So the Olympics is now a distant memory and football is back. This means several changes.
It means a different class of athletes – one populated by petulant children, stuffed into the bodies of arrogant men, told to show respect, integrity and humility and then incentivised to complain, cheat and celebrate even the most modest of achievements with a degree of tactless vulgarity which would make Paris Hilton wince.
It means a different class of fans. Gone are the picnic hampers and bunting (oh, the bunting) of the summer crowds, the fat, squinting Americans and guffawing Sloane rangers homogenised to the level of elevator music by the enforced civility of the “Olympic spirit” and the fact that half the time they didn’t know what sport they were watching.
And, of course, it means a different class of pundit. You see, unlike the Olympic crowds who needed to be told what an “ippon” was, how many events were in an Omnium and when to cheer by a panel of judges, football fans do not appreciate being lectured on the finer points of their game by a grandiloquent statistician with a doctorate in demure simpering. Any insight which runs the risk of telling the audience member something he does not already know will be greeted with extreme suspicion and any argument sufficiently well structured to refute something he thinks he knows is likely to result in a black eye for the wife.
This is why we’ve swapped urbane, well-briefed and articulate interlocutors like Clare Balding, John Inverdale and Michael Johnson for slack-jawed rubes who struggle to recall the number of players fielded by a team and say things like “for me, it’s a game of two halves and at the end of the day the lad give ‘undred and ten percent in and araand the box.”
But I have to declare an interest at this point. I am a football fan and on a good day, I flatter myself to think that I can be as dogmatic and pig-headed as any in the land. As such, I consider Clare Balding, John Inverdale and to a lesser extent, Michael Johnson to be insufferable jobsworths whose encyclopaedic knowledge and effortless patter make me feel inadequate and scared. On the other hand, Mark Lawrenson, Chris Kamara and Paul Merson are salt of the earth cult heroes whose endearing idiocy makes me feel superior and snuggly.
But, the question on nobody’s lips is: which set of lovable buffoons do we revere most highly? Those at the BBC or those on Sky Sports?*
BBC’s flagship show Match of the Day has an interestingly familial dynamic. Gary Lineker is the impish, ingratiating little turd who tries to invite himself into the nation’s living rooms by grinning like an imbecile and making a succession of cheesy puns, each calculatedly shit enough not to arouse any suspicion among the denizens of middle England that he has any ideas above his station. Alan Hansen is his stroppy and sour-faced elder brother. He is annoyed that he has had to cede the affection of menopausal housewives to young Gary and so he pretends he is in pursuit of nobler ideals by banging on about things like man-marking at corner kicks and using words like “shocking”, “poor” and “shambolic” which make him feel authoritative.
Mark Lawrenson is the rambling, senile and paranoid grandad who moved back into the family home when he ceased to be able to make it to the toilet on time. Lawro is doleful individual, his world-weary melancholia thrown into ever sharper relief by the increasingly absurd collection of striped shirts he has taken to wearing. He has the befuddled air of a man who has been in a coma for many years and has now cruelly regained (some semblance of) consciousness in a world he doesn’t understand; a world of flying machines, vajazzles and Mario Balotelli. Anyone who heard him commentating on the European Cup Final this summer would have reached the conclusion that his talents would perhaps be better employed counselling the terminally ill: 5 minutes with him and they would embrace the blessed release of the grave. One tweeter put it very elegantly when he said: “Lawro could be sat in a bath drinking from the cup of eternal youth with Mila Kunis caressing his balls and still sound pissed off to be there.”
An honourable mention has to go to that totem of blithering stupidity Garth Anthony Crooks who, though not an integral member of the family unit, is impossible to get rid of whenever there’s a free meal on the go. Wittgenstein famously wrote that if a lion could speak, we could not understand him. By this he meant that even if the lion was using English words, the frames of reference through which he would describe the world as he perceived it would be so remote from our own that we would not have a clue what he was talking about. So it is with Crooks. The sentences he burps up are all plainly composed of perfectly ordinary English words but the sequence in which he strings them together renders them completely meaningless and of absolutely no relevance to the events he purports to be describing. Now this by no means marks out Crooks as unique in the world of football punditry but the wild-eyed, hand-flailing earnestness with which he delivers up these syntactical splats makes one wonder sincerely about the man’s reason.
