Gary Neville was almost shaking when he spoke. His media career has been highly successful and his work with Monday Night Football, Jamie Carragher and those giant Sky Sports iPads has deservedly been rewarded with the utmost praise. But he might be at his best when he rants – when he has that slightly wild look of incredulity in his eyes that means a flurry of punches are about to come jabbing through the screen.
People seem to respond well to that. It’s timing as much as anything. Neville’s rise as a pundit has run parallel to Manchester United’s decline as a club, meaning that he has grown increasingly visible at a time when they are most vulnerable to criticism. Beyond his analytical role, he’s also a front for the frustrations of an entire fanbase. ‘Frustrations’ should probably be italicised – it’s not quite time to bulldoze Old Trafford yet – but these things are relative and Neville verbalises the irritation that many supporters presumably feel.
It’s an interesting perspective on partisan punditry, the sort which has acquired an increasingly bad name. It’s hardly a new phenomenon, because former Liverpool players have been guarding the club’s reputation on television for decades and, for a while, it wasn’t possible for an ex-professional to get a media job without having played for one of the country’s top clubs.
It’s possibly more overt now; less concealed. Previously, the leanings of someone like Alan Hansen were presumed. He was a decorated Liverpool player, a club deity, but his loyalty was softly sold on Match Of The Day and was only really betrayed by a slight pursing of his lips. Now, that seems to be less the case. The punditocracy is much broader than it was, obviously, and offers many more roles and many more mediums across which to build a second career. It’s a generalisation, but within that group there does seem less of an inclination to appear neutral. Ex-players will often use ‘we’ when discussing a former club or, as Neville does, become far more animated when talking in reference to a former employer.
Gary Neville – the voice of reason. He’s spot on here 👌
— DILLINGER 👹 (@DillanMUFC) April 21, 2019
Naturally, that provokes accusations. This, after all, is the age of wilful denial. It’s a time when if you don’t like something you’ve heard, it’s possible to dismiss that opinion or fact as the product of inherent bias. It’s nearly always a symptom of idiocy or narrow-mindedness (or worse), but it still persists, continuing to infect the perception of how the game is broadcast. It means, also, that anyone working in any sort of interpretive role in football is regularly subjected to a furnace of witless criticism: journalists, pundits, referees, commentators or, in a few notable cases, entire legislative bodies and VAR committees.
With regards to ex-players, though, loyalty and favouritism needn’t always be negative. It’s naturally tedious when used to prod and provoke, but when used to instruct diatribes or genuine emotion, it’s a much more benevolent energy. It can also be fun in the reverse: listen to Alan Smith’s co-commentary at the end of Fulham against Tottenham from a few months ago, and enjoy Harry Winks interrupting his faux-maudlin lament about Spurs dropping points.
"I think there'll be a lot of pessimism in the Tottenham ranks if they don't win this. Those questions about Harry Kane and Son not being there come to fruition…OH!" – Former Gooner Alan Smith co-commentating in the 93rd minute just as Harry Winks nods the winner. #COYS #FULTOT
— Carl Jones (@CarlDJones) January 20, 2019
Basically, if it’s authentic it’s fine – actually, it’s good.
Football needs that. Neville is the best example because, ultimately, Manchester United are a very large club who operate with minimal accountability and who, more often than not, can afford to be indifferent to the mood of their fanbase. When Neville talks it’s different. When he grabs one of those Sky Sports microphones and starts monologuing about inferior attitudes within the squad, failures in the footballing structure or naivety at boardroom level, that’s a troubling proposition for any team, irrespective of size.
The clip of him simmering with well-articulated rage is still in heavy rotation. On the basis of their recent business and sporting practice, it’s a level of public resistance that United deserve to feel. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that, within hours of full-time at Goodison Park, several United players had taken to social media to ‘own’ their poor performances. Maybe it was. Whatever the case, the mood – which Neville had helped to inflate and perpetuate – certainly demanded a response.
Does that mean that, right now and as a direct result, dozens of club executives are scurrying around, thinking of ways to assuage Neville’s concerns and neuter his criticism? No, clearly not, but it still amounted to a very public attack on the ‘brand’ and, as we know, football clubs are always sensitive to that. It may not guarantee any action or hasten any remedy, but accountability is a fundamental ingredient in football. Even more so now, when clubs seem to exist in the sort of impenetrable vacuum that can leave the average supporter frustrated.
The timbre of the voice matters, too. There are some well-known instances in which clubs have retaliated against negative coverage. We’re only a few years removed from the ‘preferred media partners’ initiative at Newcastle. But in a more humdrum way, any circle of journalists would be able to share a few stories of clubs being precious or becoming needlessly difficult. The bigger fish tend to act with relative impunity – thankfully so – but there are many lower down the food chain who share stories of semi-threatening conversations with press officers or who have been mysteriously and suddenly denied accreditation; it’s far more North Korean than most would assume.
The ex-player doesn’t usually have that problem. Empowered by the immunity their careers afford, they are free to create the kind of trouble which others aren’t. Sometimes – yes – their tribalism can grate and their belief in outdated hierarchies amounts to little more than raw entitlement. It would also be wrong to pretend that all of them are ideologically minded or that they each carry deep concern about the welfare of their former clubs. That’s obviously not the case. Nor is it true to claim that all clubs, even all Premier League clubs, are represented equally or even at all. Nevertheless, objection to bias is a very superficial complaint and one which ignores the bigger picture.
Does a one-eyed perspective on the mechanics of a game become annoying? Is Michael Owen’s apparent United allegiance hard to understand? Absolutely, but beyond those periodic grievances lies an almost representative function. In some instances, these players are the fans’ vote by proxy, people who can potentially begin conversations that clubs aren’t usually interested in having. Or, probably more realistically, media figures who can, on occasion, provoke some form of introspection.
It’s reassuring. In the first instance to know that a player passed through a club and acquired more than just material wealth and fame. But, also, that someone with a supporter’s mentality has access to a platform which actually makes them audible, accessible and relatable. That’s a tremendous positive and, tenuous and desperate as it is, one which is only likely to become more important in the future.