The Tao of Sporting Punditry

When an accident occurred during an F1 Grand Prix, Murray Walker, the motor racing commentator would sometimes tell the audience “we can’t see what’s happened from where we’re sat.” The reason Walker could not tell who came off at turn 11 of the Hungaroring is that he was in a BBC studio in England, watching the same television pictures as everyone else. Therein lies the irony of sports commentary. The purpose is to tell you what is happening. Apart from when listening on the radio, the same goal can be realized by using your own eyes. But watching television sport without commentary is like watching a modern-day movie made in black and white. Some people will never overcome that gnawing feeling that something is missing.

For the most popular sports, commentary has expanded exponentially. The commentator, once the lynchpin of television sports presentation, is now a bit part player. Time was that you used to only hear commentary, talk about events as they happen. Now every major sport is immersed in talk about what will happen before it does, and talk about why it happened after. Commentary is submerged in punditry. When once a retired footballer would buy a pub and serve stale beer to his hangers-on, he now learns to wear a tie with an enormous knot, gets media training, and reinvents himself as a television personality.

As a consequence of the shift from talking about events as they happen, to just talking, the entrance qualifications for talking about sport have changed. It used to be necessary to be good at talking. Time was to work in media, you had to be able to continuously say something interesting and coherent in response to changing events. Now, the major qualification is to have once been a sportsperson. The idea is that having been a sportsperson, you have some special insight on the events. That may be true to a point, but most sports people are individuals with exceptional gifts of strength, stamina, speed, balance and agility. That does not mean they have two brain cells to rub together, had the foggiest idea what they were doing, why they were good at it, or the least bit of ability to explain it to others. Thanks to this trend, it is not unusual to hear halftime conversations that go something like the following…

Steve: Gary, do you think the blues will be happy coming in one-nil up?

Gary: Yes, Steve. But they’d have been happier to be two-nil up, no doubt about it.

Steve: It’s been one of those halves where the team on top is the one that takes its chances.

Gary: You’ve got to take your chances when you’re playing at this level. Albion didn’t take their chances. The blues did take their chance. The funny thing was that the lad took what was the hardest of the chances he had, after missing three or four easy ones.

Steve: Once again, it all comes down to taking your chances…

Gary: It does, Steve. And not just chances but half-chances. Sometimes you don’t even get a chance, so you’ve got to take your half-chances too.

Steve: And Albion didn’t make many chances.

Gary: No. To make chances you’ve got to take a chance or two. They’re sending in balls from deep and the defenders will gobble them up all day and night. The blues are working hard and they’re making it hard for Albion and that’s what we saw right from the kick-off, right up to when the ref blew his whistle and they came in for halftime. To be fair to Albion, the blues have played with two solid lines of four in defence and midfield, and they’ve not let Albion have a chance in this game.

Steve: Albion have shown they can make chances in their other games.

Gary: They have, and I’m sure that’s what the gaffer is telling the boys right now. The final ball’s let them down, but with the chances they’ve made in other games, you’ve got to back them to score sooner or later. But at this rate, it might not be today. Saying that, we’ve seen games like this turn in an instant and like the great Brian Clough used to say: it only takes a second to score a goal. Another goal, from either side, will definitely change the game.

Steve: What else do you think the manager’s telling Albion in their halftime talk?

Gary: I think he’s probably saying that there’s no need to panic. They’ve got forty-five minutes to come back. They need to be patient and find a way to inject some more urgency in their passing and overall play. They’ve not been the top team so far, but even the bottom team can be the top team on any given day in this league. We’ve seen it many times before, but I’d be surprised if we see it today. The main thing is they need to score first to get back into the game.

Steve: If they go two down, it’ll be a mountain to climb back.

Gary: That’s right Steve. They’ve done well for a newly-promoted team, but they really need to score first to stand a chance in the second half. If they go two down then you’ve got to think they’re out of it. But with the goalscorers they’ve got, they can never be ruled out completely.

Steve: Is it too soon to make a change?

