A love letter to… Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football

Date published: Saturday 16th September 2017 4:55

Johnny’s letter this week is to the TV show that was a game changer in the world of modern TV punditry. That’ll be Monday Night Football with Nev and Carra, then.

 

Why the love?
Put simply, we love it because it not only entertains but it genuinely educates. You come away from the analysis knowing more about the game. Before their reign, analysis relied far too much on cliche and groupthinking. Things were stale and tired and widely disregarded, the exact opposite of how things are now.

From the start of the season, post change of personnel, MNF was introduced by the estimable and much-missed Ed Chamberlain. Nev flew the punditing solo. From the get-go it was obviously very fresh and very different to the old-fashioned predecessors. It was suddenly wholly different. There was detail. He used footage to back up his statements. This was no mere asserting of opinion; it was more of a visual essay, with all points supported by evidence.

How did this happen? There was no mystery. No voodoo. Nev just worked really hard. He put effort in. He took the whole thing very seriously, went through footage time and again until he understood what had happened and then showed us his workings.

It doesn’t sound like much does it? But it really was and still is. I remember seeing him strut his not inconsiderable stuff for the first time, explaining a defensive error in great detail, not just in terms of marking but also how you police space as a full back and the consequences of not doing so. It was like being spoken to in a different language. It was like going from junior school to university overnight.

Also by contrast to his predecessor, presenter Chamberlain was keen not to be a ‘personality’ or play the star, preferring to be a facilitator for the GNev brilliance. And that in itself was very clever and very skilful. Trouble is, when you’re very good at being relatively anonymous, albeit in a good way, your talent can easily be overlooked or ignored; it certainly means you don’t get the praise you should. But Ed was instrumental in establishing the new era of MNF and in drawing a line between the old and fetid and the fresh and modern. Once he went to present racing, David Jones took over and effectively performs the same role as conduit for the talent.

For two years Gary flew the MNF ship as the only pundit. Actually, he’s not a pundit – that’s the wrong word – he’s a professor. Anyone can be a pundit, but very few could do what he does. In 2013 Jamie Carragher came on board full-time and hit the ground running.

Today the pre-game hour flies by and I do often find myself wondering why they don’t make a longer form programme to allow them to stretch out a little more. Then it’s down to live action which needs dissecting whilst ongoing, so that at half-time the major incidents can be broken down and understood. Even given the short working time to prepare what they want to say and analyse, it’s rare to come away feeling as though an important issue has not been addressed.

With the Liverpool man on board, now we had two astute readers of the game to dissect action but added into that pleasure was the relationship dynamic between the old on-pitch rivals. Carra brought Bootle street smarts to the party, coupled with a handsome, blue-eyed, 100% working-class presence. It was a partnership made in football TV heaven and in the subsequent years no-one seriously doubts that they are in another league when it comes to TV football analysis. Even when Gary returned after his Spanish managerial excursion, he was soon up to speed and the pair continue to bestride the genre with an imperious but never aloof or self-regarding brilliance.

 

Superhero skills
It’s worth remembering that unlike contributors on radio shows like the Monday Night Club, Nev and Carra have, once ad breaks and trails are dealt with, probably little more than 40 minutes to get their groove on. That means concise, high-quality content delivery is the order of the day and a well-produced, well-organised running order is essential.

Being on top of how to use the massive iPad thing is also crucial. I know we take for granted that they can, but that they can do so under pressure, bringing in various replays and close-ups, is a testament to how well rehearsed they always are.

What I always enjoy is when they analyse why a goal happened as a consequence of an error of positioning 10 or 15 passes earlier, how it created a defensive deficit and allowed the striker to score. They show the consequences of actions taken, or just as importantly, not taken. At best it can make football look like a hybrid of ballet and chess.

Accents. They’ve both got such distinctive voices. Whilst everyone from Teesside and north to Thurso raises a cynical eyebrow and thinks Manchester and Liverpool is actually the midlands, it is nevertheless nice to have two cracking accented voices that are free of the awful Australian/San Fernando Valley inflections and verbal ticks. This gives their work a rootsy, timeless quality and even more importantly, doesn’t annoy the living jebus out of us.

