After an indifferent spell, ‘controvassy’ has finished the year strongly. With plenty in the tank. There is an adequate supply of hitting out, of slamming, and of returning fire.
But there are also fundamental changes in the way controvassy is generated. We may have to finally say fond farewell to the grand old age of the mind games.
And instead usher in the era of the pundit storm.
At the end of the day. For me.
Elsewhere, 2016 was the year of Taylor Swift, Elle magazine claimed, the other day. “There was no new album, but there were two breakups, new friends (Blake Lively! Dakota Johnson!), multiple makeovers, three ongoing feuds, and one nuclear Snapchat receipt blowout.”
By the measure of that persuasive case, 2016 was certainly the year of the football pundit, with perhaps not much achieved, in a tangible sense. But certainly enough feuds and Twitter spats — and the odd new friendship (Chris Sutton and himself) — to dominate the news cycle.
The growing influence of this irresistible force has drawn the gaffers’ focus away from one another, the mind games, the kind of petty goading the pundits might once have admired as title-winning genius. And instead sucked them into the pundit storms.
This week alone, Jurgen Klopp waged war with the Nevilles over Loris Karius; Jose Mourinho mocked Michael Owen over Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Pep Guardiola provoked Stan Collymore into a state of high dudgeon by reacting with some bafflement to the mention of Stan’s name.
It is an intriguing development, in many ways, the new prevalence of the pundit storm. Sure, there has always been a healthy suspicion between gaffers and pundits, given voice 20 years ago when Coventry City gaffer Big Ron flung off his headphones and invited Andy Gray and Richard Keys to “sit there and look and play with all your silly machines as much as you like…”
While Mourinho’s finely tuned radar for any signs of a vast international conspiracy against him has occasionally been triggered by the likes of Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Souness.
But this is still a relatively new battleground.
Search Alex Ferguson’s last autobiography for ‘pundit’ or ‘punditry’. Zero results.
Alan Hansen’s ‘You can’t win anything with kids’ is sniffed at in passing, but despite devoting a chapter to dealing with the media, to explaining how Alex Ferguson looked in the mirror and ‘put his Alex Ferguson face on’ before encountering the rabid press pack, Fergie had no interest in detailing his gripes with the pundits of the day. Despite a healthy interest, in general, in detailing gripes.
Because that was the mind games era and Fergie would much rather explain how he drove Rafa Benitez to distraction.
The conventional wisdom too, among the ‘hard-hitting pundits’ this side of the water, is that their UK-based brethren are too close to the action to rock any boats.
That the TV networks are too reliant on cooperation from the gaffers to tolerate pundit storms.
But we appear, as they say, to be living a new normal. Maybe, in a post-truth world, opinions are just that bit more reliable than facts or even league tables.
So a new power struggle has broken out.
The gaffers still attempt to clamber onto higher ground. They seize on the gift of Gary Neville’s horror show at Valencia. And they ask, as Souness once did Dunphy, ‘where have you managed?’.
But the pundits can do better now than protest that they managed to stay alive for 63 and a half years, baby. They want parity of esteem. And a say in the terms of engagement.
After all, the top top gaffers may just about be better paid - though only just, in some cases - but crucially the pundits enjoy better job security.
So the Nevilles are cautioning players and managers to shut it. And Stan Collymore is advising Pep Guardiola to watch Sky Sports Premier League Years, to bone up on the game’s new power brokers.
Ultimately, the story of the pundits’ rise - like most stories these days - might just be about the fall of the newspaper industry.
Tomorrow morning, on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement, Gary Neville will sit down with a selection of the UK’s top top football journos to discuss their industry.
The expectation is that Neville will explain to the journos where that industry is going terribly wrong. He recently took exception to a tweet of his being used as the basis of a news story, a practice he described as ‘shit journalism’. It may have been that but it was also a fine indicator of the new order. Where esteem for the press man has fallen in conjunction with the pundit’s rise.
We operate in an age when reporting of a pundit’s opinion is news. When Alexis Sanchez must convince Alan Shearer he is world class.
When an opinion is only valid if it has come from within the pundit circle. When busloads of journos gather regularly at Sky HQ or BT Towers, not to ask Paul Merson or Graeme Souness or Owen Hargreaves about their interesting lives, which are not on the table, but to find out what they reckon will happen on Sunday, in return for a mention for the broadcaster. When press men are reduced to go-betweens in the ‘war of words’ between pundits and gaffers.
Were he around, these days, would Fergie have bothered with the Alex Ferguson face, when squaring up to the press pack?
Would he see a ‘torture chamber’ he had to train for?
Or would he see a bunch of messenger boys sent to ask the gaffer: Did you hear what Gary Neville said about you?
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