Why do ex-pros have monopoly on live football on TV?

Date published: Monday 24th September 2018 8:34

Why is live football broadcasting so in love with using ex-footballers as pundits and co-commentators? It’s so taken for granted, such a default, that it is rarely questioned. But think about it, no live football pundit or co-comm isn’t an ex-player. That’s plain weird, especially when you consider the weakest moments of live coverage are more often than not the insipid contributions of an ex-pro. We all know the biggest culprits.

So why don’t they draw on contributors from other walks of life? Why are there no specialists who just know a lot about football? Why is there no career in co-commentary for a member of the public who just trains to be one? Why is there no-one in the pundits’ chairs at live games that is an interesting writer, journalist, broadcaster or educated member of the public who has seen more football than the ex-player?

When you consider that no commentator is an ex-player, the principle of non-players being involved in broadcasting is well established, but why not in other roles? Recently I spoke to someone who used to work in the business.

“It was always felt that retired players were of more interest to viewers and had credibility, even though this was often patently untrue. So if I’d said “I’ve got someone who has written in depth about the history of Italian coaching and has an interesting view on Chelsea’s tactics under Ancelotti this season, shall we get him on for tonight’s game v Spurs?” I’d have been laughed out of the room and we’d end up with an ex-player instead, who might be a nice guy but who would add little to the show.

“The number of average performers that were tolerated simply because they were former internationals or high-profile players was infuriating, when we could’ve virtually guaranteed a really great show if we’d used people from other medias, such as broadcasters and journalists or just anyone who was good. In this way, the business was, and I suspect still is, very narrow-minded.”

I think I’m right in saying that in the entire 21 years of Football365’s existence, only one of our writers has ever actually been a professional footballer and that was David Icke! Andy Gray does not count as he had a long-running column which Winty actually used to write from a brief phone conversation, which I’ve always fondly imagined took place while AG was in a loosely tied white towelling dressing-gown in a Marriott Hotel, with the scent of Brut33 and brandy in the air.

But the rest of us have never played the game at any professional level, yet still somehow we manage to make some sense out of it most weeks, without the help of footballers, and we manage to write about it for the entertainment of others. We are not alone in this. Pretty much all written football comment, analysis and understanding comes from people who have not kicked a ball for money in their lives. There are a few exceptions, such as Alan Smith (who is rather good) but only a few. The written media is occupied almost entirely by non-ex-footballers and isn’t worse for it. So let’s ask again, why is live football so choked with them?

If you’re looking for a statistical, analytical or cultural understanding of football, you might go to people like Jonathan Wilson, Rory Smith, Barney Ronay or Daniel Taylor to name but four of many. If you want an overview of the weekend’s action and what it means in the ongoing, unfolding drama, you will likely turn to a writer or journalist and not an ex-player.

But when it comes to live football, the tables are completely turned, with ex-players dominating the landscape exclusively. The trifecta of retirees in tight shirts is almost a cliche and it remains too often the weakest link in the football broadcasting firmament. We all know ex-players who do co-commentary to a low standard that largely involves describing what slow-motion replays are already showing us.

While I maintain we’re in a golden age of football broadcasting, this is because the best ex-players in the media know being an ex-player isn’t much of an asset. If you listen to Danny Higginbotham’s tactical analysis, for example, it is far closer to in-depth journalism than it is to the old school say-what-you-see ‘he’ll be disappointed with that/it’s a soft one for me, Gary,’ punditry.

You may point to those who are excellent broadcasters as proof ex-footballers can do the job, but I’d maintain that by and large, their career – in terms of analysis – is largely irrelevant to their success. The best ex-player pundits and analysts have evolved way beyond delivering mere anecdotes or anodyne no-thinks about their playing days, except when the context requires.

On Friday I was listening on 5live to a really in-depth and somewhat emotional discussion between Jermaine Jenas, the increasingly excellent Stephen Warnock and former Wolves’ keeper Carl Ikeme about his leukemia diagnosis. It was such a successful bit of broadcasting because it was empathetic, thoughtful and genuine. The fact it was a chat between three ex-players was pretty much irrelevant.

In the ever excellent Set Piece Menu podcast, #92 Andy Hinchcliffe talked about how long and in how much detail he prepared for a co-commentary and how others who do the job patently have not done enough work, citing examples of VAR mistakes in the World Cup. He wants to raise standards. While being an ex-professional might not hinder him in this regard, neither does it really help, simply because detailed analysis of football is very different from running around a pitch and hurting men with your feet. It’s two very different disciplines. So although ‘Chinch’ is an ex-player, the important thing is that he’s studied hard to become a good co-comm, not the fact that he once plied his trade on the grass. This means anyone from any walk of life could do likewise. Someone could and should be able to to put in the work and become a co-comm specialist. Why not? That’s what would happen in any other industry. Imagine how great it’d be to have one who was a Big Giant Brain. They’re out there.

On Friday I wrote a review of my favourite TV programme, The Champions League Goals Show, and in a previous week, talkSPORT’s Trans Euro Express. Neither of these shows have an ex-professional footballer on board and yet are exemplary broadcasts which leave you knowing more than you started with.

What more proof do we need that footballers do not have to be present to make live football interesting either as a co-comm or a pundit? Why not try it? Why not put a well-informed journalist in Graeme Souness’s chair and see if they can come up with something better than “I’ve seen goals change games thousands of times” or any other number of anodyne statements.

There is ample proof that if broadcast media producers picked only the ex-players who are real students of the game and stretched the net wider to include informed, intelligent people who have never been players, we’d get an even better product.

It’s happening elsewhere in media, but just not during broadcasting of live games on TV, nor even on radio. Defaulting to ex-pros for wisdom is one of the last taboos to break.

It’s time to break it.

John Nicholson


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