Neither are afraid to criticise a player or manager and this takes some stones as you’re likely to have said manager on at some point. This has rubbed some, such as Sean Dyche, up the wrong way, but it is exactly what we love about them. There has been far too much cap-doffing from ex-players, keen not to alienate their mates who are still playing, or managers who are friends. That really isn’t what they’re paid for.

The to-and-fro between them never descends into heinous ‘banter’, even if there is the occasional desire to touch each other in that squeezy way footballers do. They feel at ease enough to take the mickey out of each other. Any good double act needs a chemistry between the protagonists and they have it, as these clips well show.

That’s why we like being in their presence. It feels good. It feels like being in the presence of Clever. And we like that. We want to know more, to have things explained.

It doesn’t stop at the action though. Both are good in explaining the psychology of a footballer; how your mind might work in a set circumstance. But it never feels like you’re being talked down to. It never feels like a blowhard has got hold of the mic and when they invite a manager/ex-manager/pint-of-wine-drinker on, their analysis is always inferior. Sam Allardyce was lumpen and inarticulate by comparison to the Dream Team this week. For all his experience, his communication skills in this environment were simply not up to par and it was a reminder of what used to be passed off as analysis.

 

Style guru?
Both are always suited and booted and I think when you’re standing up to do your work, that’s fine. It does seem to give them some authority. Although generally, I’d like more informality in football TV studios (but not in the suit-on-but-ties-off-boys-after-the-office way). Perhaps when you’re on the broadcaster’s flagship show, you need to project a more serious tone.

A classic Dad Dresser, GNev is the sort of man for whom clothes are an unwanted distraction. Favours plain and probably thinks anyone dressed more fancy is morally suspect and is not a man you’d want beside you in the trenches. But Carra looks like a man for whom dapper is a thing. Always looks like he’s dressed for a wedding. Has even managed to wear a brown suit without humiliation and that’s a hard fashion gig to pull off.

When your task is communication, you need for clothes not to distract the viewer, so a large degree of neutrality is to be expected and indeed desired.

 

What the people say
Social media’s contributions this week absolutely captured the essence of their brilliance, with many contributors crediting them not just with being good at the job, but at improving the body politic of football analysis profoundly; a quantum leap from what had gone before. And they’d be right.

‘Genuinely cannot understate how it changed the punditry landscape for the Premier League. Nev made the big splash but Carra is a brilliant foil.’

‘They are, as a pair, the best ex-pros doing punditry on TV. Well researched, on the ball, make their points fluently, and think cogently.’

‘The epitome of a footballing odd couple; the playful contempt for each other overshadowed by mutual professional respect. The best around.’

‘MNF feels grown up (bar forced banter). Tells you things you might not agree with but in these echo chamber days that’s needed. At it’s best in dissecting one piece of play but linking it to wider patterns.’

‘Made listening to analysis interesting and you actually learn some tactical insight rather than “he’ll be disappointed with that” drivel.’

‘In many ways they are a new breed, the antithesis of the PFM. They are Modern Football Men. Happy to embrace different ways of playing. Do real, proper research. Happy to see the referees point of view. Are aware of countries outside of England, and are open to criticism too. This is all to be welcomed and encouraged.’

‘Only reason I keep Sky.’

‘They have a love hate relationship of monumental proportions.’

‘They’re normally better/more entertaining than the match itself.’

‘Moved actual tactical analysis to a new level along with acerbic criticism.  Bloody brilliant.’

‘Two great rivals hanging up their armour and both offering insight that was unparalleled. Always funny winding each other up too.’

‘Whether they’re right or wrong isn’t the point, it’s the fact that they bring their own insight and you can see they marry it up with a tonne of research. Too many pundits just turn up and think it’s funny that they haven’t heard of a team or player.’

‘A millennial Morecambe and Wise or Beavis and Butthead. Still not sure which one.’

‘The rivalry adds a delicious tang to the double act.’

‘Like Bert and Ernie hit puberty, did drugs, sobered up and now get to share their wisdom with the world.’

