the beautiful game – such studious fare is considered the norm. In Britain we have previously been starved of it as networks repeatedly pander to the lowest common denominator – the casual fan – and fear alienating them with anything more complicated than a Rooney goal montage set to fast-paced Indie music.
ITV’s coverage is just damn right insulting; its key demographic seemingly a prepubescent Match magazine reader whose knowledge of the game is entirely accrued from statistics on stickers. Their pre-game analysis consists largely of showing several clips of the highest profile player on display then astutely claiming he will be a danger to the opposition. They should look out for him. He’s really good.
At half-time they will assess that same player’s performance and offer no insight as to why he has thus far been so subdued. Indeed the pundits, along with ‘celebrity fan’ Adrian Chiles, will repeatedly air puzzlement at this. They will then look ahead to the second period and hope that this high-profile player does something ‘magical’.
Why has he been subdued? What are the opposition doing to stymie him? Who the hell cares as long as his name is mentioned several times.
On the BBC Hansen and co endlessly regurgitate their single con-trick of rewatching a goal, pinpointing who was to blame for it, then lambasting that player mercilessly. This generally involves a full-back not tucking in or the centre-backs being dragged too far apart. It is tactics-by-numbers and for this they get paid a fortune of our money.
Even Andy Gray’s long tenure at Sky can be viewed with hindsight as being painfully basic in scope. ‘Modric will be looking to play in this space here’. Cue the computerised face of the artful Croatian being moved into the vast gap between the opposition midfield and defence prior to every televised Spurs game.
The reason that Gary Neville has been so warmly received – despite his previous incarnation as the devil incarnate – is that, for the first time in a generation, we the viewers are being accredited with a large degree of intelligence. He assumes that we’ll understand. He talks to us aficionado to aficionado. And for that, in addition to the new-found respect he has rightfully gained, the rat-faced c*** is also deserving of our gratitude too.