Thursday, 26 August 2010

Analyse This...

A spokeswoman for the BBC unveils
Radio Five Live's latest punditry signing,
whilst indicating the number of words
in his hastily assembled vocabulary

Perhaps it’s the bizarre human fascination with watching sport that causes us to treat its discussion and debate in an equally odd way. To some, indeed to many, the mere existence live sporting activity on television is beyond understanding. To these strange people, the very act of remotely witnessing a display of physical exertion from the living room seems a hypocritical display of indolence. If, in fact, sport is an activity that onlookers can derive as equal a pleasure as the participants, then surely the very concept would dictate that the viewer be present at the occasion?

This, as we all know, is nonsense, and is the sort of non-sequiter that is peddled all too frequently by those with no interest in sport whatsoever; a cruel and heartless bunch who take pleasure in seeing the football switched over to Eastenders. Shame on them.

I will concede that there might be a little too much sport on TV these days. If the sum total of any given week’s sporting output were calculated, it would undoubtedly amount to a period of time sufficient to complete every outstanding DIY job in the country, and countless piles of untouched ironing. Sadly (for some), we are where we are, and the fact that Sky TV alone churns out five channels of combative action indicates a stage in human development from which it is impossible to return. We are a nation, nay a civilisation, devoted to watching sport. I don’t intend to ruminate here on the merits or disadvantages of this fact, but instead to simply accept it, and move on. After all (if apocryphally) ‘Ours no to reason why / Ours just to sit and watch’

To the above-mentioned contingent, whose enjoyment lies elsewhere, nothing is more bewildering than the burning need of presenters and pundits to discuss, analyse and cogitate upon the action, whether speculatively or retrospectively. Each televised sport deals with its analytical requirements in different ways. Athletics for instance, has a great deal of time to fill between the periods of ‘action’ (for me this is from the time it starts to when it graciously ends). The presenters then, rely on having an endless reel of races, throws, jogs and sandpit dalliances at their disposal on which to pour comment. With televised athletics, it is necessary that these presenters are former athletes, for it is well known that anyone involved in track and field is either socially inept and incredibly boring (and therefore incapable of a career after competition in any other arena than commenting on athletics), or so strung out on opiates or steroids that they commit themselves to the nearest metaphorical high jump (citation required).

Cricket is always a divisive subject in this respect, and so I will neatly spring over its boundary rope long enough to make a superb catch at deep cover and maintain that no other sport has more successfully found ways of amusing itself between memorable moments than this glorious example. Here, anecdotes reign supreme, and I once heard a ten-minute segment of Test Match Special devoted entirely to the story of a pigeon that had incommodiously plonked itself at Silly mid-on. Magic.

I won’t dwell on Tennis for any longer than is necessary; for I am enraged to tears each time I consider how effortlessly Tim Henman has stepped into the studio to undo half a century of flawless BBC coverage. I firmly believe that his vacuous face and lack of charisma could have gone a long way in athletics.

The truth is that every sport has its pundits making Herculean efforts to speak coherently and sensibly on their respective subject, but none historically fail quite so spectacularly as the most beloved of world sports. It’s a well known fact that football punditry contains little of the coherence mentioned above, and even fewer instances of the sensible. This relies on a key tenet, one that ensures it will remain forever the exclusive domain of the moron and the halfwit; the ex-footballer. Given that the vast majority of pundits have shuffled off the footballing coil, it necessarily means that television studios across the land are filled with suited men of questionable literacy, grasping flailingly at fashion sense and doing their level best to state the obvious in such tangential ways that they hope to convince us of their perspicacity.

It must be noted that there is a vast gulf between punditry and commentary, and few would accuse John Motson and the like of lacking erudition. Commentators, on the whole, tend to be knowledgeable and articulate, chiefly because they have never played the game, choosing instead to spend their childhood at school.

