Football Pundits: Harmless or Harmful?

David GoreCorrespondent IDecember 17, 2008

The above picture is of Mark Lawrenson. It was included it to remind everyone, before I begin, that he was once a great player and a fantastic ambassador for Liverpool Football Club.

In his prime, he formed a defensive partnership with Alan Hansen that, arguably, has yet to be eclipsed by any defensive pairing in the modern Premier League. His work at the back helped the team continue their dominance of England, winning five league titles, three League Cups, an FA Cup and a European Cup. His distinguished career was brought to a slightly premature end by an Achilles injury in 1988.

Twenty years later, whenever I play on the English release of Pro-Evolution Soccer 2008, I hear Lawro with a scripted commentary, being about as wooden as a mutant hybrid of Woody Woodpecker and Keanu Reeves.

Now that's fair enough, I've no problem with his participation video games, I normally turn the commentary off anyway. The scary thing is, despite it being scripted, it's actually quite an accurate portrayal of the rubbish that the once great defensive rock tends to spout.

There's one phrase that always leaps out at me. Whenever my goalkeeper makes an error in the game, Lawro chimes in with "Call himself a keeper? He couldn't keep bees."

I love this one, because it implies that being a beekeeper is easy, something which a football pundit would know absolutely nothing about.

Something else that football pundits often know nothing about is football management. Lawrenson's only experience of management comes from short, and largely unsuccessful stints as a defensive coach with Newcastle, and manager of Oxford and Peterborough United.

His former defensive partner, Alan Hansen, has even less management experience, having gone straight into punditry after retirement. On the Skysports team, Andy Gray, the most famous and successful pundit, never managed either.

Which is why I often mutter under my breath when I hear them criticising a manager's decisions on Match of the Day or Super Sunday. Andy Gray is particularly bad for it, gaining notoriety for his "magic board," on which he tried to analyse a manager's line up, often wrongly, before and during a game.

Mark Lawrenson recently added fuel to the Robbie Keane transfer saga, by betraying Steven Gerrard's confidence, and undermining his former club, by insinuating that the Liverpool captain told him privately that Keane is set for a January move, something the club and Gerrard have denied.

It seems to me that football punditry has become a selfish art. A mix of journalistic ambition and an exploitation of the game, something echoed recently by former Manchester United hero Roy Keane (a man who has managed a top-flight club):

"I was asked by ITV to do the Celtic versus Manchester United game but I've done it once for Sky and never again," he said. "I'd rather go to the dentist. You're sitting there with people like Richard Keys and they're trying to sell something that's not there."

"Anytime I watch a game on television, I have to turn the commentators off. They say 'he's playing well' and I'm thinking 'no, he's not'. My advice to anyone is don't listen to the experts, Just watch the game and gather your own opinions."

He goes on, "I wouldn't trust them to walk my dog. There are ex-players and ex-referees being given air-time who I wouldn't listen to in a pub. OK, there will be one or two who've done something in the game whose opinion you would take on board, but I'm on about every Tom, Dick, and Harry."

So they're definitely an irritation, that, like the tabloids, claim impartiality whilst influencing public opinion on the "topic of the day." After all, who'd be criticising the zonal marking system if football pundits ever pointed out the fact that teams who use it, like Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, Internazionale, and Bayern Munich, happen to be the biggest clubs on Earth right now?

What if people like Andy Gray and Mark Lawrenson offered a balanced view, by citing the fact that teams, whichever system they play, are always going to concede a few goals over a season, and men will always make mistakes whether they use man marking or zonal?

But there's another, more damaging effect that pundits can have. As Roy Keane pointed while he was still Sunderland boss, and later proved to his peril:

"I keep saying hopefully managers will be given an opportunity but the way punters are getting brain-washed every week, like a debate on every night after a bad result, it's crazy.

"We're on about league tables after a week, teams losing two games and it's a crisis and that's constantly being thrown into people's faces.

"People are getting brain-washed so what you've got to do is not to get sucked into any of that nonsense and try and focus on your job, but it's hard because people take notice of what's been said."

The saddest thing is, maybe, just maybe, that extra pressure incited by the football shows was what tipped Keane, a promising young manager, over the edge and out of employment.

Is it not time that we admit that people like Gray, Hansen, and Lawrenson are not the people we should be listening to when judging football managers? Should we not put more faith in those who've achieved success, and who's opinions are more likely to be backed up by reason and experience?

Or is it a case of those who can't manage, go into punditry?

Often, these men were great players in their history, but are they truly respectable as commentators?

In my opinion, they couldn't comment on beekeeping.


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