Ex-footballer pundit culture shows industry is ossified

John Nicholson
Pundits Paul Ince and Steve McManaman

Johnny is back with more on pundits and co-commentators…

Last week’s piece about the state of co-commentary and punditry got some attention from within the industry. Commentator Arlo White – the Arlo who isn’t Guthrie (who he was named after) or Parks – responded:

This was a point made to me by a few people in the business – that experience of playing football wins out over those with none. My response was in theory, yes. But in practice? I’m not so sure.

Clearly if you’ve played the game professionally, you will potentially (crucial word) have an insight into what it is like on the pitch and may be able to cast some light into the dark for us civilians. As I said in the original piece, that is their USP. However, it is just one part of the gig. If they fail to deliver that, they are just another person who has watched football.

If you listen to a co-comm on any game and write down everything they say, only a very small percentage of their work will contain an insight borne out of their playing career that would be impossible for a non-player to know, and most of that small percentage is anecdote, which isn’t the same thing as insight.

BT Sport failed us all on Arsenal v Manchester City

But who am I to contradict Arlo’s experience? If we knew who he’s referring to, we may well agree how good they are. Some are fantastic. My aim is not to abolish ex-players from broadcasting, but to dilute them. I do not say that their unique insight does not exist, just that it rarely happens. And it rarely happens because drawing on your experiences in life – applying and communicating them to viewers or listeners in a real-time commentary – is a hard art for anyone. You have to be able to access your knowledge database quickly and efficiently and have a vocabulary to deliver it. And even if you can, your experience has to be interesting.

Therefore, doing extensive training to give yourself some mental pathways to access your truth would be useful. Or so you’d think. But does this happen? Pre-show production meetings are held but are co-comms and pundits always present? And if they are, what sort of guidance are they given? And if guidance is given, do they absorb it?

I recall Robbie Savage once telling me that unlike in football, after a broadcast, there is no feedback given to you at all. So, you don’t know what you’ve done well and what you haven’t. He contrasted that to football where your rights and wrongs are broken down and analysed rigorously. And Robbie, to his credit, wanted to learn.

Robbie Savage in a bath

No other industry worth billions of pounds would employ what are effectively amateurs in such high-profile roles on match days. Every other big business would insist on jobs being done by trained and qualified professionals. And that’s all I think should happen. Whoever you are, everyone needs training to a set standard; a playing career should not allow you to bypass that. Is that controversial? Not to you and I, but in the industry? Yes, it is.

Statman Dave works on 5 Live on Saturdays. He comes armed with loads of research and lobs stat bombs around the place, often in response to what is happening in the live game. With a bit of training, he’d make a great co-comm. He’d do all his research and would really add value and content to the broadcast. Why doesn’t someone ask him? What is there to lose? Because even if we are not critical of the current workforce, why not try something new anyway? Why not experiment? Not to do so looks defensive, blinkered and even scared.

I also question exactly what the person who has played professionally can, at the very best, give the listeners other than anecdotes? What are those who book them expecting them to deliver? Anecdote has its place of course, we all love a good football story, but is a former footballer really able to see how a move started, how a specific tactic is playing out, or what was being attempted within a move, any better than a fully trained, educated, empathetic and articulate non-player? There is no evidence to make a judgement about this because such people are barred from entry to live football punditry and commentary. Excluded just because they haven’t played professionally. That just cannot be right.

Conservatism is everywhere. It has been pointed out to the PFA that they need to advise and train members who are going to work in the media, but offers of help in this regard have been ignored. Yet if anyone is going to make a verbal gaffe, it will be current or former players, not commentators or presenters. That’s because commentators and presenters are trained professionals. Is that appreciated?

One commentator told me about the time they broadcast the details of the next game to be shown on the station only to be told ten minutes later to advertise the next game: they hadn’t even been watching. More than one commentator has told me that they don’t really have any input into who their co-comms might be for a game, even though their relationship is an important factor for us, the viewer. That seems odd. With this degree of laissez-faire attitude, it is no surprise that this area of football broadcasting has become ossified. No surprise that the way it has always been done is, by and large, the way it is still done. Look at how long it took them to understand that women could talk about men’s football and to do something about it.

I’m not sure if the people in the industry who make these decisions realise, or care, that vast numbers of their audience are often unimpressed by the ex-footballer as a communicator. They loved them as a player, but if they’re no good on the telly, are not consistently articulate or have little to offer beyond what we can see for ourselves, we don’t want to see or hear them. Their former status isn’t the get out of jail free card it seems assumed to be. The idea that if an ex-England international says something – no matter how brain-in-neutral it is – it is worth hearing, is a wholly misplaced notion. We want intelligent thought, not football cliches.

In conclusion, the resistance to fashioning a new future is simply a failure of imagination. The idea that only ex-players can work on live football on TV or radio, is almost ludicrous and we should continue to challenge it, perhaps especially because people on the inside of the industry reject it. When change is so resisted, that is often a marker for change being badly needed.