Ten of the best - former pros who are top of the pundit game
The Thursday column
He got it badly wrong on Saturday but if anyone has earned the right to have the odd gross misjudgement it is Gary Neville, whose ground-breaking excellence as a pundit means he can be excused his inaccurate insistence that Sadio Mane should not have been sent off for kicking Manchester City goalie Ederson in the face.
Neville has taken the art of football analysis on TV to a new level and helped raise the general standard in the process as others realise it is not just acceptable but necessary to be more critical of footballers and managers despite the constant threat of bumping into the person you have lambasted on the practice green before a charity golf day.
Last year this column did its all-time top ten commentators (Tyler, Moore, Davies, Hawthorne, Coleman, Wilson, Motson, Pearce, Johns and Proudfoot just in case you care) and today the focus is turned on pundits, the former professionals who went on to earn a handsome crust bringing insight to viewers and listeners.
Funnily enough, not only did the top name on the list get it wrong with Mane’s recklessly high boot, so did the second, but at least both express their views with passion and conviction. Being wrong every so often is more acceptable than being boring when it comes to discussing a trivial matter like sport.
Many have tried and failed miserably to shine in the studio as they did on the pitch, but some fine operators have emerged in my lifetime and here are the ten best of the lot…
1 Gary Neville
When I first heard him interviewed as a young United tyro he was asked some bland statement/question like “You were a bit unlucky there," but he made me sit up and take notice by insisting: “We want shooting for not winning tonight.”
It was clear from that point he was a man worth listening to and his forthright, insightful views have made watching football on Sky so much more pleasurable.
He does not criticise gratuitously, generally makes allowances for how difficult a job refereeing is (notwithstanding Saturday’s poor call) and his contribution to Monday Night Football has made that the most relevant football show on TV.
The beauty of his failure as a manager at Valencia is that hopefully he will continue to work in television for many years to come.
2 Stan Collymore
This volcanic character is not universally admired because of some blemishes on his reputation, but there are times when he is the most challenging, bold and unmissable ex-pro on the airwaves.
His ferocious desire to be right and interesting makes his radio shows compelling to listen to, and he tackles subjects that many other former players have no desire to understand or approach.
And I will always admire how, during the 2002 World Cup finals, he showed such utter disdain for his fellow panellists on a radio show who, like dinosaurs, considered it fine to opt out of trying to accurately identify South Korean players because their names were too hard to remember.
3 Jamie Carragher
I wondered when it was announced that the former Liverpool stalwart was joining the MNF team whether it would spoil the show’s success by stealing some of Neville’s airtime.
It quickly became clear, however, that Carragher was a handsome enhancement rather than a potential problem. Like his former England colleague, he has no fear of telling it as he sees it and nor does he trade in tired cliches.
Carragher also has an added glint of humour in his eye and his presence in the studio guarantees it will be worth staying tuned in after the final whistle has blown.
4 Alan Hansen
Now something of a relic given how the three above him on the list have moved punditry forward, it should not be forgotten how entertaining Hansen was for many years on Match Of The Day.
His pained dissection of acts of calamitous defending were legendary and he had that essential quality a successful TV personality needed - likeability despite the dour facade.
5 Alan Shearer
Not long ago I would have struggled to place Shearer in my top 100, but whereas he was a superb striker from the word go, he took an awful long time to cut it as a pundit.
The aforementioned charity golf day uncomfortable encounter syndrome prevented him offering much of an opinion on anything, but suddenly the penny dropped, quite possibly because he realised the lads on Sky were running rings around the opposition, and now he has become a man whose views are worth listening to. The improvement has been remarkable.
Shearer uses video well, does not slag off refs in order to make himself sound hard-hitting, and is not afraid to go in hard on players who he feels deserve a rocket.
6 Graeme Souness
One of my favourite players is also one of my favourite studio experts and has been for a long time.
I possibly wouldn’t choose him for a football knowledge quiz team but he knows quite enough to ensure what he says carries clout and there is no danger of him shying away from steaming into a player because he knows nobody would be daft enough to jab their finger in his chest if they subsequently met him in the flesh.
7 Jimmy Armfield
This wonderful legend has to make the top ten, simply for the warmth with which he delivers his views.
He is not remotely hard-hitting and nor does he enter the gantry hell-bent on making a name for himself as a man the players fear. Instead he is a classy, gentle octogenarian former England captain who passes on his considered views in a knowledgeable and dignified manner.
8 Brian Clough
Back in the day, Cloughie was an epic pundit when he wasn’t pulling off managerial miracles in the 1970s.
He would have made an absolute fortune in TV if he was still with us, and if you have a spare 15 minutes just google ‘Brian Clough pundit’ and enjoy this outspoken genius.
9 Andy Townsend
Yes, that’s right. Andy Townsend. It’s all very well you sneering and pointing to the blandness of his analysis, but you have to understand that the majority of people watching football don’t need chapter and verse on the gegenpress or the intricacies of the false nine.
Townsend, as pleasant as you like, was not a one-man insight factory but, for me, Clive, he was a man who knew his audience and knew what they wanted.
10 Roy Keane
I suspect in years to come Keane and others will be replaced in the top ten by the emergent Joey Barton but for now the equally fiery ex-midfielder is in there for his sheer determination to offer his opinions in such stark, grim tones.
His intolerance of Adrian Chiles made for some chillingly compulsive viewing and he was never remotely afraid to go in studs up on anyone he felt was not pulling their weight.
More by Bruce Millington
Fascinating football stat brings great expectations
Despise though I do so many of the meaningless new stats that football generates, there is no doubt the widening appeal of xG is a genuinely fascinating development.
The abbreviation of expected goals, xG is a statistic used to give an impression of how a result should have worked out based on each team’s shots.
Every chance is given a rating based on Opta’s assessment of more than 300,000 goals and depending on where on the field it was taken from and how clear an opportunity it was.
It is, of course, no consolation when your team loses but is deemed the winner on xG, as Palace were on Sunday when they beat Burnley 1.98-0.28 on xG but lost 1-0 in the scoring system that matters. But it is a stat that is respected and extensively referenced by most proficient football punters.
So it makes me wonder how long it will be before a bookmaker offers prices on the xG result. Given the precision of the scoring, it would obviously be a draw no bet market, but each match now throws up literally hundreds of betting opportunities, some utter guess-ups, so an xG market could be a really interesting option.
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