by Siobhan Carney

‘Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.’

At least it is according to French Naval legend, Napoleon Bonaparte.

But whilst no one would argue that Napoleon clearly knew a fair bit about Brie and sailing, it’s also pretty obvious that he’d never had to listen to the ramblings of a professional footballer turned sports pundit.

In the same way that ailing dogs are reportedly shipped off to some mysterious, but ultimately wonderful ‘farm’ to live out the rest of their lives, retired footballers are herded off to various television studios, handed an array of garish shirts and added to that network’s ever revolving ‘commentary team’ – a wonderfully self-important, but ultimately vague term. Unfortunately, that’s where the comparison ends, because whilst Fido or Rover’s visit to the farm at least ensures an end to their misery, the average footballer-turned-pundit isn’t so lucky. Fresh from the glory of their playing days, these guys are instead pushed in front of a camera and contractually obliged to spend an eternity of weekends dying on their arse.

Nap, of course, couldn’t have known any of this. After all, he died roughly a century before the first televised football game. But whilst he obviously feared the prospect of obscurity (he and X-Factor contestants have that in common), had he ever been unlucky enough to watch ITV1’s Champions League coverage, he might have been tempted to add a brief codicil to his words.

“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever: (Unless of course, you’re banished to the ‘Lost-style’ purgatory of the ITV commentary box where you’ll forever be forced to mouth clichés and banter awkwardly with Adrian Chiles, Roy Keane and Gareth Southgate.)”

Its obscurity Jim, but not as we know it!

There’s nothing particularly new or outrageous in the idea of an ex-professional sportsman or woman transitioning from full-time athlete to commentator or sports presenter. Indeed, many former pros go on to make excellent pundits – often drawing on their knowledge and experience to help provide viewers with a greater understanding of the sport, or the tactics and motivations of its participants. Anyone who has ever listened to the superb and often witty golf commentary of former pro, Peter Alliss, or the timeless but somehow endearing voice of snooker legend Dennis Taylor will know that, when it’s done right, commentary can actually add to the drama and spectacle of professional sport.

But whilst Alliss and Taylor are bright exceptions within their respective fields, football – in contrast – can boast very few standout performers. In a profession dominated by banality, clichés and stat regurgitation (Yes, Motty, I’m talking to you), 5Live’s Alan Green and Sky’s Martin Tyler are perhaps the best of the football commentary bunch – though neither man ever played the game professionally. Of those who did, only three have proved to be consistently good or entertaining: Andy Gray, Gary Neville and – despite possessing a voice that would put an insomniac in a coma – Mick McCarthy. The rest are merely adequate. Most are content to simply play it safe, adopting a no frills, paint-by-numbers approach to play calling. But then, what’s the harm in that? Surely in the technologically savvy world of modern day football coverage, where HD is the visual standard and every game is televised, fans are less discerning about the standard of audio commentary?

Well, Perhaps.

But whilst football aficionados are undoubtedly more interested in what they can see happening on the pitch, most still prefer their visual action to be accompanied by decent commentary. At the very least they require the commentator to get the fundamentals right – like, for example, correctly pronouncing the names of the players involved. A simple enough requirement you might think. Not so if you’re ex-Nottingham Forrest winger and current ESPN behemoth, David Pleat. Pleat hasn’t so much butchered the English language as he has thrown it in a high intensity wood-chipper and stamped on its mangled and still twitching remains. Having dedicated the majority of his commentary career to mauling the name of ‘Johnny Foreigner’, some of Dave’s more humorous mispronunciations (or ‘Pleatisms’) include: waxing lyrical on the poor decision making of ex-Liverpool winger, ‘Ryan ‘Barrrbel’; marvelling at the trickery shown by Israeli international, ‘Yossi ‘Ben-yaaa-noon’ and bizarrely insisting that some girl named ‘Petra’ is Chelsea’s current number one goalkeeper. (That’ll explain their recent defensive record then).

Still, with only a 90 minute window available for potential gaffs, ex-pros like Pleat manage to emerge from most games relatively unscathed. Football pundits, on the other hand, have an eternity of time to fill, and a seemingly endless parade of nonsense to fill it with.

Pre-game build-up, half time analysis, post-game highlights; pundits are required to share their ‘expertise’ whilst adopting one of the following three mandatory positions:

  • Predicting what might happen during the game = awkwardly standing at the side of the pitch holding a microphone.
  • Sharing what is currently happening in the game = sitting on an uncomfortably high stool, one which unfortunately makes your crotch the focal point of any mid-game analysis.
  • Reminding us what did happen during the game = slouching nonchalantly on a studio sofa. (Arm over back of sofa optional).

Still, despite the familiarity of this routine, and as far as ex-pros go, the general rule of punditry remains the same: When it’s good it’s very, very good, when it’s bad it’s probably because Garth Crooks is talking.

Crooks, along with the ever declining Mark Lawrenson, is just one of a number of terrible pundits currently plying their trade on mainstream television. Others include: Andy ‘I’ll tell you what, Clive’ Townsend, Martin Keown, Gareth Southgate and Ray ‘stay on your feet’ Wilkins.

