Big Names or Educated Brains?

Euro 2012 showcased some brilliant football. There were only two goalless games amid a plethora of dumbfounding upsets, delicious goals, and delectable European babes. However, it also highlighted a massive problem with the televised game in Britain. Impact’s Peter Klein explains…

Mark Lawrenson is an absolute trainwreck of a commentator. He abhorrently plagued an otherwise fantastic Euro 2012 with his very own apocalyptic four horsemen-Hypocrisy, Ignorance, The Joker, and the sneering, whining Bias. These heralds of a spoilt viewing experience led to me punching the red button almost habitually so that I could find some refuge in the well informed, nonpartisan narrative of BBC’s 5 live radio commentary.

However, there are times when this just didn’t cut it. For those who have never watched a football game while listening to its radio coverage, the commentary becomes excruciatingly descriptive and has a tendency to fall slightly behind the action. As I generally enjoy having a commentary to give me player names and statistics, I preferred not to mute the games. And so I begrudgingly switched back to the awkward tension between Lawro and Guy Mowbray. The former was trying to destroy the commentary, the latter trying to save it, a thankless yet noble stance. Sadly, more often than not it was a scuppered ship. After all, how can anyone hold a commentary together when their colleague has a tendency to make remarks such as, ‘These managers all know their onions, and cut their cloth accordingly.’ You’d be forgiven for mistaking that quote for something Mike Bassett once blurted when he was high and drunk, but in actual fact it’s a nugget of wisdom from football guru Lawrenson.

It’s not just idiotic philosophies and condemnations which make him so unbearable. He insists upon vomiting out cringe-worthy jokes at every opportunity. I can just imagine him now, sitting up late at night pre-preparing them with his third wife. Evidently they really tickle her, or else she wouldn’t be married to him, and he wouldn’t discharge them at the first possible chance with such a confident, laddish air.

Furthermore in Germany’s Euro 2012 opener against Portugal, he plumbed the depths of hypocrisy when criticising Lukas Podolski’s decision to play for Germany instead of Poland. Podolski was born in Poland, but is eligible to play for Germany because of two German grandparents. He has also lived in Germany since he was two years old. Interestingly, Lawrenson found this unacceptable, despite his own “career” as an international footballer being formed on similar grounds. Lawrenson is Preston born, yet opted to play for the Republic of Ireland because he had an Irish grandparent and enjoys a pint of Guinness now and again. And, of course, because he couldn’t get into the England squad. He went on to display a sickening bias against Germany, mocking miskicks and implying they were diving and ‘making the most’ of every challenge the Portuguese attempted. Apparently if a player can’t perform as lethally as Wayne Rooney did throughout his long-lived tournament, they don’t deserve any respect. World War 2 was a long time ago Mark, get over it.

As you can see, I’m in danger of typing up yet another article focused simply on criticising Lawrenson – there are so many out there it could be classed as a genre. I’ll take a step back and examine the wider issue on display here – English television’s insistence on hiring big names over educated brains. The BBC must truly believe that Match of the Day viewers appreciate the vague descriptions their ex-footballer pundits try to pass off as analyses or else they wouldn’t pay them such ludicrous amounts. Alan Hansen’s three European Cups surely don’t justify a £100,000 per year contract and they certainly don’t credit him with an interesting and analytical “footballing brain”, for want of a better term. They symbolise his talent as a professional footballer, a talent which faded a long time ago. Why then, is he permitted to interject screamingly obvious remarks such as, ‘He’s got pace’, into our sacred night of football watching? The name and the career just don’t justify the insight.

Take the terrible voice of Mark Bright. Bright simply can’t escape working anecdotes about the high points of his career into every game he oversees. It’s sad really. It’s as though he believes the best days of his life are behind him and he’s desperate to cling onto them, desperate for one last round of applause in the limelight. Personally, it annoys me. I don’t care if he was Crystal Palace’s Player of the Year in 1990, and I enjoy his anecdotes like I enjoy being kicked in the genitals by a horse.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that all ex-players are terrible pundits or commentators, just the majority. Gary Neville is a fantastic pundit, and my respect for him has grown substantially since he took up his position with Sky. He somehow avoids taking a sneering, critical position against whoever is playing Manchester United that day, which is surprising given the events of his career with them. As a Liverpool fan I couldn’t stand him when he played but now I’m more than happy to hear that he will be joining Ed Chamberlin in the studio, which is testament to how well he does his job. He analyses without lecturing, has an astute tactical awareness and occasionally treats us with golden memories of his time under Fergie. He’s come a long way since he ran half the length of a pitch to celebrate in front of Liverpool fans, enraging them but endearing himself to United fans everywhere.

Sadly there are too many ex-professionals who are the opposite of Neville.  So why does the job requirements for commentators and pundits seemingly include being ex-players? Why not simply hire good journalists? If a journalist has the authority to vote in the prestigious Ballon d’Or awards, surely they are capable of offering a more interesting insight than, ‘He’s got pace’. Guillem Balague is a good example. The Spanish pundit, journalist, and correspondent knows the game on and off the pitch, inside and out. Like most journalists, he has working relationships with many figures within the game, and coupled with his knowledge of how the game is played this makes him an extremely interesting and authoritative voice. He also knows the game beyond the confines of the Premier League, unlike most high profile British pundits and commentators.

Some might argue that being paid to analyse or critique a game and being paid to play the game are simply two different perspectives with the same problems, and they would be right. The problems of bias and ignorance are just as likely to emerge in a journalist’s commentary than an ex-player’s. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a try. If something needs fixing, try doing it differently. If the problem remains, try something different again. Neville and a few others prove that having played the game can be a valuable asset to a pundit or commentator, so I’m not suggesting we abandon ex-players completely. Just pick out the intelligent ones and disperse them amongst interesting journalists and ex-managers. Those that can’t play by the rules and end up flying their team’s colours whatever the situation should be replaced, as should those who are simply obnoxious. Simples.

Unfortunately the BBC and ITV’s philosophy of name over talent seems set in stone, or else the ITV wouldn’t have been so bold as to appoint Adrian Chiles as their lead football presenter throughout Euro 2012. That’s a man which uses terms like ‘heebie jeebies’ presenting a major tournament which we only get to see once every four years. Fantastic. Anyway, I won’t end on a terrible pun because I’m not Gary Lineker. Instead I’ll leave you with yet another informative and interesting insight made by my favourite commentator Mark Lawrenson:

“Michael Owen isn’t the tallest of lads, but his height more than makes up for that”.

The man’s insane.

Peter Klein

One Comment
  • Daryl
    25 July 2012 at 17:39
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    Absolutely right, Peter. Good work!

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