A Love Letter to… a sometimes controversial pundit who divides opinion and who makes our Johnny laugh. That’ll be Chris Sutton then.
Why the love?
A title-winning playing career as that most old-fashioned of things – a centre forward who also played centre half – at Blackburn and Celtic, has left him with fans in both regions as well as Norwich. Was rubbish at Chelsea, as the man himself will tell you.
In life we need variety. We need our existence to be painted with every colour in the rainbow and when it comes to football Chris is a colour like no other. He’s distinctive and never bland. He is one of the few pundits who is present not just for analysis, but also for humour and for deployment of an acerbic wit that makes him compulsive listening and viewing.
The only pundit who, when on the radio, you can somehow hear the expression on his face, even if he’s not saying anything. I don’t know how that happens but it does.
For listeners or viewers who tire of fence-sitting and pundits that have a vanilla outlook on life, Chris is popular. Whether you agree with him about anything is not the point; you will certainly know where he stands and he will express it in a completely unique way. Some can never warm to someone they disagree with, but that seems an unsophisticated way to get through life.
He can do shouty and loud. He can do cutting and argumentative. He can do cynical. He can do funny. But he can also do thoughtful, intelligent and perceptive.
Let’s deal with his voice first. It has a marvellous Norfolk burr which often removes the ‘g’ from the end of a word. Sentences often end with a rhetorical “isn’t it?” I imagine this is how farmers from Wymondham spoke in the 19th century whilst doing unspeakable things to a pig with an eel. Possibly the only pundit who knows how to pronounce Happisburgh correctly. (It’s Hzbra – with a rising inflection on the ‘a’)
Not afraid to have it out with people as this infamous clip well shows. He is absolutely relentless and I think it gives us an insight into why he was such a good player. There’s a really gritty and fearlessly determined side to his character. I bet he was a nightmare to play against and never gave you a minute’s peace.
And, OK these have the air of a set-up but even so…lots of fun, not least his Scott Brown mime at the end of the second.
He’s very popular up here in Scotland, often defending Scottish football when in England and that plays well. He was prepared to go into bat for Ian Cathro when he was appointed Hearts manager and was famously prepared to have a row about it on air. And he is well-regarded for not being obviously pro either side of the Old Firm, being prepared to dish out praise and criticism to both sides. He was a huge critic of Ronny Deila and his opprobrium of Rangers’ defence was unflinching.
His face-to-face rows with Stephen Craigan have become somewhat legendary and have added texture and colour to BT Sport’s coverage.
Can muster a very good narrowed-eyed, withering gaze at a fellow pundit or presenter, which is usually the first indication that someone’s gonna get it. We often criticise ex-players for being too cozy with current players and not wanting to offend anyone, but that can never be said of Chris and, if you think about it, that takes some bravery because I’m sure some have taken offence.
But along with all this, he is very good at being self-deprecating and is more than happy to be the butt of other people’s jokes. This speaks of a well-rounded character who isn’t taking any of it too seriously, which is surely the only sane way to conduct yourself.
Those who have worked alongside him on TV attest to the amount of research he does and how committed he is to doing a good job.
As a fella whose dad – also an ex-footballer – is suffering from dementia, Chris has spoken out passionately and with real anger against the laissez faire attitude of the PFA to research into why footballers suffer this disproportionately and whether it is related to heading the ball (something Chris was very good at).
Still only 44 and at 6’3” whilst maintaining the enviable ex-pro’s lean low body fat percentage and sporting the sort of manly granite jaw that was once the preserve of Hollywood’s leading men, he has the frame to wear very stylish, fashionable clothes to best effect. But thankfully he doesn’t. The fact he doesn’t only speaks well of him for being unconcerned with such superficial show pony fripperies. Usually to be found in plain blue, black or white which look sourced from mid-priced independent menswear stores and Marksies. He suits them.
What the people say
When you invite comments on a pundit like Chris, inevitably, you get a lot of abuse, even when only asking for the opposite. This shouldn’t need saying, but it is worth remembering that even the pundit you hate most is an actual human and feels things in the same way you and I do. They shouldn’t be punch bags for our existential anger at the world, nor suffer the wrath of football’s tribal instinct to name-call and abuse. It adds nothing to the quality of life and brings everyone down.
