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Enough of the commetators!

Posted on | August 13, 2013 | No Comments

The future of punditry seems in a confused state about football’s place in a national dialogue

Oh Gary Neville. Let me slink into my sofa and marvel at the razor sharp football instincts and irrepressible charm of thee.

Your lucid majesty in teasing out the subtlest truths from all that lands on your boyish blue peepers, weaving fresh beauty from a loom of delicately chosen thread fills me up and delivers me forcefully at the threshold of nirvana, leaving me gasping and blushing like a young bride on her wedding night. Then I remember that you’re a stubborn, single-minded bigot with all the forward thinkingness of an earthworm with a carrier bag on its head. I’m grateful for my bucket of ice water.

To say that Neville is one of the more insightful pundits operating on TV right now does his skills a dis-service. He is the best, certainly in terms of picking through the do’s and dont’s of playing the game, and Sky have finally found their heir apparent to the odious but tactically savvy Andy Gray.

But like Gray Neville brings baggage, and he has made a sterling job of inheriting his mentor’s reputation for crass judgements and crudely planned social commentaries.

On Monday night it was the role of foreign imports to the English game staring down Neville from the dock as he sat in his highchair wielding his verbal gavel like a rattle. It was a thorny issue at one time, when the Premier League’s money first began to reorder the balance of nationalities in the English game, and even the leftiest lefties entertained the fear that home grown players would find themselves with a reduced share of the playing time. It was a tricky blend of casual xenophobia and creeping self-entitlement, cloaked in the plausible robes of defending the interests of the national game.

The debate has moved on a lot since then. England’s performances over the last twenty years have shown no empirical downturn, the familiar story continuing to be talented individuals failing to cohere as a functional unit, and the national record at youth team level is consistently impressive.

Disagreements over the development of young English talent are still fractious but have lost their racially tinted edge; until Neville waded in with a tasteless critique of Newcastle’s recent recruitment policy.

The blunt face of Neville’s discourse for anyone who missed it was; too many French (nee foreign) players in one side creates a clique, the clique divides the club, the club loses its soul (he was unforthcoming about a full definition of this idea of ‘soul’- for clarification contact his agent) and the fans lose all sense of attachment to a team dogged by infighting and factional interests. Take note Arsene Wenger.

The lecture (some three to four minutes without interruption from a lifeless studio presenter) was a limp rallying cry to a cause that has lost most of its oomph amid the cosmopolitan modernisation of our national game (that’s national, not English).

That international influence has revolutionised the quality of football on offer in this country and forced home grown produce to up its game or be damned is so hardwired these days that Neville likely feels his views are being bellowed into a hostile wind.

That much was clear from the shaky cadences that supported his words. Here was a man on the defensive, consciously aware of his minority status issuing a rallying call for allies in a vast arena of dissidents. The Man Utd new season fixtures could be avoided, but there’s no hiding from the Manc take on life:

“Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool” Neville argues, “These are all proper Northern cities – lunch at 12, tea at 5!” as though a rudimentary declaration of some facts about geography and an impression of a dinner lady were necessary to win over a few key floating voters. It’s difficult to guess what Neville’s bosses at Sky will have made of this jingoistic melange of Enoch Powell meets Harry Hill.

No one has reaped the cash crop that the foreign influence has yielded more gratefully than Sky and for one of their own to be preaching with such self-righteous dogma about the relocation of the game from the local to the international… well, a consistent party line, it ain’t.

One wanders where the career of Gary Neville on the pundit’s sofa might be headed and comes up with a double-edged conclusion. On the one hand there’s a lot to be learned from the way the ex-England international conducts his analysis. The fan with more than a passing interest in the science of the game can gleam valuable insights from a rare case of a professional who understands the game on verbal as well as a spatial level.

Higher up the food chain those over at ITV and the BBC would do well to take a few notes on where the bar has been set and start asking serious questions about the nutritional value of the gruel offered up by Shearer, Townsend and the gang.

But there is an apprehensive nod here to lessons that should have been learned and haven’t. Sky were bold and uncompromising when putting their house in order in the wake of the boys’ club clear-out when Gray and Richard Keys were shown the naughty step, but the bellicose ‘better buy British’ creed of their new golden boy threatens to send out a confused message to a young generation otherwise enchanted by truly global game.

We owe our national game to an international heritage and this would be an inopportune moment for Sky to get its smoke signals wrong. The answer is to get off the couch and watch the games live. Pull your shirt on, dig out your scarf, get your tickets at Ticketbis and actually go to the game.



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