The discourse around football has become a distraction from the on-pitch action and created drama off it, so where do we go from here?
THERE’S an afterglow to the Emirates Stadium on what has been a sun-kissed September afternoon.
Micah Richards is pitchside and asks – inquisitively though no less playing the role of a fisherman teasing his bait into a lake – what the issue is with a Manchester United side that have just lost 3-1 to Arsenal late on.
Gary Neville is stood, microphone raised to his right. He is so eager to get in that he starts to make sounds usually preserved for regurgitation, such is his desire to enlighten us with his insight.
“It will always seem I’ll mention the owners, I will”, Neville spouts. “Because they’re still messing around with this football club.”
There’s a nationwide sense of mockery and eye-rolling apathy which is only excused in certain points of Moss Side and Salford.
Other retired professionals weigh in. Roy Keane polishes his high pitched “this is Man United” template for the gazillionth time. Richards is somewhat reserved from his usual jovial, often hysterical self.
Theo Walcott cuts the look of a person who’s ended up in the middle of an argument between two individuals in front and behind him in a supermarket checkout over trolley etiquette.
David Jones hasn’t quite mastered the summer casual suit vibe and is shifting uncomfortably in a Zara slash Autograph boss-of-a-considerably-younger-workforce two piece.
Somewhere, Mike Dean is milling about, probably enjoying the hospitality stood on a table belting out “My Way” in one of the lounges. He’s backed the referee on one call today. You’ve earned it, son.
All told, it’s a smorgasbord of cliché, criticism and an overall sense that this whole endeavour is tired.
Over on Premier League productions, there is a review of the game presented by Ian Wright and Kelly Cates.
They show the in-game clips of Wright, Peter Schmeichel and Michael Owen watching each action-packed incident and Wright meets it with a wry grin as the camera pans back to him.
His reactions weren’t performative. They were somewhat muted given the euphoria you would feel as a Gunner. Still, he looks slightly sheepish at seeing them.
Wright talks about what played out: “I thought Arsenal first half had a lot of good possession of the ball”, he notes.
“If that was United’s plan (counter-attacking football), then [I thought] we can deal with that.”
He goes on to make other salient points which offer evidence of a pundit who has dedicated time and effort to the subject matter.
A small ask. A reasonable expectancy, but one you nevertheless feel is absent from some who rock up on what feels a bit of a jolly.
Neil and I went to the Podcast Awards in November and Wright was named pundit of the year. His message on stage was simple: “Do your research.”
These are two examples of two very different settings. There should be mitigation for managers, players and, to a degree, pundits who are thrust in the aftermath of a result into a postmortem of why, what and who.
Neville is a perfect example of someone who sounds much more considered and informed on Monday Night Football than Super Sunday, especially when he’s been commentating.
He believes Declan Rice can win Arsenal the league. He believes Trent Alexander-Arnold can’t defend. He’s entitled to those opinions and others, but they seep through in his commentary and have done for some time.
Jamie Carragher isn’t exempt. This isn’t a Manchester United versus Liverpool thing. It’s a state of play conversation about how we analyse football in 2023.
If your team appears on the TV schedule for Sky at 4:30pm on a Sunday and you’re not going to a game, there’s a myriad of considerations before you get to your own game hypothesis.
Who is the referee? Who is commentating? Who’s in the studio? These are all factored in before you’ve looked at the opposition or how your own team might line up.
Most pundits are passionate about their opinions and biases and we should embrace that. But there’s an increasing feeling that production around football is becoming centred around creating drama away from the pitch.
This got out of hand with Carragher in the past. It did so again on Sunday after an alleged altercation between Keane and an Arsenal supporter. Something extremely ugly and a thing everyone should be seeking to avoid.
We know that any live game will have Neville making noises at mostly innocuous challenges, Keane frowning, and now Dean agreeing with whatever decision VAR has taken.
VAR was meant to eradicate a lot of the subjective debate we have around football. Instead, it has intensified it.
Eric Ten Hag astoundingly questioned the credibility of straight lines on Sunday in a manner which was more MAGA than Manchester United.
But VAR has increased conspiracy and suspicion. We’re no longer dealing with human error, but a society of secret handshakes and omertà at Stockley Park.
It has gone from one person’s decision to a perceived establishment sabotage of our clubs in the eyes of some.
The theories and distrust widens and the arguments become more entrenched. Yet this only means that you have more clippable content.
More penchant for on-screen heated debate and more reenactments of middle-aged men in a pub desperate to be heard.
Other networks, such as TNT and Amazon Prime, have their own copycat methods. It’s a plug-in-and-play textbook of ex-pros, irritating hosts and strung-out commentary with the exception of people like Laura Woods, Clive Tyldesley and Ally McCoist.
Amazon did try to shake things up early on with a no-thrills approach to build up and making some games commentaryless – a feature designed to make you feel more in-sync with those in stadiums.
There is, therefore, a question of what people want from these platforms. For every Rory Smith there will forever be a Chris Sutton. The ying to our collective yang.
There’s also the popularity of fan watch-along channels on YouTube.
These pages are a content goldmine because they’re so extreme in reaction. Supporters can custard pie figures like Mark Goldbridge when United concede a late goal or giggle, even relate when there’s some performative tangent about a pet-hate player who has given it away on the halfway line.
It clearly has like, comment and subscription value.
Maybe it isn’t too long before Sky or another platform experiment with handing over the keys to the asylum and let the YouTube contingent run riot over a studio.
There are, as we know, some incredibly knowledgeable and informed voices within fan media, so this idea isn’t an entirely disastrous one. Far from it. I’d listen to most people on The Friday Show over the majority of those I grew up watching.
There is another future possibility, which was mooted in the Super League proposals and also comes up in conversation around abolishing the 3pm blackout, being that club TV channels may get to host a small portion of live games on their own networks.
This would work in theory, because it takes away a lot of the bile that comes with tribalism. You can dislike Gary Gillespie or Phil Thompson on LFCTV, but you are in alignment with their obvious bias. They have no need to try and seem impartial, either.
One can only imagine a world where Liverpool’s punditry team for a game consists of Gibbo, Daniel Sturridge and Cates. Honestly, I would pay the fees.
Instead, we have to settle for pundits who’ve gone a little bit off and continue to play the role of a cantankerous Irishman who looks at the floor when someone wonderfully nonchalantly yet engrossingly insightful belts out a bit of Usher at Stamford Bridge.
I’m sick to death of hearing about the Glazers on a Sunday afternoon. Alas, he will, by his own admission, not stop talking about it.
Someone tell Mike it’s time to leave.