First up is 373 wonderful words from Rory Smith of the New York Times:
“I get why people don’t like him. I think, sometimes, he backs himself into a corner. He can be stubborn and the fact he has literally no time for nonsense can occasionally seem dismissive. He is not a crusading moderniser. But he has three amazing qualities
‘One, he is probably the warmest, friendliest pundit, along with Kilbane and OBVIOUSLY Hinchcliffe. He asks you how you are. Whatever his on air persona, that’s not his personality.
‘Two: it is a persona. Well, a shtick. He wants to challenge people’s ideas. He’s a great one for making you justify what you say, and you know you have to have your arguments lined up and ready to go not to get a withering put down. He brings the best out of people he’s with, if there is a best to get. And when you do know what you’re talking about, he will a) admit he’s wrong and b) tell you you’ve made him think. He is thoughtful, in a very literal way.
‘And three: he doesn’t take any of it too seriously. He knows it’s only football. He knows he’s only an ex-player. He’s playing a role and making you think and all that, but mostly he’s sort of finding it quite funny that we’re all spending so much time worrying about it.
‘That struck me the night him and Pat Nevin got into a big row about the PFA and dementia. I was sat in the middle. It was awful. Really, really awkward (apparently it qualified as compelling radio, but I dislike conflict). That was Chris taking something seriously, and he wasn’t playfully curmudgeonly. He was genuinely passionate, and honest, and he pointed out every hole he could find in Pat’s logic with ruthless precision. And at the end, as we walked to the car park, he was still worked up, but he was also rueful and a bit worried he’d upset everyone, and he texted us all, I think, to smooth things over.
‘Also; the first time I met him, I called him the Norfolk Warhurst on air. He laughed. Then he laughed again at the end of the show. Then he texted me the next day with a cry-laugh emoji. He’s a lovely man.’
As an aside – isn’t that just a lovely bit of writing? And a tremendous insight into the nature of the man.
If Rory’s words don’t convince you, this came in from a TV and radio producer, Simon:
“Chris is a pretty interesting guy. A definite one-off. He’ll be in for Wrighty for the next two Sunday episodes of 606 also alongside Kelly. When I was a producer at BT Sport I was a big supporter of his, as was (presenter) Darrell Currie and what he was doing for Scottish football – always just willing to go a little bit further than your average pundit in calling out anyone who needed calling out! I was always telling management there how he should be let loose on football outside Scotland (this was three years ago) so I am delighted he is now doing his stuff to a wider audience. Love him on 606 on the rare occasions Wrighty is off (606 is one of the shows I produce).”
And if that doesn’t change your mind here’s is Dan Walker’s view:
“Great to work with. A few years ago Chris realised that if he wanted to be a stand-out pundit he couldn’t sit on the fence. He now sits so far away from the fence he is a captivating watch. Happy to go against the grain. Always enjoy working with him.”
And 5 Live’s stellar commentator Conor McNamara, who has worked alongside the big man on many an occasion, got in touch with me to say this:
“He has been a breath of fresh air in the pundit world. His success behind the mic has been how authentic he is. He doesn’t pretend to be anyone else. He genuinely believes everything he says so it comes across with great conviction. Crucially he remains as engaged during a game as any co-commentator I’ve worked with. He never drifts off and comes out with some bland cliche.
‘He is also very charming off-air. There is no other colleague who can disagree with you on-air, question your views and stir the pot so much…and yet you come away afterwards thinking what a nice guy he is. It’s quite a feat.’
And if that doesn’t persuade you:
‘”If I had ninety-nine more England caps I would’ve had a hundred” is possibly the greatest thing any human being has ever said’ – Sachin Nakrani.
‘Dry sense of humour, achingly honest, not afraid to anger people. Speaks only as he sees it, with complete conviction, and loves the game. However, he’s from Norfolk, so I am biased’ – Jake Humphrey.
So despite what the critics may have thought, Chris’s qualities are well enjoyed and well appreciated. And heck, even many fans got in touch to say why:
‘I think he is fantastic.’
‘Plays the pantomime villain role to perfection. Loves nothing more than dropping a grenade and watching the fireworks.’
‘He is funny, annoying sometimes but funny. He is best when with other knowledgeable pundits, people whose opinions he values even when disagreeing with their every word. Takes us listeners outside our comfort bubble which can be disconcerting. Really doesn’t suffer fools gladly.’
