Time for some objective reporting and punditry

ANYONE who saw the post-match bun-fight that went on after Manchester City had just beaten neighbours United at Old Trafford witnessed a group of experienced former players desperately trying to say it how it is without saying how it is.

Roy Keane, fidgeting a little uncomfortably, shaking his head and biting his tongue, finally let slip by suggesting somebody was an idiot. At the same time, the others were looking at the record of United and, if it had been anyone other than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, would have been suggesting the manager’s time was up. There were hints that they all knew it was 11.59pm for the Norwegian, but nobody wanted to say it was really close to midnight.

Football, for all its globalisation, is still a small country, hence the pundit community bumps into each other all the time. How would Gary Neville, for example, feel about coming face-to-face with Solskjaer when the former “baby-faced assassin” is finally sacked? It is going to happen, it may happen very soon, for everyone is singing the same song – “this just isn’t good enough for Manchester United”. And by the way, the singers include a fat lady strolling the streets of Salford.

Legions

This is the problem when TV broadcasters insist on hiring a legion of former Liverpool and Manchester United pundits to discuss the games. There cannot possibly be objective commentary when a player has played 500 games for Liverpool and is watching the club that undoubtedly still welcomes him with open arms, possibly giving him an ambassadorial role and access to the key figures behind the scenes.

Rarely do these people offer constructive criticism, unless they are Graeme Souness or the highly entertaining Keane. Solskjaer is a classic case, he has been under scrutiny since day one, usually by people who were once lining-up alongside him. Management is a poison challis, but the Manchester United job, if not executed correctly, can be at best a hindranxce and at worst, the destroyer of careers.

Managers that have become part of a club’s story as players, achieving that overused and inappropriate tag, “legend”, should perhaps be avoided as suitable candidates. It simply doesn’t always work, if only because when the time comes to sack that legendary name, nobody wants to do it.  

For example, Frank Lampard at Chelsea was a rude awakening for a much-loved player who was given a job really made for a more experienced head. There’s no way Lampard and Chelsea won’t be friends going forward, but some managers can become very bitter about the end of a relationship. One former manager who had won England caps but failed miserably as a manager, told me: “One thing is certain, we all get the sack. We can all be the greatest people on earth, all enjoy each other’s company, but when it comes down to it, results determine whether the relationship goes on. The last thing a manager should do is interpret getting the sack as a personal thing.”

When Glenn Hoddle took the Spurs job, many felt it was a marriage made in heaven, but it was something a let-down. Andrea Pirlo of Juventus was another disappointing appointment. Others, such as Howard Kendall (Everton), Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool), Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid) and Pep Guardiola (Barcelona) were all almost instant successes. 

Valuable

The TV companies, and you could extend this to match reporting, need to think twice about engaging committed former players or fans to report on a team. They don’t want to upset their pals and they don’t want to look bad with their old fans. Likewise, regular reporters of local clubs are almost obliged to be sympathetic and frequently use terms like “unlucky”, “brave” and “committed” to describe a setback, whereas straight to the point descriptions such as “poor”, “ineffective”, “effortless” or “lacking” are avoided for fear of offending. They know they won’t get access to club insights if they tell the truth and today, a football writer can get come face-to-face with a lynch-mob on social media if the fans are upset. Yet the most incisive and valuable reporting is often made by the neutral observer, not the die-hard fan that has the club in his or her DNA.

There are still some very partisan reporters out there, many of whom are more interested in building their personal brands via social media rather than producing captivating copy. Punters do not want to know about a reporter’s back story, personal experience or education, they want them to be wordsmiths telling a compelling story about the game.

Perhaps it is time for media companies to adopt some aspect of neutrality when it comes to assigning pundits and reporters to games. There’s enough of them around to provide more objective coverage rather than former pros of the clubs involved in a specific game. Will it happen? Of course not!

Football Read Review: The Club – a book that had to be written

THERE’S A LOT of very fine football books in circulation at present, ranging from the fairly disposable “fan lit” to books about some of the trends impacting the game, such as data, tactics, finance and culture.

The Club, by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, explains how the Premier League rose to become the most disruptive sporting business in the world. The league’s origins, which we can safely assume were born out of greed and a desire to allow the big, wealthy clubs to secure as much of the pie as possible, were as much about protectionism as innovation.

Something had to change, however. The game was a mess in England and the authors captured it perfectly when they described 1980s football as a product where the threat of violence was in the air, along with a strong smell of urine.

There are tales of misguided ambition, such as Blackburn Rovers’ rise to become champions, only for the balloon to burst and the benefactor to lose some interest after realising his ambition. The Premier, it would seem, has enticed people to fly close to the sun, only to realise that their wings were, after all, made of wax.

The arrival of new owners, “a motley crew of executives”, changed the dynamic, making new market leaders such as Manchester City and Chelsea. “The Premier League has become the classic business fable for our globalised world,” said the authors.

Interestingly, and despite popular opinion that the Premier is a league run for foreigners, managed by foreigners and a cash cow for foreigners, Robinson and Clegg’s story insists the Premier’s richest clubs are not merely the clearing houses for talented players from overseas. “They’re also making as many British millionaires each year as any London hedge fund.”

At the same time, Premier League football has become expensive, highlighting the divide between the game’s professionals and the people paying to watch them. Robinson and Clegg use the example of Tottenham, where season ticket prices have climbed by an astonishing 800% since the Premier was inaugurated. But still the crowds hold up, despite the protests!

This is an excellent book, one that captivates the reader and leaves one feeling a little angry about the motives of many people in the game. The Premier League is a much-envied product that, commercially, has soared into the stratosphere. But when you hear of clubs complaining about the inflated investment that has created new contenders, it is hard to sympathise with chairmen and CEOs whose intentions were not all entirely honourable in 1992. This necessary work should be on any serious student of the game’s bookshelf.

The Club is published by John Murray. Hardback: £ 20.

Photo: PA