Gary: I don’t think they need to make a change. The young lad on the wing is causing them problems when he runs at his opposite number. He just needs better delivery into the box. The strikers aren’t getting fed and if you don’t feed them they become invisible. There was a ten minute spell when the guys upfront looked bright and seemed to be getting on the front foot but the rest of the time they’ve not got their foot on the ball and that’s why they can’t get a foothold in this game.

Steve: That’s the game of football for you. Now what about the referee – is he having a good game?

Gary: There’s been some tackles flying in which makes it hard but he’s keeping the game flowing which the fans like to see.

Steve: And the penalty shout?

Gary: Definitely not a penalty. He won the ball cleanly and the lad went over too easy for my liking. If you’re going to criticize the ref you have to question why he didn’t give a yellow card for simulation. This ref never tends to hand out many cards unlike other refs, which I like to see, but makes the players very confused. The players are crying out for more consistency. That’s all that anyone can ask from the men in black. If a player falls that dramatically in the box, and it’s not a penalty, you’ve got to card him. We’ve seen them given in other games and it’s the lack of consistency that makes it hard for players to tell what are the rules on pretending to be fouled in the box. They just want to know what the rules are and if they’re allowed to pretend to be fouled in order to win a penalty decision. The refs really need to sit down together and decide what the rule’s supposed to be so players know where they stand when falling over in the penalty area.

Steve: Do you think they might throw on Hobson, who’s not played for six weeks but is fit enough to sit on the bench?

Gary: Hobson gives them something different. The question is his sharpness. Without playing he won’t be sharp but you don’t get sharp unless you’re playing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t come on until the last ten minutes, especially if they’re still down.

Steve: And what do you think of the blues’ new signing, the lad Kinzamann from Kaiserslautern?

Gary: He came here with a big reputation but I’m disappointed, to be honest. It looks like he’s struggling to keep up with the pace of an English derby game. This isn’t a derby game but it’s as good as a derby game.

Steve: I think the teams are about thirty-five miles apart. It’s not technically a derby game, but I know what you mean. It’s just like a derby game with everyone running around at a hundred miles an hour. And Albion would only have spent a half hour on the team coach, coming down the motorway this morning.

Gary: There’s a lot of huff and puff. There’s a lot of commitment on show. Typical English game with everyone diving in, hard tackles and no time on the ball. It’s what makes our football so entertaining to watch. Some of these new foreign players struggle to adjust to the pace when they first arrive. But the lad Kinzamann had that moment early on when he showed he’s got some silky skills, so I’m hoping he’ll be better in the second half.

Steve: Would either team be satisfied with a draw?

Gary: I don’t think so. This game’s a six-pointer. If it’s a draw, then the teams only get two points between them and that means they’ve both lost a potential four points. Even at this stage of the season, you can’t afford to drop four points in a single game.

Steve: Every game counts.

Gary: It does. There’s thirty-eight games in a season, not ten games or six games or twelve games but thirty-eight games in a season. And that’s not counting cup competitions. I think they’ll both be glad that they’re not in Europe which would mean even more games.

Steve: This league’s a marathon.

Gary: Exactly. These days, football is literally a marathon. That’s what makes the result in every single game so much more important. That’s why they’re playing this league game like it’s a cup game. In the league what matters is how many games you win and how many you draw. You can’t afford too many loses so you’ve got to aim to win every game, especially these games because you can’t expect to win against the top four. But with the blues at home, they know they’ve got to beat a side like Albion to stay up, and so far they are beating them which is all the fans can ask for.

Steve: The game might be unlocked by that little bit of skill or a mistake in the last ten minutes.

Gary: If the game is still one-nil going into the final ten minutes, then what happens in those ten minutes could definitely change the result in a big way. And then there’s stoppage time too.

Steve: So they’ll both be trying to win.

Gary: I’d bet my shirt on it.

Steve: And it looks like an expensive shirt too.

Gary: [Laughs] Thanks Steve.