‘He is blunt. But refreshing to get someone who speaks their mind and it seems he does so with belief in his views and not just to cause controversy and garner a reaction like the person he famously debated on talkSport, Adrian Durham. His Robbie Savage arguments entertain too.’
‘Sutton’s forthright and says it how it is, even if the person he’s disagreeing with is sat in the same room. It’s refreshing to have someone like that in punditry.’
‘Like how he sticks to his guns. Won’t be swayed by popular opinion. Nothing inane or bland about his responses, will happily call people out for talking bull.’
‘Genuinely love his relationship with Mark Chapman – grumpy cop, nice cop – quite happy to call people out on their opinions – such as the Spurs fan on Wednesday night who called for Pochettino to be sacked if they don’t win the FA Cup.’
‘He’s unique and interesting in the punditry world. I’ve not often heard an opinion of his I agree with too often but he’s good for a debate.’
‘His passion for the game seems genuine so you can’t knock him for that. He’s carved himself a perfect little niche up here. I’ve said many a time, he’s a pantomime villain. The controversial stuff is just playing to the gallery. He knows exactly what he’s doing and he loves it.’
‘Often wrong and annoying but he does say what he thinks, rather than just go along with received wisdom like most ‘football man’ type pundits.’
‘Transformed BT’s coverage of the SPFL when he joined their team. Whatever the SPFL may lack in quality, it’s never going to be dull with Chris involved. Brutally honest, but never lacking a sense of fun. A refreshing change from the rest.’
‘On BT Sport Score you can sense his passion in getting one over on Robbie Savage and that’s good enough for me.’
‘I like him. Straight to the point.’
‘Not sure about a lot of his opinions on English football but his shaking up of Scotland’s settled punditry cartel has been good. Nothing will beat him calling Derek Johnstone a charlatan on live radio. I’m also a Celtic fan so it’s hard to think bad things about him.’
‘Virtually never agree with him. And that’s what makes me want to watch him. Cos I’ve never played at that level and he has. Still disagree, mind.’
‘One of the best at speaking up Scottish football also not afraid to upset anyone, Celtic or Rangers fans. Love the big man.’
‘The man is very addictive listening. Says it how it is with a bit of banter too. Ledge.’
‘He speaks very slowly, which is fantastic for me as I don’t like it when people speak fast.’
‘He was great as the lower case S in SAS.’
‘Best pundit on tv by a country mile. Refreshing to finally see a man who will give his honest thoughts on a subject and doesn’t give a flying f☆♡k who it offends. More power to his microphone.’
‘Big Chris says what everyone is thinking but are too scared to say! Legendary centre forward for the mighty hoops.’
‘In a world of ‘he’ll be disappointed with that’ punditry, he’s a genuinely refreshing voice. Rightly or wrongly, he always speaks his mind without fear of who he might offend. The Monday Night Club is all the poorer without him. Should get more air time…’
‘I think he is a great pundit isn’t afraid to say what he thinks regardless of reputation and a very good laugh.’
‘Always enjoy that he wants to get a proper argument going, makes a football discussion a lot more entertaining.’
‘Massive hands. Possibly the strongest handshake I’ve ever…..shaked?’
‘The geezer is a breath of fresh air.’
‘He’s a beautiful, intelligent man.’
‘Genuinely seems to love Scottish football. Could start a fight in an empty room, but I’d prefer that than terminal blandness.’
‘When I was a kid he was my favourite footballer for Norwich city and the first name I got on the back of my NCFC shirt, ‘Sutton 22’ I was devastated when he moved to Blackburn to form SAS with Shearer!’
‘He’s like an onion. Layers of fascinating character traits. You’d think given his hilarious cantankerousness he’d be a knee-jerker, for example, but he really isn’t – and he’s not afraid to call out any colleagues or callers who are!’
‘I have a massive amount of time for the little smirk he does when he’s on a wind up and gets a bite (usually from Stephen Craigan).’
‘His facial expressions and withering put downs are excellent. Very keen to talk up Scottish football and almost epitomises it. Entertaining, engaging but rough around the edges.’
He’s here to stay because he’s become an essential ingredient to modern football broadcasting, an important colour in the rainbow. Like all great strikers he’s found himself space in a crowded field and cut a niche for himself. And fair play to him for that. His radio work both as co-comms and pundit is very, very good – as anyone who was on 5 Live this week for the Spurs game can attest to. He will always be divisive but that’s why those who love him, love him, isn’t it?