Punditry and the overcrowding of opinions

(Image courtesy of Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images)

Why quality and recency must prevail over quantity

Increasingly, the industry of football punditry has become a hit-and-miss business. Of course, the priority for those fans watching live football from their sofas is the action itself but, for some, the insight shared by ex-professional players and managers now in media positions is part of the experience – an opportunity to obtain unique insight into the game. Well, it’s supposed to be. It is difficult to know who to blame, but for many quality over quantity is essential regarding football punditry, and the latter seems to have overtaken the former, with too many sub-par ex-professionals given a platform to spout their opinions. 

The quality of punditry is not so easy to determine. Arguably, the most important factor of football punditry is the respect for each individual on their own merit, given how recently they stepped away from the competitive bubble, particularly at the highest level. There is a culture of freedom of opinion, perpetuated by the minefield of social media that gives everyone a platform to constantly opine about football, no matter how ridiculous their view. However, on the professional level – it seems there is a defining factor as to the quality of a pundit.

While it is not always the case, those younger, more recently retired professionals have a better grasp on the state of the game, giving them an advantage in discussing it from a punditry role. Despite this, for a lot of fans, Ian Wright and Alan Shearer make an insightful pair of pundits on Match of the Day, assisted by Gary Lineker. While these three are all of a past generation, with Shearer the last to retire in 2006, they have maintained a close connection with the contemporary game that others of a similar era have not managed.

Television punditry in football can be brilliant, particularly when recently retired pros offer unique insight and take supporters closer to their heroes via tactical analysis and in-game commentary. However, too often, tv companies get it wrong and outdated individuals are given the platform to say frankly ridiculous things. In just the past seven days, both Gordon Strachan and Chris Sutton have indicated exactly why they are but two current examples of pundits coming from a generation that doesn’t align with the modern game.

Sutton has further established himself a reputation as a ranting rambler searching for a controversial altercation wherever possible, while Strachan stunned viewers of Sky’s “The Debate” show last week, seemingly comparing the potential abuse levelled at convicted sexual assaulter Adam Johnson to the recent rise of racism, subsequently losing his job.

Punditry is defined as “the expression of expertise in a particular subject or field.” While it can be argued what exactly constitutes expertise, it is evident upon watching or listening to contemporary pundits who is leading the way and who is simply not fit to keep up. There is always room for upcoming pundits such as the BBC’s Stephen Warnock who have just come out of the game and want to remain involved and apply their experiences to be a force for punditry good, but there are too many that pass as “experts” simply because they played at the top level. There is no direct correlation between a distinguished playing career and efficient punditry – but “good punditry” can be defined by three key elements.

Firstly, it seems fairly obvious that a good pundit is not self-obsessed and doesn’t talk about themselves whenever possible – whether jokingly or not. This eliminates those such as Paul Ince and Robbie Savage, who seem to crowbar references to their own playing careers into discussion wherever possible, taking away from the whole point of punditry. They are there to express expertise, which can be based on but is not limited to their own experiences having played internationally and in the Premier League, for example.

Another key facet of good punditry is impartiality and objective commentary on teams and players. Although they are considered some of the best in the business, Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand regularly walk a tightrope regarding this. However, this is only one element of the full package, and the respect that these three have earned is not limited to their distinguished careers but extends to their recent history of insightful punditry, whether rival fans like it or not. In particular, Carragher and Neville have blossomed into a dynamic duo, changing punditry standards with a comedic element and ongoing bitterness regarding their beloved Liverpool and Manchester United, which stems from their playing careers that both ended in the relatively recent past.

Finally, and perhaps the most importantly, is a pundit’s unique ability to highlight something that the everyday football fan hasn’t noticed, thought about or seen themselves. After all, it is their job to apply their own unique insight to what they see; this is where a pundit’s playing career can aid their ability to bridge the gap between an average fan and the elite-level footballers they are watching. For example, Jermaine Jenas has often provided thought-provoking moments on BT Sport, discussing the impact of career-ending injury leading to early retirement. On the same platform, his colleague and ex-England teammate Rio Ferdinand can provide insight unlike most other pundits on the ever-changing role of the modern centre back.

In general, too many ex-pros and managers are allowed to walk into punditry roles because of stature. As for women? The suppression of female representation in our game is still an issue – but we must focus on the good. Alex Scott, Rachel Brown-Finnis and Emma Hayes are a few names who have featured prominently in the football media limelight recently, but more need to follow. These women could easily take up roles filled by those of a past generation previously mentioned. They would undoubtedly further bridge the gap between today’s players and fans alongside recently retired male players, providing a more complete, diverse insight into the contemporary game. Their gender is simply irrelevant.

As recently as February, Scott (an active pundit for Sky Sports) had been receiving so much sexist criticism that she felt compelled to tweet the following message: “I’m not out here trying to be better than any male/female. There is room for us all to rise! I’m just trying to be the best ‘I’ can be in the role I am employed to do.” She was addressing comments levelled at her and other female pundits stating that “they’re taking over” and hinting at the apparent willingness for TV employers to appear “politically correct” by having a women on their channels. What prevents women such as Scott and Brown-Finnis with 40 and 82 caps for their country respectively from talking about football more insightfully than “experts” like Sutton, who played once for England and officially retired almost 12 years ago? 

With the punditry market perhaps becoming overcrowded, TV broadcasters and those in control of such employment must surely ask the question: what do we want to prioritise with our pundits? If the answer is a vast, largely male cast of older players looking to state the obvious or stir up debate with archaic comments, then the current landscape doesn’t need changing.

But if the answer is a more diverse, insightful group of ex-professionals with thought-provoking viewpoints, then more work can be done. It is down to opinion and there is a majority of good pundits currently on our screens, but the bad can outweigh the good and needs filtering out.

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