Domestic football is back and at tea-time tonight Sportscene anchor Jonathan Sutherland will ring the bell and dive behind his chair as Michael Stewart and Steven Thompson lunge at each other in another brutal and bloody bout of post-match analysis. This is punditry as cage-fighting and there can be only one winner.
Alternatively, the pair of them will talk us through the highlights in their usual personable manner. A goose will be able to waddle across the studio floor unfettered and no one will say “Boo” to it. There might be some minor disagreement over a booking or an offside call but that will be all. Mikey and Thommo come across as mates who’ll carry on the banterish chat after the show in the Green Room. I do not believe they’re on the phone beforehand to check what each other is wearing to avoid a clash. You may think it more likely they discuss how best they could co-ordinate their attire to achieve the most tasteful colourway on the programme but I never said that.
This is very much the BBC style regarding punditry. The corporation, here and in England, don’t seek a stairheid rammy between their experts and they don’t go out and hire shock-jocks, loose cannons or controversialists. If that’s your scene you’re far more like to find it on the commercial channels. Brian Clough was on ITV, remember, and Roy Keane’s there now.
But there I go making cheeky comments about our guys – Chappers won’t like that. You know Mark Chapman. He’ll be on the Beeb later tonight fronting Match of the Day 2. There was an interview with him the other day where he defended the pundits used by the Beeb in their coverage of the English Premier League. He said a lot of the criticism they get is unfair.
Well, it’s certainly that when, as he explained, Alan Shearer has been known to pick up his phone after he’s finished his summing-up of a game, remarking off-camera: “I’ll just see how much abuse my wife and daughter are getting.” That’s ridiculous. Mind you, this can only have happened recently, Shearer on TV having started out as dull as communal bathwater. When Alan Hansen was still Match of the Day’s preeminent pundit, Shearer was being groomed as his successor. Dazzled by his Lionheart aura, the producers thought it would be a great idea during the South African World Cup to send him into a township to find out whether the tournament meant anything to those without electricity or their own water. Unsurprisingly, his report did not win Foreign Correspondent of the Year. But, sticking to the games, he’s got better. Less bland, more forthright. And Shearer, pictured, has obviously been upsetting some fans.
Chapman believes there’s too much analysis of the analysts and here my sympathy runs out. “The talk around our World Cup coverage was incessant,” he said. Chapman didn’t seem all that impressed by the pundits being rated against each other, BBC and ITV. It’s reached the stage, he said, where those who talk about football get more criticism than those who play it.
He’s been a bit touchy here – and a bit over-protective of the ex-players with whom he’s now good pals. When you work for the BBC your performance will, and should, be discussed. We fund it, after all. We pay for the studio sets, the groovy chairs where the retired pros spread those muscular thighs, perhaps even the tight breeks housing said hurdies. Football, as the Bumper Book of Cliches spoiling the cut of those breeks tells us, is all about opinions so surely it’s permissible to have opinions about the opinions, just so long as they don’t stray into the abusive.
Pundits, let’s not forget, have opted for a cushy, cushioned existence. Most of them weren’t brave enough to go into management, which when St Mirren can sack you after just four league games, gets more precarious by the second. They haven’t been bosses and yet they’re qualified to pass judgment on the poor saps in the dugouts. Now, these retired legends are always pulling rank on us, the supporters, for not having played the game so how can we possibly know what we’re talking about? The harassed managers clinging on to their jobs should do the same to them.
“The talk around our World Cup coverage was incessant.” Well, the BBC should be glad. Better that, surely, than it being a bat squeak. I think Chappers doth protest too much here. Surely he was secretly thrilled that the production from Russia was, as he says, part of the national conversation. The BBC love to be reading the news and making it, sometimes in chartered helicopters buzzing the mansions of the famous. Their top presenters love to play themselves in prestigious dramas like Bodyguard. Everyone who works in TV has an ego. Regarding the competition, well, the BBC trounced ITV as usual in the ratings, didn’t they? But didn’t ITV get the best reviews? Their despatches were a bit more nutty, a bit more edgy, a bit more fun. The Beeb, though I invariably opt for what we used to call button No 1, were a touch complacent this time round. All of that should be up for debate. I just don’t believe Chapman when he complains that pundits are now subjected to more scrutiny than players. This is validation for punditry, the monster the BBC and the other stations have helped create. Maybe not so much a monster as a mountain, like the butter mountains of the EU. The problem with mountains, of course, is that if you’re not careful you can tumble down them. In another interview last week Gary Neville – who at least tried management and failed – said of punditry: “You have to keep reinventing. You have to stay relevant because after a while you won’t be known by younger fans.”
That sounded like a complaint earlier about the lack of blood on the merino wool pullovers of the Sportscene guys – it wasn’t meant to be. I don’t really mind them and they cannot be something they’re not.
Plus, there’s always Chris Sutton over on BT Sport if I’m suddenly in need of some coiled-spring contrariness and conspiracy-theory combustibility.