Football punditry and ‘crossing the white line’

Playing the game does not automatically make you a good football pundit – but it can make you a good analyst on certain subjects within the game. 

Football punditry can be a tiresome industry, both for the audience and the pundits themselves. The same old clichéd comments on the game are met by the same old clichéd criticisms; the throw-away, ‘easy’ analysis is mirrored only by the scrutiny of the analyst.

One of the main bugbears fans have with pundits is the lack knowledge. Some fans want great knowledge on the context of the two sides in front them, their tactics, information on each player – they want genuinely informed opinions.
This isn’t too much to ask. These people are paid to talk about football so why shouldn’t they, at the very least, be informed?
Of course, not every fan sits down to watch or listen to the football and wants a vast amount of knowledge thrust into their laps. In fact, a fair proportion of football fans couldn’t give a hoot about pre-, mid- or indeed post-game chat – they want the football and little else. Unless a pundit says something they don’t agree with, of course.
Whenever the standard of British football punditry is discussed, however, the lack of knowledge is always the key criticism. Match of the Day and ITV’s football coverage are the main victims here. Twitter on a Saturday night is particularly depressing as MOTD viewers complain about the banal analysis with their own banal criticisms.
BBC1’s Premier League highlights show is far from perfect, of course. Gary Lineker is sometimes too weak in his questioning of those in the chairs while Shearer, Hansen and Lawro are about as enthralling as a family viewing of your own holiday photos. And it’s probably best if we don’t even mention the comic-book brother of Saturday’s show – MOTD2.
Alan Shearer’s comments on Hatem Ben Arfa have been widely commented on and this was, really, the point where punditry began to get derided from all corners of the sport; fans, media and even players are now very open in their criticism.
The disapproval was completely understandable and probably correct – if you’re not informed on a topic, why discuss it on national television in front of millions of people? If you’re going to be paid obscene amounts of money to babble on about football, for goodness sake, at least do some research.
However, the one caveat that I would add to this criticism is that there will have been people watching MOTD that night who did not know much about Hatem Ben Arfa. They may have noticed his name in transfer rumours or may have heard him mentioned on TV now and again, but they will not have seen him play.
So the point here is: why is Shearer talking about Ben Arfa and not someone who actually does know a bit about him? Admittedly, Shearer’s line was more of a off the cuff comment – one of those Shearer-isms that seemingly fills time and achieves little else. But it is the concept from broadcasters – and it is all broadcasters, not just the BBC – that footballers will make good football pundits that continues to irk audiences.
Let’s be right: some footballers – retired or otherwise – make good pundits. Graeme Souness, Lee Dixon and Gary Neville are prime examples here. Even MOTD’s three Alans manage to make good points on the game – but praising them isn’t the ‘in’ thing to do, is it?
There are also examples of pundits who have played the game who are utterly woeful as pundits. Garth Crooks really should stop watching football because he clearly doesn’t enjoy it, while Andy Townsend rarely says anything of worth. And Dwight Yorke is just horrendous.
However, where the broadcasters are going wrong is not simply employing ex-footballers as pundits but employing them to discuss topics that they know very little about.
If you wanted in-depth tactical analysis of a side, would you want Alan Hansen in the chair or would you prefer Michael Cox, or Jonathan Wilson? The former played the game for 18 years; neither Cox nor Wilson – to my knowledge – have played the game at a professional level. ‘Crossing the white line’ is irrelevant here. Broadcasters really are missing a real trick by not employing genuine experts to come in and talk about specific topics.
On 5Live’s Monday Night Club recently, Mark Chapman was joined by Steve Claridge, Ian McGarry and John Barnes to discuss the weekend’s football. Barnes made some excellent points on the mindset of a footballer who is playing under a manager who is under pressure – put simply, if a manager is under pressure the player knows it is not going to be him that gets booed after a poor performance. It was frank and honest insight, and one that McGarry – or any other non-playing pundit – in all likelihood could not have made.
If you wanted to know about football finance, you would not go to Mark Lawrenson; you’d go to Gab Marcotti, or Kieron O’Connor, or David Conn. But if you wanted analysis of defensive play (realistic analysis, not plastic football-on-paper analysis) you would go to Lawro, or Hansen, or Neville. If you wanted to understand what goes through a manager’s head when he gets sacked, you wouldn’t go to Sid Lowe, or Paul Hayward or even Gary Neville – you’d go to Roy Hodgson, or Steve Bruce.
It is far too simplistic to say that you can’t really understand football unless you’ve played the game at a high level, but is also too simplistic to note that it is lazy or simply incorrect of broadcasters to use ex- or current footballers as pundits. They give great insight into the game where non-playing pundits can’t, and the same can be said the other way round.

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