It started on Monday with a well-reasoned debate, argued sensibly and respectfully by both sides. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher did not agree when it came to Tottenham, nor did they resort to personal snipes and unnecessary digs. The discussion centered around one team, and never strayed far from events in north London.
By Tuesday, it was the biggest talking point in football. The victory that returned Manchester City to the top of the Premier League was relegated to a footnote in a far grander, more interesting and engaging overall plot.
But the 24-hour news cycle always demands more. There has to be a response to the reaction, a retort to the reply, a cryptic social media message that may or may not be related. And then Tony Cascarino must be asked about it on Sky Sports, or Dean Saunders will use talkSPORT as his platform to dive in headfirst.
This week, it was the turn of Harry Redknapp and Steve McMahon to don their wellies and wade in without caution. Both had watched the conversation develop from afar, only picking up on certain words and phrases as they eavesdropped before deciding to clumsily interrupt. It was more than enough to light the touchpaper.
“My son’s a pundit, so I know people have a right to their opinions and I don’t dispute that, but his opinion in this case is totally wrong, totally out of order,” Redknapp said on Wednesday morning, displaying all the maturity of a whoopee cushion placed on a supply teacher’s chair.
By the evening, McMahon was offering his support. “It will be interesting to see what comes out in the coming days and weeks from managers who have sent teams out to play against Gary Neville and said ‘get at Neville, he can’t run, he can’t defend’. That is what will happen now.”
It was a disappointing but inevitable end to this vicious circle. Logical, balanced and refreshing debate is almost always followed soon after by lazy, uninformed nonsense that does not even resemble the initial point. One minute you are shopping in Waitrose, listening to Neville and Carragher air their views calmly and rationally; the next you are searching for scraps on the street, wondering how you got to a stage where Redknapp is telling you he’s “got the raving hump”. How did a point about Tottenham deserving more credit for being such a well-run club morph into a former Liverpool midfielder telling a player with 20 trophies and 85 England caps that he wasn’t even that good?
That is the problem with punditry: it so often starts out with good intentions, but eventually just becomes a game of posturing and point-scoring, with all context torn away and replaced by controversy.
That both McMahon and Redknapp fired the same parting shot was neither a mistake nor a coincidence. The former said that “the Valencia thing will come back to bite” Neville, while the latter suggested that he was in charge of “the worst Valencia team, not just in the last 30 years, but in their history”. Never mind the fact that he had a higher win percentage than Ronald Koeman, Guus Hiddink and Jorge Valdano at the Mestalla, as well as two of his three permanent successors. That is the sort of accusation that sticks and lingers like a bad smell.
Jose Mourinho, Loris Karius and Pep Guardiola have all used the same trick from the same playbook before, and at this stage it would be a surprise if Neville’s wife does not end any spousal arguments with that eight-letter word: ‘What do you mean, you don’t want to do the dishes? This is just like that time you managed Valencia.’
The curious thing is that everyone who plays that card does so in the belief that it disproves anything Neville says. It is the schoolyard insult a bully relies on to silence his victims, the secret everyone pretends to keep until they can use it to their advantage. Yet it has long been a tiresome cliche that has no impact.
“What is failure?” Neville once asked in an interview with The Times. “I lost football matches for four months in Spain – does that mean I am useless? You don’t have to be a great manager to be a great pundit, or vice versa. They are very different roles. I can still pose a question of a manager. I am not holding back because I lost a few games in Valencia, no chance.”
Neville was a wonderful, dedicated player in one of the greatest sides ever, is now a well-researched, almost unrivalled pundit, and has even branched out into club ownership. If he is able to put a point across without having to reference his eight Premier League titles, he should be afforded the courtesy of a four-month managerial spell not being his defining feature. He should not be punished for being one of the minority to have actually tried every possible facet of football.
It is a dangerous path to go down, and as painfully naive as telling people who have not played the game at a certain level that their opinion is less valid. If we are restricted to only asking managers who rarely failed about the current standards of coaching, we are desperately hoping that Sir Alex Ferguson and Brendan Rodgers are not busy when a soundbite is needed.
As it is, Neville can combine his time as a player, a pundit, an owner, a fan, a manager and a coach in the modern day more effectively than anyone. That multi-faceted experience should be cherished, not condemned or used against him by people struggling to make a cogent point.
In a story that has now stretched over an entire week, the punditry was never at a higher level or of greater quality than when the debate first started. There were no insults, no jibes, nothing personal. The story was the subject at hand, not those discussing it. It is just a shame that whenever anyone speaks of the Neville, his time at Valencia is never far behind.
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