LIAM MACKEY: Crossing the divide to learn how to talk a good game

No matter how successful they might go on to be in management or anything else associated with the game - Liam Mackey writes - I’ve yet to hear a former footballer suggest that his new career ever comes even close to replicating the buzz he experienced as a player.

In his book ‘The Second Half’, Roy Keane recalls a moment in his short but lively career as a television pundit, when that truth hit home strongly. In Turin for a Champions League game between Juventus and Chelsea, he describes standing near the corner-flag before kick- off with ITV’s Adrian Chiles, the presenter gleefully soaking up the atmosphere.

Writes Keane: “He goes, ‘This is great, isn’t it?’ He’s a proper football fan. I went, ‘I used to play in these games, Adrian’. I wasn’t being cocky. He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I can see where you’re coming from.’

“It’s about justification and what you stand for. When I was at United, I was getting paid good money, but I could go, ‘Yeah, but I’m giving it back to you’. I didn’t feel that way with this work. I don’t like easy gigs. When I heard, ‘I liked your commentary last night’, I knew I was only talking bullshit, like the rest of them. Hopefully my bullshit was a bit better.”

Some of the time it was, as it happens, but you could tell that Keane’s heart was never really in it although, typically, in the same book he contradicts his declaration that it is all just so much hot air by conceding that punditry does serve a purpose.

“It creates argument — even if it’s about different styles of punditry,” he says. “There’s a skill to it. It’s a balancing act. You want to point out something that someone who hasn’t played mightn’t have spotted, but you don’t want to talk down to people. You want to educate them, a little bit — and entertain them.”

Enter, on cue, Gary Neville. Keane’s former team-mate ticks all those boxes so comprehensively that, if you didn’t know better, you’d be tempted to think he’s the exception to the rule of all those ex-pros having to put on a brave face with the make-up and settle for second-best now that the thrill is gone.

Since joining Sky Sports in 2011, Neville has raised the bar for football analysis in England by taking the job seriously without taking himself too seriously. The result is a blend of knowledge, insight, opinion and humour which not only puts him a few rungs above the rest but which has also had the effect of making his counterparts across all the channels raise their game — or at least try too.

Although it probably has as much to do with filling the space left by the departed Alan Hansen — prior to Neville, the gold standard bearer for superior punditry in England — even the previously anodyne Alan Shearer has shown signs in recent times that there is more to his talking game than dessicated cliché.

But it’s Neville who reigns supreme, managing even to fulfil a role on England’s coaching ticket without, so far at least, seeming to compromise his views on the club games he analyses for Sky on a weekly basis — no small trick.

A recent little ding dong with his co-analyst Jamie Carragher on ‘Monday Night Football’ showed Neville play to his strengths, and ultimately enjoying another small victory in this latest incarnation of the old Liverpool-United rivalry.

At issue was the subject of marking at corners. Carragher was making a pitch for the value of zonal marking, working flat-out with the technology to illustrate how the system should work and why, when it doesn’t, the players are at fault.

Neville, an old school advocate of man-marking who admitted he had never done zonal marking with United, expertly played the straight guy, insisting that he really, really wanted to learn how the system was supposed to operate, then standing back with a quizzically raised eyebrow while Carragher worked himself up in knots trying to explain.

The exchange ended with Neville landing the killer blow by simply asking Carragher if he was managing a team to play the next day, would he send them out to man-mark or mark space. With a sound like all the air leaving his body, Carragher conceded he’d opt for man-marking. Neville burst out laughing.

The real point though is that the exchange had been genuinely informative, as well as entertaining, which — along with the occasional dollop of controversy — is all the viewer can hope to ask for from punditry on the box.

As with the game itself, the personnel are constantly being reshuffled in the battle for rights and ratings. The news this week that ITV and Andy Townsend will part company in the summer has been greeted with much unseemly delight on social media though, for all his oft derided verbal tics — “For me, Clive...” — I have to say his was a co-commentating voice I never had any trouble digesting on Champions League nights.

For their part, Sky Sports seem to be intent on becoming the Man City of sports broadcasting, their latest superstar acquisition — and reportedly at a suitably eye-watering cost of €5 million over six years — the player who was the best striker of the Premier League era, Thierry Henry.

Although that, of course, won’t stop Irish viewers praying for the first time he’ll be called upon to adjudicate on a blatant hand ball.


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