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Yet their shortcomings as professional players never prevented them from reaching the top of the management game. That would not be the case however if they had wanted to become television pundits.
On television the role of the pundit—the football expert—is reserved for former top-flight professionals as if it were an exclusive, members-only club. And the conversation on TV is suffering because of this.
It is easy to understand why TV companies like to hire famous former players. For one, it is good for publicity. They look good on marketing material, and their celebrity draws a welcomed level of media attention.
For instance, when Paul Scholes makes an irascible comment about Manchester United on TV, it is invariable reported widely in the football media as “BT pundit Paul Scholes says…”.
And the bigger the name, the bigger the draw for the public and prestige for the network, which is why Thierry Henry’s Sky contract is reportedly worth £4 million a year.
Former professionals also have value as football’s inside men. They are privy to an increasingly secret, cordoned-off world. They can related to the feelings of a young players when he signs for a new club, or the disappointment he then experiences if he is dropped from the first team. They know, too, of the atmosphere in a dressing room before an important game, and the ways in which a squad’s harmony can sour. Their experience and insight is priceless to any complete conversation about football.
And, of course, having played the game at the highest level, against the finest opposition, they know of the technical side of it, too. But—for the same reason as it is safe to assume Lionel Messi will not one day become a great manager—a career as a professional footballer does not qualify one as a football expert.
And even if it were to, understanding something and being able to explain it lucidly are two completely different things.
When analysing football, a lot of former pros are comfortable criticising an individual player’s performance: “this defender was out of position,” or “that striker took too many touches”.
This is because they view the game the same way as when they were playing; that is, they view the game as a player, which explains why Alan Hansen enjoyed criticising defenders so much, and why these days Michael Owen keeps talking about the best way to strike a volley.
But many find it harder explaining football in a collective sense; how a team worked together to break down an obstinate defence, for example.
As a consequence, TV punditry often becomes a slide show of defensive errors or, conversely, the story of one player’s heroic, match-winning performance—which isn’t to say that is wrong; only that there are different ways to look at it.
And there are so many worthy people working in the wider world of football media who could add an alternative perspective.
There are writers producing books on the history of the goalkeeper; analysts running websites tracking every action in every game; endless hours of podcasts of people talking about football in all its glorious detail; scouts and coaches and trainers working tireless behind the scenes at football clubs; and thousands of journalists and bloggers interpreting every game played in a thousand different ways.
If the TV companies incorporated some of these football experts from different fields, the pre and post-match debate would be invigorated with different perspectives.
A mixed panel would have a greater variety of ways to approach a topic of discussion, and more varied experiences and insights with which to answer questions.
There would be less sombre head-nodding of tactic agreement between former players, and more questions raised between peers from different backgrounds. The debate would be so much healthier for it.
By blocking diverse voices, the TV companies are stifling the debate. If they think they are doing this in the best interest of the viewers, then they are serious underestimating the average football fan. Football inspires great passion; the average fan is not a passive observer.
Quite the contrary, he craves a deeper understanding of the game. It is for a very good reason that games like Football Manager and fantasy football are popular, and that a demand exists for hours upon hours of people simply talking about football on podcasts every week.
Gary Neville’s popularity as a pundit is a clear indication of this. Neville admits himself fans hated him when he played. The plaudits and admiration he has subsequently received for his punditry had nothing to do with his playing career, his celebrity, or the trophies he won.
He was popular as a pundit because he showed fans something about football they would not have noticed themselves—he taught them a little about the game.
So if the TV companies really want to engage with football fans, they will start to look further afield for pundits rather than safely selecting from a small group of former professional players.
Finding the right people may not be easy, but if they allow in football experts from a different background, say writers or scouts or even analysts, they will both expand the conversation and invigorate it with fresh viewpoints.
The debate will be more rewarding for the pundits and most, importantly of all, for us too—the viewers.