Square eyes – Examining our continuing obsession with football punditry

Each international tournament that whirls its way round is a significant challenge for broadcasting services. As we hype the football players and the storylines ahead of major competitions, we also hype the television panels, the commentators and analyse – albeit with a dust of tongue-in-cheekery – the prospective TV stations panels ahead of the show.

We power rank each set of panels, we highlight the best and worst additions for the tournament ahead, we praise great moments of punditry as if it was some gift from a greater power of football, a nugget of golden information that nobody had ever considered before, and we lambast errors and perceived lack of preparation.

But why, when the real entertainment is focused entirely on the football pitch, are we so obsessed with what a few ex-footballers have to say before and after the games?

Let’s look closer to home, with RTE. They have a tougher job than most broadcasters. Firstly, they are the only crew in Ireland providing World Cup coverage, so have the unenviable task of covering all 64 games of the World Cup, putting together highlight pieces, compilations and juggling a whole of host of cast and characters on a daily basis, whereas the likes of ITV and BBC have a share of the spoils over in the UK, allowing for some time off to relax and more time to prepare for their portion of games.

And taking into consideration the budgetary power of RTE versus their UK colleagues, you can only imagine the strain the month-long World Cup heaves on the broadcaster. Their goal is to bend and not break, and in between provide some quality, consistent coverage of the games.

Ireland has always had a great affinity to sports coverage. We love talking about sport, and we love talking about people who talk about sport. In a recent study, it was found that Ireland has one of the largest podcast listenerships in the world, buoyed by the tremendous coverage provided by Off The Ball, RTE, Second Captains and many more niche content producers.

Our journalism is second to none and is spread right across the world, with writing from Ken Early and Dion Fanning just as acclaimed and anticipated as anything offered to us by journalists in the UK and beyond.

And our match coverage, as meagre in budget compared to other nation’s offerings, holds a certain place in our hearts. Cast your minds back to Italia 1990 or USA 1994 and you’ll be just as familiar with Bill O’Herlihy and Eamon Dunphy as you are with Jack Charlton and Ray Houghton.

The guys in the studio provided the backdrop to those amazing pictures and stories; they provided the narrative that took us into work and school the next day – preaching the word of Irish football as if we were the ones slamming our Biros in disgust in the studio.

Fast-forward to today, and the allure of Eamon Dunphy and company has reached mythical levels. The gang is known across Britain as the loud, controversial neighbours that say things the BBC aren’t allowed to say. We’ve sadly lost ‘Billo’ in the meantime, and seen John Giles come and go, but the tone has stayed largely the same; passion, conviction, the odd weakness in knowledge and mispronunciation, and the liability to say literally anything at all.

The growth of modern football and online coverage means fans are more in tune than ever before. It’s not disrespectful to suggest that the most hardened football aficionados are more knowledgeable on world football than some who are paid to teach us. That makes their jobs ever harder, and why it’s important for the new generation of voices; Keith Andrews, Damien Duff, Richie Sadlier, to compliment the old crew with fresh knowledge and accurate analysis.

As such, we obsess with football coverage just as much to pounce on a mistake as to praise the fine work that has been delivered thus far by RTE’s fresh aforementioned crew. Dunphy, lambasted for not knowing Brazilian ‘keeper Alisson was a firm fixture of European football, even despite watching him against Liverpool in the Champions League just a few months ago, was a shame; but Keith Andrews’ impressive introduction to Costa Rica and Serbia’s clash on Sunday afternoon served a dish of knowledge most viewers wouldn’t have tasted before alongside their Sunday meals.

Brian Kerr has received tremendous praise so far, and deservedly so. He’s a rare beacon of knowledge from a grassroots level up to the very pinnacle of football. He can read a game, provide some acute analysis and bundle it into a raw Dublin voice that isn’t largely common in the media anymore.

Are we praising his fine work, or because he sounds a little bit different to everybody else? Are we enjoying his colloquialisms and Dublin slang or the fact he’s one of few co-commentators that actually seem to do their homework? Either way, the fact that Kerr remains ousted from a post within the FAI framework is a disgrace because he is one of few characters who can lift Irish football forward.

For Irish viewers, our coverage has been a blend of whacky entertainment and hardened football coverage. The beauty of it all that keeps us tuning in day after day is you simply don’t know which you’re going to get.

Across the pond, on the other hand, football coverage has become a source of much debate and controversy in recent years. Gary Neville arrived into the Sky studios like an angel, ready to acquaint viewers with a type of analysis that the dinosaurs of Andy Gray and Richard Keys would never have mustered.

Jamie Carragher soon joined him, providing a tandem of knowledge football hadn’t seen before in the studios, drawing lines on large pieces of technology like modern day scientists, sweating over chalkboards.

As such, the BBC and ITV have had to catch up. Viewers crave accuracy. They crave new information, nuggets of something they haven’t seen on Twitter or read in Mundial Magazine.

Gary Lineker is a perfect foil for his BBC talking heads, but with Alan Shearer and Jermaine Jenas in its ranks the coverage is never going to get too outrageous. As such, it’s perfectly fine but bland and unremarkable.

Cesc Fabregas has been a good addition, especially during Spain’s thriller against Portugal, while amongst their English contingent Alex Scott has been by far the most impressive out of Phil Neville, Danny Murphy, Matt Upson and Martin Keown.

ITV have also added some female flair to their ranks, which Eniola Aluko has provided with great aplomb. But that has been tarnished somewhat with the inclusion of professional Instagram idiot Patrice Evra, who has been rightly criticsed for his antics during this weekend’s coverage.

Alongside the comedic vibes of Ian Wright, Roy Keane and Slaven Bilic have been great as expected for ITV. Gary Neville has kind of slipped under the radar, while Ryan Giggs and Lee Dixon provide some more bland voiceovers and Mark Clattenburg becomes an inclusion we could really do without, even if VAR has been a major feature thus far.

Whereas our RTE friends provide a bit of everything, UK viewers hinge on a moment like Slaven Bilic’s after Brazil and Switzerland. Don’t expect similar moments from his highly trained, highly boring colleagues on the couches.

Our obsession is a stark contrast to the off-the-cuff nature of RTE. It lies in anticipation of something, anything happening within the finely tuned blandness that a highly revered list of legends and personas, who have somehow been bottled into a PR-friendly no fun zone, may muster. Sometimes thanks to Bilic the bottle leaks a little, but only for a little while and then it’s back to business.

The coverage will take a major turn this evening, as England kick-off their campaign against Tunisia. Which turn will remain to be seen, but regardless of the result there’ll be no slamming of pens. And in the unlikely event of an England loss, no taking to task of those in need of calling out that we have become acquainted with in Ireland.

Let’s hope the football continues to shout louder than the voices in the studios.

The Author

Kevin Coleman

Founder and co-editor of Back Page Football and current host of our 'Three At The Back' weekly podcast.

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