There is a point in the career of a retired footballer when they go Full Pundit.
Not all reach this level: It is a graduation of sorts, the culmination of a long journey from the muck and sweat of the playing field to the make up and lights of the studio.
Some never progress past the stage of “doing a bit of TV work while I get my coaching badges,” never mind reach the ultimate nirvana of Full Pundit.
These are the ones who cannot leave behind their past lives, whose divided loyalties are betrayed by phrases like “the lads will be disappointed” and “okay, they lost 5-0, but let’s take the positives.”
But for the chosen few, reaching Full Pundit status is a beautiful moment, when they become something more than just an ex-player.
Former Republic of Ireland midfielder Keith Andrews made Full Pundit in recent weeks, and it was with a tear in my eye that I watched his analysis of Ireland’s dismal Nations League campaign.
“He has gone Full Pundit!” I thought proudly, as Keith tore into what he saw as slapdash tactical preparation for the games with Denmark and Wales, holding the expensively assembled Irish management team to account.
Going Full Pundit is, for those of us on my side of the fence, a beautiful moment of transformation, like the caterpillar shaking off the chrysalis and unfurling its wings to become a butterfly, except the butterfly is wearing a three-piece suit and really doesn’t like zonal marking at corners.
But for those in the old world, it is a betrayal.
It was Seamus Coleman who dished out a dose of ‘Et tu, Brute?’ last weekend, the current Ireland skipper returning fire in the direction of his former international teammate. “It’s very easy from a pundit’s position.
"Keith has got a job to do, Keith has really taken to punditry,” Coleman observed archly, as if talking about money-laundering or grave-robbery or some other profession of equal ill-repute.
Coleman wasn’t finished there. “When he was a player it was his job to get on the ball and make things happen and at times he didn’t do that,” he said, reminding Andrews, newly ascended to the bully pulpit, that he was once among the toiling masses below.
As Ireland captain, Coleman was also only doing his job, circling the wagons at a time when the camp is assailed on all sides.
It wasn’t for him to carefully parse Andrews’ criticism, which was directed not at the players but rather at the shortcomings of those in charge of them.
But Coleman’s key point was to say to Andrews, in the words of the Grand Master Full Pundit himself: You’ve jumped the fence now, baby.
Mind you, Andrews isn’t the only pundit running for cover lately.
“Shut it!” ran the back page headline in the Daily Mirror last Wednesday above a story alleging that Manchester United stars were “fuming over the constant attacks from club legends.”
Criticism from the platoon of former United legends now working as pundits has so
incensed the beleaguered current lot that they have taken to passing around clips of gaffes and cock-ups by Messrs Neville, Ferdinand, and Scholes from their playing days.
Like Coleman’s takedown of Andrews’ ability as a playmaker, this is a classic case of playing the man and not the ball, which, given Scholes infamous tackling technique, is probably quite fitting.
So, what’s going on here? Have modern footballers become so used to having their egos massaged by entourages of agents, publicists, and personal tattoo artists, that they can’t take a bit of stick from a few grizzled ex-pros?
Or has criticism of players and managers gone too far in the age of click-bait sensationalism, where a large percentage of online media consists of clips of TV pundits slamming somebody or other?
Bayern Munich’s board, themselves a collection of grizzled ex-pros, certainly think so.
In the face of a cataclysmic run of bad form (four games without a win. Yeah, really), Bayern supremos Uli Hoeness (club president), Karl Heinz Rumenigge (chief executive) and Hasan Salihamidzic (sporting director) stomped into a specially convened press conference last Friday to take on the club’s critics.
“We have decided that we will not accept that style (of criticism) any more,” jabbed Rummenigge at an astonished press corps.
The intervention by Bayern top brass has been largely greeted with guffaws in Germany, especially the irony of Rummenigge referring to the sanctity of the German constitution when sitting next to convicted tax-dodger Hoeness.
But it is also being read as a sinister attempt to bully media into toeing the line dictated by the all-powerful Bundesliga giants.
If the War on Full Punditry escalates, could this lead to a ‘chilling effect’ on future generations of this noble breed? It’s certainly nothing new for those in power to try to clamp down on negative coverage.
Throughout his iron-fisted rule of Manchester United, it was known that the Old Trafford media scrum lived in constant fear of upsetting Alex Ferguson, or else face being banished forever.
And it’s long been suspected that certain TV companies expect a benign approach from their pundits, lest they devalue ‘the product’.
But with greater competition than ever for sports rights, will broadcasters become even more fearful of upsetting the establishment?
And with the top clubs and even elite players becoming more like corporations, who will defend their image with the full force of their financial might, will it become ever harder for the Full Pundit to speak truth to power?
Is it possible, even, to see in the attack on journalistic freedoms by the powerful around the world, from Trump to various murderous crackpot dictators, a vague thread that links all the way to the humble Full Pundit and his attempt to slam, castigate, and skewer without fear or favour?
There are likely to be safe spaces for this endangered species.
The likes of Arsenal Fan TV and myriad other unofficial online outlets show that there will always be somewhere to go to hear unfiltered opinion.
But really, the internet’s untamed wildernesses are hardly a fitting place for something as beautiful and precious, when in the glory of its natural habitat under the studio lights, as the Full Pundit.
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