The Premier League's Judge and Jury - Television Pundits
Though it is the duty of every football follower to remember that the game did exist prior to 1992, there is no question that the Premier League era, and all it entails, has fundamentally altered the way in which the public interacts with the sport. One example of this, highlighted in recent arguments and controversies, is the increasingly elevated role of TV pundits. Once a decorative presence on our screens, pundits have become an intrinsic part of the match day experience for many fans and the subject of footballing chat in playgrounds and public houses alike. It is not uncommon nowadays to discuss the performance of pundits with the same relish that we dissect the performances of players and managers.
Some of this phenomenon was beautifully captured in this Adam Hurrey (better known on Twitter as ‘Football Clichés’) post for ESPN. Typically sardonic, the piece picked up on how John Terry’s public retort to Robbie Savage’s criticism of Chelsea revealed how once ‘innocuous’ pundits now found themselves at the heart of the action. In fact, Mourinho’s mention of Graeme Le Saux in his Champions League press conference this week was a veiled response to comments made by Le Saux about the Eva Carneiro scandal through a callback to Le Saux’s playing days at the club. It is a topic that is worth exploring further.
Like Hurrey, it seemed to me as if this was a very modern development. Upon further consideration, disputes between those within the game and pundits goes further back in footballing history. YouTube is something of a treasure trove for finding such examples; one famous instance is the dressing down handed to John Motson by Brian Clough. Motson, who was supposed to be interrogating Clough, found himself on the receiving end of the Nottingham Forest manger’s notoriously forked tongue. Clough took his chance to criticise Match of the Day punditry and accused pundits of ‘lecturing’ the public as well as being ‘dogmatic, overbearing and boring’.
Though Alan Hansen is often considered the pioneer of modern punditry, the advent of the Premier League and the coverage offered by Sky Sports integrated punditry into the match day experience still further. Ron Atkinson’s temper gifted us an absolute gem of manager-pundit confrontation when he snapped during a live interview with Richard Keys in 1996. With Coventry City in the relegation zone with only six games remaining of the season, Keys had the temerity to suggest that they may be ‘running out of time’. Atkinson, by way of reply, told the Coventry supporting Keys: ‘You can sit there and play with all your silly machines as much as you like.’ Ironically, Atkinson would later go on to play with his share of silly machines as a commentator for ITV.
That particular episode is revealing about how technological innovation (the ‘silly machines’) impacted the way in which games were analysed on television. Multiple camera angles, virtual replays and interactive tactic boards put television pundits in an omniscient position where, to use Clough’s phrase, they could play ‘judge and jury’. The idea of a ‘trial by television’ still irks managers to this day. Last season, Jose Mourinho promulgated the idea that Sky pundits were subjecting the behaviour of his players (Diego Costa), to undue scrutiny.
While this may sound like a typical case of Mourinho constructing a conspiracy to suit his own ends, he actually had a sound point. Incidents, particular disciplinary incidents, which take place during live televised matches are afforded far more attention than comparable cases in non-televised matches. Slaven Bilic voiced this concern last week, after James McCarthy received no retrospective punishment for his tackle on Dimitri Payet, who suffered a substantial injury as a result. Bilic claimed that had the tackle been seen during Arsenal vs Spurs, live on Sky that weekend, a furore would have resulted. We shall never know of course, but experience and intuition tell you that he has a case.
There are other examples of managers and pundits coming into conflict with one and other during the past year. Mourinho has had fights with almost everyone in the game, so his disputes are not especially noteworthy. However, Louis Van Gaal was keen to remind Paul Scholes that of his responsibilities as a Manchester United legend following Scholes’ criticisms of the Dutchman’s style of play. Arsene Wenger was quite blunt in his response to Paul Merson’s claim that Arsenal were tactically ‘clueless’ during a 3-3 draw with Anderlecht in Champions League last season, and his accusation that Wenger had lied to Arsenal fans regarding Danny Welbeck’s injury.
I can identify two factors at play here that fuel these ‘controversies’. Firstly, when criticism of the club comes from an ex player turned pundit it seems to sting even more, with managers accusing pundits of fratricide during difficult times. Secondly, there appears to be an undercurrent of resentment that those who have never had any success in football management are dishing out critiques. Both impulses are nonsense of course. Ex-players have no obligation to tow the ‘party line’ and a lack of managerial experience does not forbid any one person from having an opinion.
For supporters, the views and on screen performances of pundits has become a legitimate topic of footballing conversation. Most football watchers have an opinion on any given television pundit, one way or the other. The fact that almost all pundits are former players aids this, as viewers bring old rivalries and tribalism with them; Spurs fans keen to criticise Thierry Henry, Manchester United fans keen to have a dig at Jamie Carragher, and everyone keen to have a pop at Michael Owen.
For a long time television was once a mere conduit, a medium through which football fans could watch the game they love. In many respects however, television has become part of the game; it funds the league, pays players wages and though match attendances remain high it is still the method through which most fans around the world view the game. The recent ‘Twenty is Plenty’ campaign to cap away game ticket prices is both admirable and necessary, but I would not be surprised if the conversation soon turned away from ticket prices towards the cost of television subscriptions. This will start to encroach upon ticket prices within a supporter’s list of priorities.
All the while such trends continue, the way in which football is presented and discussed on our screens will be the source of ever increasing scrutiny and conjecture.
Featured image: all rights reserved by the University of Salford.