John Nicholson puts on an ill-fitting beige suit and goes galloping in an ungainly manner across a football pitch with David Pleat.
For older readers, his on-pitch celebrations in the mid 80s whilst managing Luton, performed in a rather unpleasant tight, light beige suit and frankly appalling matching shoes, still define the man’s sartorial dress sense. That was the sort of suit that a friend of mine who works in the tailoring industry used to call ‘a classic p*ss-stain suit’ because i’s colour would so clearly betray any errant, unwanted post-toilet squirtage.
However, who amongst us did not commit several crimes against clothing in the 80s? Seems to have had a touch of the aftershave-doused, dapper gent about him in younger days.
These days it’s all sturdy, plain good-quality clothing from a menswear purveyor who would not insult a man’s sense of maleness by selling him anything with a pattern, nor anything not dark or neutral in colour. Seems likely to own more than one camel hair coat and possibly a nice cashmere scarf in a modest check bought from the Edinburgh Woollen Mill.
A native of Nottingham, he carries none of the accent of his home town. One can’t imagine him giving it a big “‘ey up m’duck”. Yet he has one of the most distinctive voices on radio or in the TV co-commentary box. Has a genuinely lovely habit of welcoming the listener to the game by actually acknowledging us with a cheery “evening everyone” or “hello to everyone at home”. I can’t be the only one who responds with a “hello Pleaty” and gives the radio a little wave.
Is one of those speakers who will often mangle a sentence until it is limp and exhausted and yet somehow he still manages to convey meaning.
Has a habit of unintentionally saying very silly things, which is one of the reasons many of us enjoy him. Examples of this are legion. Amongst my favourites are “for such a small man, Maradona gets great elevation on his balls” and “a game is not won until it is lost”. Better yet, he never acknowledges this and ploughs on as if he’s not said something funny at all.
Hits and misses
Can struggle with foreign names but whether this is a hit or a miss depends on your perspective. Used to find Dirk Kuyt’s name very difficult and seemed to never say it the same twice, once calling him Dirk Kurt. Pascal Chimbonda could be anything from Pasta Shimbomba to Pasha Chimpdonna. Waiting for a Pleaty mispronunciation is one of the great joys of his work. At times you’d think he was doing it on purpose for comic effect. The fact he isn’t only makes it more entertaining.
But his biggest hit is his encyclopedic knowledge of football, which is rather a big hit to have when you’re paid to talk about football. Off the top of his head, he knows where any player has been on loan, or where he started his career in amateur football and not just that, he’ll know his strengths and weaknesses. He is peerless in this regard and not just for British footballers. He seems to know who came from where in South America or France or even Japan. I swear I once heard him talking about some Columbian club’s recruitment policy. Other pundits who haven’t heard of anyone until they become famous are put to shame by this kind of detailed knowledge. One of the great pleasures of listening to Pleaty in a discussion about an obscure player who has had a good week, is to hear him say something like this:
“Of course he started his career at Maidstone, gave up the game for a year and became a milkman, I believe, then he signed for Cheltenham Town, scored 17 that season and earned a move to Elgin City in exchange for a box of kippers and, of course, that’s where he was seen by scouts from FC Twente. A very popular boy with the Dutch fans, they were sorry to see him go for five million pounds to Hoffenheim, where he broke his tibia in two places in 3-0 defeat to Wolfsburg. He recuperated in Vancouver, of course, under the famous Doctor Wu, before returning to Northampton Town where he committed a series of thefts of poor quality underwear from washing lines. He was a bit of a naughty boy, I’m afraid, killed a man and ate him, and is currently serving a 40-year stretch at her majesty’s pleasure in Durham jail, where, I understand, he is doing well playing a withdrawn role in the centre of midfield.”
Whereas ex-manager pundits of a similar age seem to specialise in trying to pass off huge gaps in their knowledge like it’s an asset, Pleaty really knows his stuff and doesn’t come across as old-fashioned, disaffected, bitter or desperate.
Big club bias
None at all. Simply loves football at all levels. An absolute purist who would stop to watch a kick about in a park and critique the way the left back was failing to track the midfield runners. Someone who sees football at all levels as important and deserving of attention.
Loved or loathed
There are those who find his way of going on, the twisted sentences and mispronunciation of names to be very annoying, but they are surely a surly minority, often motivated by blind tribalism. You can learn a lot from listening to Pleaty. He’s fascinating to hear talking about the politics of working at and running a football club. The huge database of info about players that lives in his head is second to none. He once gave the best account I’ve heard of how a Director of Football can work for good at a club. His unaffected joy for the game shines through all his work. Even this weekend, as co-comm on 5live, he was waxing poetically about how football was such an unpredictable game. And, y’know, he’s 70. To keep your passion for the game at that age does him great credit.
Proper Football Man
Spent all of his life in football. Served time in the lower leagues as a player in the 60s and also as a manager, but never actually won anything. English. Surname can simply have a ‘y’ added to it to make a nickname and he can’t say foreign names. Well, they’re in a foreign language, what do you expect, Jeff? All Perfect PFM. And that’s before even considering that business with the police in the 80s, which was proper officially approved PFM-ing. Was once called “a pervert” by Ian Wright, so he’s definitely ticking a lot of PFM boxes. Has been a scout at Spurs at least five times, which any good PFM considers money for doing nothing and they admire the ability to coin it off the chairman – who they all hate, despite saying what a good relationship with him they have.
As an elder statesman he wouldn’t be expected to keep up with Reidy on a night out injecting syringes of turtle wax, rubber cement and strawberry-flavoured butane up his nose, but he sometimes sports the plum shade of an experienced red winer. Not hard to imagine him being papped emerging at 4.15am from a Skegness nightclub called Moist Pleasures with Miss Potato Flour (and associated dried vegetable powders) 1962.
The only thing the PFM membership committee is worried about is his lack of opposition to directors of football (what do they do, Jeff?) and his deep knowledge of footballers, especially overseas footballers, but they’re prepared to overlook this because of its use in winning pub quizzes, which every PFM loves, even though he’s paranoid them other teams are cheating, Jeff, and will inevitably end up fighting in the car park at chucking-out time.
Beyond the lighted stage
When you’re watching football every waking hour, there can’t be time for Pleaty to do anything else except an occasional golf day in Luton and maybe a charity auction. And even then, he’ll still be storing information in the giant Pleatometer Brain for use when commentating on a fourth-round FA Cup game between Blyth Spartans and Burton Albion.