Whether it be the booming ejaculations of Andy Gray, the bleating drawl of David Pleat or the tired groans of Graham Taylor, each channel broadcasting the beautiful game have apparently chosen the best they could find to comment upon it. If this is the case, then God help the likes of Joey Barton upon reaching retirement.
An ex-player has three choices as I see it; one, he can obtain his coaching badges and enter the maelstrom of football management (see Robson/Hughes). Secondly, he can lose all sense of perspective and direction, and become an alcoholic (see Gascoigne/McGrath). Lastly, he can take the comparatively cosier route on to radio and television and become a pundit, which an alarmingly large number are now choosing to do. It is not advisable to attempt all three, but that hasn’t stopped some (see Merson).

I have no problem in the slightest with ex-footballers becoming pundits, indeed it seems a natural progression. What does alarm me however, is the success that some of them enjoy for seemingly no good reason. Take Martin Keown for instance. He is no oil painting, and cannot claim to have achieved success for his scintillating appearance. Yes, he has some grasp of the defensive subtleties of the game, but given that sense of humour to him is as alien as a credit card limit to a Wag, how does he land a regular spot on Match of the Day? At least confine him to the gantry where he can do no more harm than lament zonal marking until they switch off the floodlights and leave him in darkness.

Alan Shearer’s presence on the MOTD sofa is (slightly) more understandable. He is undoubtedly a legend of the game, yet unfortunately this does not necessarily extend to his automatically becoming a legend of punditry. No, Sir Shearer of the Toon is the Duke of Obvious, commanding an army of statements that constantly battle with one another for the title of most pointless. He has improved slightly as time has gone by, yet his hair-tearingly annoying habit of confusing adverbs with adjectives has to stop. I realise it’s not Newsnight, but have BBC standards slipped to a level where even basic grammar is no longer required? As for his sense of humour, it’s there somewhere, but given the way he writhes around uneasily after making a joke, it looks as if he has had it surgically implanted, and that his body is rejecting the new organ with every chuckle.

Not a great deal can be said about Lee Dixon, other than that watching his hairline recede has become a pastime of mine. Nowadays, unfortunately, his forehead appears bigger than the screen itself and is becoming cause for alarm. I am in the process of drafting a strongly worded letter to the BBC demanding its immediate removal, at very least before the watershed for fear of scaring children.

Most alarming of all, and provoking in me a genuine concern for the sanity of the BBC Sports editor, is the recent inclusion of Robbie Savage on the punditry merry-go-round. Not only does he still play, which is cheating a little, but he is also irrevocably dim. Ok, I can forgive his appearance on the 606 football phone-in; his provocative nature and status as a hate figure are beneficial in engendering some liveliness into that all encompassing, excuse-laden term ‘banter’. Plus, it is useful to provide the callers with a presenter on a similar intellectual wavelength to themselves.

I draw the line however at his being permitted to co-commentate on Radio Five Live matches. I admit that Five Live has the tendency to occasionally descend into little more than adolescent, testosterone-filled shouting, but its actual coverage of football matches is second-to-none, and the professionalism of the commentary team should be sacrosanct; at all costs prevented from being undermined by the guffawing clownishness of Savage. To wit, listening to him commentate is like being forced to scrub your face with a cheese grater, only much less grammatically coherent.

I realise my vitriol has been primarily aimed at the BBC (as always seems to be the case), and although it produces a great deal of top quality sporting output (its Formula One coverage for instance is impeccable), the quality of football punditry is at an all time low. At least when Sky Sports customers wince at the fatuous comments of Jamie Redknapp, they only have themselves to blame for paying the premium. Everyone else with a remote interest in the game is forced to pay an unavoidable license fee to hear Savage habitually mispronounce a word, attempt to rectify it, and after realising he is illiterate, laugh at himself and encourage others to laugh with him. We’re laughing at you Robbie.

Put simply, as the self-styled Prince of punditry Alan Hansen would say (to whom nothing of the above applies), it’s simply diabolical…