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John Nicholson and Alan Tyers look at some of football's pundits and commentators and try to pin down what makes them good, what makes them bad, and what makes them ugly. This week, it's literally Paul Merson, literally, it's Paul Merson, Jeff, I mean, literally.
Perhaps having spent so many of his Arsenal years being forced to wear those psychedelic, eyeball-frying away shirts, these days Merse is attired very conservatively and mostly looks like a man dressed for a wedding in a suburb of Watford. And a man dressed by his mother, at that. Often sports the vaguely stunned expression of a man who has been recently struck by a moving vehicle.
The creative interpretation and reimagining of the English language with particular focus on the mispronunciation of non-Anglo-Saxon names.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Merse is a bit of a card. The King Of Repetition, possibly. He clearly loves football and loves going on about it. Genuine enthusiasm is infectious and, if you think about it, when it's Merse's turn to talk on Soccer Saturday, you do look up at the screen, simply because of that quality.
On the other hand, Merse unfortunately has to convey his thoughts and feelings through his use of a language that is only distantly related to English. And that's before he even tries to talk about people from foreign lands. Merse can mispronounce foreign names and words for England. He also struggles to remember some names, deploying 'whatshisname' to cover this. More churlish viewers might think this is poor work, and on one level it obviously is, but then in this regard he is something of an Everydad, pointing at the telly, knowing who he means but not quite able to spit it out. In a football landscape of stats and precision and beep tests and the scientific analysis of the run-rate of withdrawn inverted full-backs, we rather enjoy his clearly shaky grasp of who the hell these blurry shapes running around on his TV monitor might be. Because Foreigner Name Usage and Recognition Difficulty Syndrome is such a profound condition for Merse, it is actually rather endearing, and one looks forward to seeing how he'll pronounce the name of a new Greek striker.
This all being said, the degree to which he repeats himself in delivering any point of view really needs curtailing. Admittedly Soccer Saturday would be an hour shorter without Merse making a statement, making the statement again, then turning the sentence around and the statement, making it again. Sometimes it is as though the Merse Mind is a battered old record that repeatedly gets stuck and needs nudging to dislodge it and move it on.
Tactical genius or tactics truck?
Merse is often allowed out of the Soccer Saturday studio to work on live games but really, he offers little in this environment. The speed of thought and ability to communicate needed in this setting isn't his strong suit and the need to repeat any thought three times in often tight time slots isn't ideal. Interestingly, never let loose as a co-comm, presumably for the same reasons. Possibly the Football Commentators Union have it built into their collective bargaining agreement that working with Merse as a sideman would constitute exceptional and unacceptable demands.
Leg squeezer geezer?
Premier League. Like many ex-pros he seems at his happiest when surrounded by fellow ex-pros taking the mick about him being stupid, liking a gamble or a drink, or being fat. Such japery will be accompanied with a rub of the thigh, a squeeze of the leg and a rocking back and forth with huge mirth while the rest of us adult males look on astonished.
We have often thought Merse is the silly boy at school who the rougher boys goad into doing daft things in order to get their approval. He is the one who licks the dog poo on the end of the stick or dives into the flood quarry to get the ball back. Thus we feel he is more the victim of the Bantersaurus culture than a perpetrator of it.
For me Jeff, he loves a cliché, literally loves a cliché Jeff. No, seriously, seriously, loves a cliché Jeff. Prone to under-critiquing British players and being over-mistrustful of unpronounceable foreign sorts, which is in itself, a sort of cliché. Little of what Merse says has not been said before, though perhaps not quite in the same order of words.
Why does he get gigs?
We know many people wonder this and for obvious reasons which we don't need to document in further detail. However, an oft-missed point about Merse is that he offers an occasional clownish outlet for a sport that is often taken far too seriously. Any group of people needs someone who good-naturedly takes some ribbing and Merse fulfils that role in his on-screen peer group.
We hope this doesn't sound snobbish or nasty, but it's a fact that quite a few of the people watching Merse are going to be as inarticulate, or even more so, as he is and as such see nothing exceptional or wrong with the former Arsenal boozehound's uphill struggle against coherence and syntax. The audience for football analysis is a broad one, and while it would be a bit harsh to see Merse as being a specialist employed to appeal to the remedial class, we think he offers much conscious and subconscious entertainment and is thus rightly highly valued. Highly valued.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
See extracts from Alan's new book 'Tutenkhamen's Tracksuit: The History of Sport in 100ish Objects' here.
Check out John's new series of crime novels about life, death, sex and UEFA Cup football, here.