Sky Sports on live match days boasts an altogether slicker output (renegade episodes of rank misogyny aside) so to be charitable to Aunty, I’m going to focus on their proverbial pub team: The Soccer Saturday pundits.
If the Beeb has a sibling jocularity to it then Soccer Saturday is more like after-school detention at Jeff Stelling’s Academy for the Mentally Defective. First of all, whoever conceived of this show’s format is clearly one of these Herculean characters which comes along every few generations and flings himself headlong at the flimsy partition between genius and insanity. The side from which the assault is launched and the side on which the assailant ends up depends entirely on the social mores governing the epoch in which he finds himself.
In a more enlightened age, anyone pitching a TV programme with the format of Soccer Saturday would find himself in a padded cell before he could say “Don’t worry, Phil Thompson’s ineffable charm will win them over”. In 20th Century Britain, however, the man (or woman – women are as prone to violently dangerous lunacy as men) managed to get what is essentially a shit radio show on to prime time, subscription TV. The show, for the blissfully uninitiated among you, is basically watching five men watch football. You don’t get to watch any of the football. Lord no. They watch the football, you watch them watch it and marvel as they flounder to channel their dyspeptic fervour into some form of words describing what is going on.
Phil Thompson is a beetle-browed lunatic whose inability to accept the fact that he no longer plays for Liverpool and a homoerotic obsession with “Stevie G” mean that his punditry is about as impartial as the jury in a Stalinist show-trial. This particular soft spot in Thommo’s otherwise unflappable equanimity does, however, mean that when his beloved Liverpool cock up (something which happens with heart-warming regularity these days), he goes completely Basil Fawlty-style ape-shit live on air. So, in summary: he’s hateful and obnoxious but he always loses so it’s OK.
The presentation of Paul Merson with a microphone is the humanitarian disaster which, I believe, prompted the drafting of the fourth treaty to the Geneva Convention. Mers is the archetypal illiterate ex-footballer who, if nothing else (and there is nothing else), shows us that not being able to say words need pose no obstacle to a career in professional punditry. He can’t pronounce the names (not even the English ones), he can’t read the shirt-numbers and he divides his time on air fairly evenly between short-circuiting his headphones by dribbling on them and trying to climb through the screen of his monitor and onto the pitch. Words repeatedly fail him yet he ploughs on, unbowed.
Chris Kamara is the million-dollar pundit. Indeed, he probably ticks every single box required for a football pundit to earn “national treasure” status in the UK today. Inexplicable pencil moustache: check. Unashamedly/obliviously 80s-style barnet not seen since Lionel Richie was in his pomp: check. Hysterical, verging on orgasmic, enthusiasm for even the most mundane of lower-league wash-outs (excepting the unfortunate incident earlier this season when he fell asleep live on air at Fulham v Norwich): check. Total inability to express said enthusiasm in any way other than by shouting “UNBELIEVEABLE, JEFF!”: check. Complete lack of self-awareness which means that he isn’t remotely shy (or aware) of being the object of a nation’s ridicule: check. A colossus in his field.
Jeff Stelling’s role is basically to preside over this menagerie of simpletons and poke fun at them when they say something stupid. His genius lies in remaining likeable while doing so. The fact that he manages to achieve this despite a job description which essentially amounts to institutionalised bullying, for which the announcement of football scores serves as an almost incidental medium, is a testament to the man’s “common touch” and perhaps his oft-brandished support of Hartlepool United – a team which could not have been better-picked to demonstrate an affinity with the long-suffering John Q. Football-Fan if it had been prescribed by Alastair Campbell.
So there we are. A choice nobody gives a single, solitary shit about or will ever have to make. To be honest, I doubt whether anyone (even my long-suffering mother) will have bothered to read this far so given the strong likelihood that I am in fact talking to myself, I can’t be arsed to think of a relevant conclusion to this misshapen diatribe. Suffice it to say that football fans are like daytime TV viewers, inasmuch as, in the wise words of Futurama’s Philip J. Fry: “clever things make [them] feel stupid and unexpected things make them feel scared.” Therefore, regardless of which channel you prefer, footy pundits will always be idiots. Cheers.
* I’m taking ITV out of the running immediately because Adrian Chiles looks like a Cabbage Patch Doll which fell off the assembly line and the rest of them are just awful.