Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Coming English Revolt in TV Football Punditry (hopefully)

Earlier this year, EPL Talk put out a list of the better soccer blogs out there and remarked at how few English sites were on it. As 2010 comes to a close, it's my prediction (magic star wizard hat firmly on!) that English blogs will set the standard in 2011.

But that's not all; 2011 will be the year, I think, when the long-running dinner table joke about the horrible state of football punditry in the UK will turn into an angry rant, much like how your uncle stands up at the end of Christmas dinner and describes why the country is going to hell in a handbasket (the answer is of course Ke$ha). What follows is a broad, likely-inaccurate breakdown of what I think brought us the brink—hopefully—of some positive changes in English language (and actually English) football punditry.

Back in January 2010  an enterprising young man by the name of Michael Cox decided to set up a blog that put its money where its mouth is (do blogs have mouths?) by not just paying lip service to the importance of talking about tactics when doing proper football analysis, but by actually discussing football tacticsZonal Marking wasn't itself the cause of a change of thinking about the possibility of football writing in the UK, but its success, along with Jonathan Wilson's long-running column in the Guardian, demonstrated that many followers of English football were dying for something beyond flowery adjective-laden prose, or worse, the three Ps approach in British punditry—pace, power, passion.

Meanwhile blogs like the already excellent got even better (despite the infrequent protests from its chief editor), and sites like the ecumenical In Bed with Maradona took their first kicks at the can this year. Again, I think these sites are more symptoms than causes of a growing interest in diverse opinions on football in the UK, but it's hard to deny that interest is indeed growing.

Meanwhile, at the same time these sites were taking off, football punditry on British television was crash landing. While uninformed opinion has always had a comfy home in sports television, Alan Shearer and Andy Gray put out the welcome mat a little too zealously this year. This sort of thing, it should be said, is nothing new. The difference was the unity and vehemence in response to several high-profile gaffes, particularly when Alan Shearer claimed in September "we don't really know much about Hatem Ben Arfa." It was one thing for the Guardian's tea time email the Fiver to crack (or moan) wise about another stumble from the paid talking heads, but for Stan "TalkSPORT" Collymore to offer a brazen frontal assault on the entire Match of the Day panel for offering "pap", well, that was something new.

Arfagate indeed set something off. Journalists, bloggers and football-lovers debated on twitter whether journalists would make better TV pundits than ex-players. Others openly questioned why someone with the continental expertise and extreme affability of James Richardson would be relegated to hosting darts on Bravo while DJ Colin Murray got to host Match of the Day 2. The momentum seemed to be waning until Andy Gray recently decided Lionel Messi was not good enough to beat Stoke because the Premier League has more "depth" than La Liga. Suddenly many in England are again asking themselves the question—is this as good as it gets when it comes to football punditry on TV?

The problem isn't the idiocy—it's the exclusivity of that idiocy on TV. Why, in a nation that tolerates the footballing opinions of the Guardian and the Independent alongside the Sun and the Daily Mail, can't there be more diversity (i.e. more intelligent options) among the talking heads on television?

I read recently in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink that, contrary to intuition, our facial expressions don't signal our inner feelings, they are one and the same thing. Research demonstrates that if you go around frowning all day, you're going to feel like shit. I think it's much the same in the relationship between football the multimillion pound sport and football the multimillion pound TV media juggernaut. If we come to expect "expert football analysis" to mean an a priori dismissal of the importance of tactical strength in the face of "passion," or that knowledge of players outside of England and whomever's on the cover of FIFA 11 is unnecessary, or that the number of English teams in the Champions League knockout stages is proof Barcelona would struggle against Stoke; well, you're not going to expect a lot from football as a sport.  You're not going to get hot and bothered if there are fewer UEFA pro licenses in England because you've come to believe football doesn't need good managers to be better-played, it needs to "quicken the tempo."

In other words, to paraphrase a fellow Canuck, the football media is the football. If you buy into that, the idiocy of Alan Hansen or Richard Keys is no longer a trivial matter ripe for satire or sarcastic WSC columns. The good news is we're starting to see a very positive change with the rise of on-line media and the inevitable diversity of voices that comes with it. The passive acceptance of stupidity in TV football punditry might slowly harden into active opposition. When British football-lovers can just as easily listen to Football Weekly or pay a visit to Football Fairground as turn on Match of the Day on BBC 1, they will no longer accept the exclusivity of the opinions of former players on TV as the truth of the matter. Here's that fellow Canuck again.

The audience is not just involved now in England; with independent blogs and podcasts covering history, tactics, and the latest in Bangladeshi football, they're well in. Not to be obnoxiously Shirky-like about it, but the days of moron MotD panels might be nearing their end. This is not a subtle side-column in the history of English sports either. The growing involvement of the unwashed public in how the story of football is told and retold will shape how the game is perceived, and possibly how the game is played. Pollyannish? Perhaps. But football culture is shaped by media culture. If we treat football like a game for  the anglocentric yob, it will be played that way. British televised punditry is still stuck on the old narrative. It's high time England seized the momentum and finally changed the channel.


Anonymous said...

Great post, but I think the dearth of intelligence on English TV with regard to footy is replicated over here with ESPN. They bludgeon us over the head with the same tired talking points and eschew any kind of critical thought.

Guess they think TV's not for thinking, but for mindless absorption. They're probably half-right.

Russell Berrisford said...

Back in the day there was an explosion of fanzines produced by supporters that eschewed the usual media perpective, and the current crop of blogs and websites are a similar development I think.

One of the main reasons that TV coverage is so bland is that TV companies are scared of offending the Premier League and thus end up losing the rights to the games.

It's sad that nobody expects to be challenged by the "official" coverage anymore but I'm not optimistic that it will change anytime soon.

Lanterne Rouge said...

I think Russell makes a very good point: fear is a key problem. The pundits are often friends with players and managers.

I agree with you Richard that there is hope. Look at Radio Five Live. With one or two exceptions - Alan Greene plus the phone-in culture involving Tim Lovejoy and Spoony - the station provides intelligent comment aplenty and I am always impressed by the knowledge of the commentators. It's also under the auspices of the Beeb of course, so one might hope that some of these high standards will rub off on the television men.

However, a warning might be found in the case of Mark Clemmit. He's a witty, engaging pundit on the radio but only manages to be annoying on TV's The Football League Show . That's presumably down to how he is told to behave.

...and having just spent 5 months stateside, as well as the deeply irritating Proactiv adverts, I'd agree with the first anonymous commenter here that the standard isn't any better on ESPN or FSC.