“I’ll tell you what Clive you haven’t mentioned that night in Barcelona yet”

Wilkins’ inclusion in the list may seem a tad harsh, but it has less to do with the quality of his tactical analysis and more to do with his McLarenesque attitude towards punditry. Like McLaren, who back in his England managerial days made the nation collectively cringe by casually referring to Lampard and Gerrard as ‘Lamps’ and ‘Stevie G’, Wilkins insists on an equally informal approach when discussing players. Most commonly found in the studio during Chelsea games, Ray often spends half-time peppering his analysis with continual references to his good pals ‘John’, ‘Frank’ and ‘Nando’.

It’s all a bit nauseating.

The main thing pundits like Wilkins and Co. have in common is that they help disprove the theory that skill on the football pitch equates to skill in the studio. Or to put it another way, a fantastic sporting pedigree does not a good pundit make. (And if Mark Bright is anything to go by, a mediocre sporting pedigree doesn’t help much either.) Bright, who for some inexplicable reason is actually paid by the BBC, once described the final stages of international match between Spain and Croatia as “last minute dot com”. Having successfully demonstrated his impressive fluency in Partridge-ese, Bright also ensured that, for audiences everywhere, listening to him talk football will always prove to be a bit of an ‘audial’. (See what I did there?)

Commentary skill aside, Bright – who spent the majority of his professional career in the Championship – probably doesn’t fit the criteria of the good player/bad pundit model. There are however several ex-players who do. Take Roy Keane for example. Having once dominated the centre of United’s midfield, Keane now spends his days looking like he’s being held hostage in the ITV1 commentary box and might, at any given moment, break free and maul one of his co-pundits. Having inexplicably decided that he now hates his old club, his position as footballing guru feels increasingly like a one man revenge mission. Not content with merely burning his bridges with United, Roy is like ITV’s answer to Wile. E. Coyote – opting instead to wire his Fergie built bridges with Acme brand TNT, before hacking at the smouldering embers with an axe.

But if Keane is controversial for the sake of it, the same cannot be said of Jamie Redknapp. Excluding the time he outrageously accused Patrice Evra of murdering Glenn Johnson live on national television (“He’s literally left him for dead there”), Jamie is generally an inoffensive enough sort. The former Liverpool and Tottenham man is certainly likable, plus he wears nice suits and manages to look good on camera. The problem with Redknapp is you could ‘literally’ replace him with an Armani suit stuffed with ripped-up Thomas Cook holiday brochures, old Eternal albums and discarded Wii consoles, and it’s unlikely you’d notice a huge difference in the depth of analysis being offered. Still, to give Jamie his due, he generally avoids stating the obvious – unlike Alan Shearer, the final addition to the good player/bad pundit list. Currently proving his tactical chops alongside legends Lineker and Hansen on Match of the Day, Shearer apparently favours the Roy ‘say what you see’ Walker approach to footballing punditry.

“Suarez is very similar to Van Persie in the sense that they both score goals. Look at Suarez there, see him in shot? See how he runs at the defenders and scores a goal? Now look at Van Persie. See him kicking the ball and running? See how he runs at defenders and scores goals? They’re quite similar in their styles Gary?”

The above quote is probably fictional – though, given Alan’s propensity to describe exactly what you (the viewer) can already see for yourself, it’s entirely possible that he’s actually said this.

What the above examples clearly demonstrate is that football fans, content to accept less than the best when it comes to in-game commentary, invariably demand more from their pundits. Unfortunately for them, most pundits subscribe to the bland and inoffensive school of tactical analysis. But whilst sitting on the proverbial fence is regarded by fans as the ultimate sin (Southgate, Shearer, Townsend, Redknapp), so too is being controversial just for the sake of it (Lawro, Keane, Burley, Nevin).

Sadly, those of us looking to hear footballing insight so profound that our minds are plunged into an abyss, void of space and time, only to re-emerge days later feeling tactically enlightened are, in all likelihood, going to end up disappointed. But it’s not all bad news. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are still some very good footballing pundits out there.

Lee Dixon is decent, Alan Hansen is brilliant and Clarence Seedorf oozes an air of untouchable coolness whenever he takes to the punditry studio. Even so, when it comes to choosing the current standout performer, there is only one name on the list. Step forward Gary Neville. Whilst never in danger of winning awards for popularity as a player, Neville has surprised…well…everyone, by his near seamless transition from moustachioed, Beckham-loving, wind-up merchant, to golden boy of punditry – and with very good reason. Armed with an iPad, an admirable ability to say it like it is and a surprisingly unbiased attitude, Neville is currently showing the rest of the punditry world exactly how it’s done. Combining astute analysis and honest opinion, the ex-United man stands head and shoulders above his punditry colleagues.

Unfortunately, Neville is the exception rather than the rule.

The fact is, until television executives stop assuming that every footballer is capable of making the transition from pitch to studio, we, as fans, will continue to be subjected to half assed punditry from the likes of Jason Roberts and Gareth Southgate.

Maybe Napoleon only had it half right when he spoke about obscurity.

Still, if the alternative is a career in football punditry, where – like Robbie Savage – you’ll be confined to a television studio and encouraged to screech incomprehensible rubbish like a diseased howler-monkey then, surely, obscurity would be a bit of a blessing?