It is tempting to denigrate the low end of punditry, but the high end of pre and post match analysis is now supported by an extraordinary array of technology. Pundits like Andy Gray of Sky’s Football coverage, and John Madden when talking about American Football, are now supported by gizmos that make even Bill Gates drool with envy. They have chalkboards, replays, hawkeyes, highlighters, snickometers, speed measurers and even computer simulations to help explain such basic things as how one team managed to score despite the best efforts of the other team to stop them. The investment in technology is so impressive, you have to assume there has been a knock-on stimulus to other sectors, in the same way that the space race resulted in teflon pans and pens that write upside down. Right now you imagine there is an American general somewhere in Afghanistan, marking on a touch sensitive screen the plans for how his team of troopers will make a touchdown run into Al Qaeda’s endzone.

Whilst some pundits have masterful analytical skills of a kind that were sorely lacking at Lehmann Brothers, the average pundit has descended to the level of former sports stars who can be trusted to dress smartly, speak coherently and avoid getting drunk until the show has finished. But then, they did let Gazza have a go at it, so even those expectations are not universal. More and more televised football games has created such a vacuum for former footballers that even Stan Collymore gets to share his insights with the rest of us. If even can talk sense about football, perhaps he should have told himself to score more goals during those long years of underachievement out on the pitch.

Journalists have been frozen out and their skills are no longer needed in front of camera, thanks to the seemingly endless rise of the professional sportsperson and amateur personality. The idea that being good at a sport is correlated to being knowledgeable or understanding a sport is laughable, as demonstrated by the modest playing careers of coaches Arsène Wenger and José Mourinho. That makes no difference to the television producers, who want stars with name recognition. Knowing what you are talking about is a secondary consideration. The problem for the stars is that they must eventually wane, and make room for the more recently retired. Only an organization like the BBC has the charity to keep Garth Crooks in work, and former footballer and pundit Gavin Peacock saw the writing on the wall and decided to pursue a higher calling, studying divinity and training for his new vocation with the church. As they get older, the bigger stars realize that anecdotes about their old sport and old chums tend to age as well as George Best’s liver. Lineker had the sense to diversify the range of sports shows he hosted, and Ian Wright diversified into mainstream light entertainment. Amidst all the hard-headed business nous, there is less of the engaging whimsy and eccentricity that makes Peter Alliss the Wogan of golf or made Murray Walker the Norman Wisdom of motorsports.

Occasionally, though, sheer numbers will deliver an unusual new flavour amidst the rotten apples that dominate punditry. When Mark Lawrenson reformed his double act with Alan Hansen, migrated from the centreback pairing of Anfield to the sofa pairing of Match of the Day, he seemed like Hansen-lite in every respect. Most of the time he made crappy self-indulgent chit chat about historical episodes in his life and those of the fellow players around him. Entertaining this may be, but relevant to presenting sporting highlights, it is not. Lawro’s witticisms were reminiscent of Richard Whiteley on a bad day. But as the anecdotes have run out, a new Lawrenson has emerged so seamlessly that it is impossible to identify where the transition began.

I first noticed the new Lawrenson when he was moved from the comfort of the studio settee to being the live commentary sidekick of John Motson. Normally sidekicks are there to pick up the slack with some knowing insights when the principal commenter needs a respite or someone to bounce off, or when the action lulls. They barely need to watch the game, and only need to come out with all those staple clichés that can only be excused because the former player has been there and done that. Lawrenson’s approach was radically different. He watched the game and talked about it. And he really did watch it. Whilst the normal viewer is befuddled why Motson is clueless about the events on the pitch (‘the ref’s blown the whistle, I’m not sure what for…’) Lawrenson would know perfectly what was going on (‘the ball flicked up off the midfielder’s heel and it struck the right back on the hand’). On top that, after all the lazy self-indulgent matey chat in the studio, putting Lawrenson next to Motson, and making Lawro talk about real events in a crisp manner as they unfold, has revealed a command of language at least the equal of the Scouse defender’s command of the offside trap. Lawro not only knows what the word ‘perfunctory’ means, something that cannot be said of many professional and university-educated people, but he is unafraid to use it. On returning to the sofa, Lawrenson has now cut the smalltalk, let the vocabulary off the leash, and found the way to weld information to entertainment. At one time, Lawrenson made even Ian Wright seem profound. Lawrenson is now the Hemmingway of pundits, except with added quips. Which goes to show that sports punditry, like so many other things, can sometimes be a game of two halves.

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