...what happened to the fourth Champions League place the last time an English team won the thing. Plus, who would want to pay £60 to watch the current England team?
A Sunderland fan in the mailbox is surprised by Jack Colback's call up to the England squad. Plus, thoughts on Welbeck and Liverpool's Champions League draw...
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers look at pundits and commentators and pin down what makes them good, what makes them bad, and what makes them ugly. This week, it's Steve 'Claridge' Claridge...
StyleFor a while he wore a skinhead cut straight off the covers of the 1970s Skinhead books. Recently he has grown it out a bit. Favours the plain, crisp shirt, though often looks like the games teacher who is reluctant to cast aside sportswear in favour of something with more sartorial authority.
Has a lean, somewhat angular, bird-like quality. Somehow, wouldn't look out of place in any era from 1900 onwards.
Despite being a Portsmouth lad, he does sound a bit East End to our untrained ears, and none the worse for that as it lends the air of the Dickensian fingersmith to him.
Looks like he could more than handle himself if things came down to it.
Special InterestThe fortunes of hometown club Portsmouth. With a lifetime of gambling behind him, the odds are still clearly of interest. Teams being "set up right". Answering the question, "did you play for them?" in the affirmative.
Strengths and WeaknessesMost of Steve's work is done in two forums; 5live's Monday Night Club and BBC's Football League Show. He will also co-comm on the radio. This alone shows there's a bit of breadth to his work. His early work on 5live was all a little too garbled, squeaky and incoherent, with his passion for topics often causing him to lose the ability to cohere proper sentences. This was, in itself, rather good fun. He'd go proper ballistic about something, collapsing into splutters and scattered, random exhortations of frustration. A tendency for his voice to reach the soprano levels of a pubescent teenage boy only added to the enjoyment.
This was much less the case on TV where he has always been more measured and in recent months, we feel, far more relaxed. We sense he possesses a lot of nervous energy and is easily distracted.
All of these things can be seen as strengths because it meant he's far from a bland pundit but equally at times the spluttering can become tedious and no replacement for articulate discussion. Also had a tendency to get stuck on a riff. For months, indeed, years, it seemed as if most of his insight consisted of suggesting a team was or wasn't "set up right". If it was, they won. If it wasn't, they lost. Easy game this punditing lark, huh?
Trouble was, some of this was done with the benefit of hindsight where vision is notoriously 20/20. He was often especially harsh on Fabio Capello's tenure with England, often ignoring the fact that players were rubbish in favour of the manager being rubbish, which never struck us as especially accurate. That being said, at least he was saying something with conviction and it wasn't always without merit.
On TV he has very expressive eyes and eyebrows. Don't laugh. This is an under-rated quality. Not for Claridge the dead-eyed, bored stare.
Has, in the past suffered from a tendency not to slag off players, perhaps in solidarity with the ex-player union. This is no good at all if that's what you're employed to do and in recent years, possibly as age separates him from the current players, he's felt more able to do so. Consequently, his work has improved.
Tactical genius or tactics truck?Claridge is more keen than most to look at tactics. Sometimes the quality of his expression isn't matched with his insight but we still enjoy what he brings to analysis.
Leg squeezer geezer?Oh yeah. Absolutely. Tense your thigh and get ready for some roistering and indeed some doistering. A consummate journeyman footballer who has carved out a good post-playing career in the media must give good LSG. While clearly not the sort of alpha male to lead the joshing, we imagine Steve to be a joiner-in in the manly rubbing of thighs in celebration of all boys together.
Steve has always projected the air that the opinion of those who didn't play football for a living should be valued somewhere between sod-all and bugger-all. We remember with some fondness one radio outburst when he was asked to comment on the contribution of some fan or other: Steve made it witheringly clear that he cares not for the thoughts of the non-footballer, and while that's obviously not our preferred stance, it was at least an honest response. It should also be said that the general public, while having their good points, can be absolute rotters and utter gits and thus may have well deserved the Claridge cold shoulder on this occasion. There is far too much pandering to know-nothing punters.
Bantersaurus Rex?Again, a lifetime in dressing rooms with people doing hilarious things such as putting pegs in a chap's shoes (who carries pegs around with them?) or pouring water in your car - both hilariously recalled incidents from ex-pros this week - must have meant Steve could hold his own in the Bantersaurus jungle. Age mellows a man's desire to tie another man's shoelaces together or light a fart...but should the occasion require it, possibly in a curry house, we can imagine The Claridge could muster some Bantersaurusing.
Cliché counterIn the early days he did fall into easy assumptions but no, we don't think Steve is a serial abuser of the cliché. This is mostly because, appearances and squeaky outbursts aside, we think he's actually one of the media's better football thinkers and actually smarter than it might sometimes appear.
Why does he get gigs?Maybe goes under the radar a bit. Not a top-rank, high-profile player, he's had to work at the job more than some of the more stellar ex-pros who wrongly feel their playing CV should do its work for them. Has carved himself a niche as the Beeb's lower league expert - one imagines that many of the corporation's bigger names wouldn't know too much about football beyond the bright lights of the Prem, and fair play to Claridge for feeding off the scraps, as it were.
Often seems to be the butt of humour on The Monday Night Club, with Mark Chapman chief instigator of the mick-taking, which suggests he is a clubbable sort who isn't overly precious. We find him to be a sympathetic character without side or snide.
His co-comms work is full of energy, his TV gigs deliver decent analysis of lower league football and his radio work increasingly shows someone who is across the main issues of the day. We especially enjoyed his take on the whole Scudamore business, which was steeped in a bitter sense of realism. He's one of few examples of longer serving member of the punditocracy who is actually getting better rather than lazier and more self-satisfied. Learning on the job in this game is quite rare, so we expect him to be a resident pundit for many years to come.
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.