‘I don’t know if it was someone else’s idea behind the scenes to take it up a notch, but those two are the faces of modern punditry.’

‘Both intelligently speak their mind without deliberately trying to court controversy.’

‘The appointment of the Neviller was significant in getting one of the main football shows away from PFM mentality. Groundbreaking.’

‘Stadtler and Waldorf in their younger days.’

‘A refreshing breath of fresh air. Thankfully, the dark sycophantic days of Keys and Gray seem like a lifetime ago.’

‘@GNev2 is a PFM in body but not in mind. You’d never hear him come out with the trap that Merson and co would.’

‘Manages to satisfy both the “banter brigade” as well as offer genuine, insightful analysis better than any football show going right now.’

‘Peerless analysis from two masters. Has thankfully made others raise their game but still manage to look like clueless in comparison.’

‘Pretty sure Sky created The Debate show purely because of their performances – shows how much they have resonated with the audience.’

‘Gary & Ed days are the gold standard IMO but still very good and must-watch stuff. Would prefer to have less guests and more of Gary. Feels like the show raised the bar with punditry and caused other pundits to follow and up their performances. The first few years ( just Gary and Ed Chamberlin) was key in improving coverage on all channels – much of WC 2010 coverage was dire.’

‘1: They are very good at their jobs. Standards raised for all. 2: Carragher is the scousest man in Britain, which pleases me.’

‘Absolute game changer. The punditocracy have had to improve to keep pace with better analysis presented in an informative & entertaining way.’

‘Raised the bar for everyone else, showing up the lazier pundits.’

‘These two have raised the bar in terms of modern football punditry. Far & away the best on English telly. GNev on his own was great but adding Carragher was a stroke of genius. Took him a season or so to get going but now these two are peerless.’

‘Love how pleasantly surprised I’ve been by them both. Expected both of them to be annoying but actually find them rather interesting.’

‘Didn’t particularly like GNev, especially after the England players revolt but he is an excellent analyst and speaks with clear authority.’

‘Neville is insightful, thoughtful, and even-handed.’

‘They could do a Peep Show style sitcom such is their chemistry. Rare you don’t learn something watching them. It is a show aimed at ‘us’.’

‘The best analysis in the business, genuine/honest passion for football. Manage to be non-sensationalist despite SKY’s move in that direction.’

‘You actually go back to enjoying MNF pregame when they’re on. Football pundits for the modern age, no archaic views. Love them both.’

‘The tension of their former rivalry adds frisson to studio plus they are both astute & entertaining makes them perfect pairing.’

‘When Klopp was on and Carra couldn’t hide his delight as he hit full flight on the tactics board. Magic that he didn’t try to outdo him.’

‘Hated GNev as a player but by far the best pundit on TV, the relationship him and Carra have is simply brilliant TV.’

‘Simply, they love football. Fans always respond to players who clearly would have been on the terraces themselves if they weren’t playing.’

‘An analysis programme for the modern times we are in – yet the boys add in a dash of levity as well. Ed Chamberlain’s role underappreciated.’

‘The hour before and after the game they cover often more entertaining than the game itself. At its best it’s unmissable.’

‘Best Sky has to offer – their analysis is generally top drawer, and the standard just gets better with each passing week.’

 

Future days
Sky’s future as a primo broadcaster of football has never been so under threat. Not just from BT Sport but from other new digital platforms such as Amazon Prime and Netflix being suggested as potential bidders for football rights in the near future.

Even though it seems early days for that, and financially it doesn’t look viable for those players to throw their hats in the football media ring yet, the days when Sky ruled the football broadcasting roost seem long gone. That means, as the brand leader for TV analysis. Nev and Carra have never been more important.

Everyone knows they’re the best at what they do and I’m sure there are many monied suitors who would love to sign them up and would ask them to name their price. It is crucial that Sky hold onto them for to lose them would represent a major power drain. But whoever is their employer in the future, they seem likely to be wedded to each other for years to come and we will all be the beneficiaries of that.

 

John Nicholson

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