...............just who will replace the doyens of the game when they hang up their mic's?
A recurring theme amongst the footballing media today is the concern about the lack of young talent coming through in the English game, journalists decry the dearth of homegrown players lining up for the top Premier league clubs on a weekly basis, and in the process fret about the knock on effect to their national team. Such is the level of disquiet through all avenues of association football, that Sepp Blatter and his wise cronies have implemented a new 25 man squad system which nobody really understands, but it's purpose appears to enforce and encourage managers to promote young players to the first team squad, in favour of splashing the cash on Eastern European misfits with a penchant for late night revelry and a dubious notion of what being 'loyal to the cause'entails. This is all well and good and I for one welcome this new ruling despite it's obvious flaws, but in my opinion there is a far more worrying issue affecting football today and it's one that can't be rectified by Blatter, Platini or any of the bigwigs in the halls of the governing bodies, forget about the young footballers for a second, of far more pressing concern is the gradual degradation in the quality of football punditry and this is an issue which will I believe will be much harder to resolve.
Now that football saturates our screens, airwaves, monitors and newspapers on an almost unrelenting basis it's become easier and easier to become an 'expert' on the game, no matter that your career consisted of a little less than one hundred top flight games at some mediocre clubs where you were the most mediocre of players (yes Jason Cundy I am talking about you) matters not, the only qualification you need to make it as pundit nowadays is to be besotted with the sound of your own voice and to spout opinions which contradict themselves almost before they've left your mouth. Of course characters like Cundy are only a minor source of irritation as they reside firmly in the Championship level of punditry, despite their continual striving for promotion to the big leagues alongside such luminaries like Andy Gray, Alan Hansen and our own quite inimitable Eamon Dunphy. The aforementioned trio are probably the most viewed exponents of this most dubious of talents, and with that airtime comes a presumed gravitas which is all too apparent in their lyrical waxings, but as the mainstay at each of their respective broadcasters they have, somewhat begrudgingly on my part anyway, earned whatever kudos they think they have and are the lesser of many evils in the world of the pundit.
Here in Ireland we are fortunate, or misfortunate whatever way you wish to look at it, to have the bolshie trio of Giles, Brady and Dunphy (with the occasional appearance from pugnacious channel hopping Scot, Graeme Souness) polluting and in the same instance, enlightening our minds, with a brand of football punditry which is as far removed from the fare offered across the water as is humanely possible. But just as we worry about who will replace the likes of Dunne, Given and Keane when they finally call it a day on the field, the same applies to those who offer insight and drama before, during and after the real action takes place. Giles has begun to resemble a mummified corpse and can barely string more than a couple of sentences together these days without losing his train of thought and seeking help from the ever patronising Brady, if Eamon Dunphy were to slip into full on dementia it's debatable as to whether the viewers would notice the difference, but love him or loathe him it'll be a sad day when he's finally carted off the screen kicking and screaming to anyone in earshot that 'Ronaldo is nothing only a tramp'. Of the mainstays Brady is the only one who's not of a pensionable age, but I can't imagine him being there without the other two as in truth his main role is to act as peacemaker and play devil's advocate whenever possible. Then you have the enigma that is Bill O'Herlihy who's plays a role similar to a holding midfield player, prodding and probing and doing the dirty work whilst going almost unnoticed, like many of the greats his loss would only be felt after he'd gone.
So who does that leave? Waiting patiently in the sidelines for the chance to get promoted to the big stage are the likes of Ronnie 'Am I a scouser or am I a Dub' Whelan, Kenny 'Eyebrows' Cunningham, Ray 'I was an incredibly chirpy player but I'm the most miserable pundit known to man' Houghton and Trevor 'I'm clearly bald but at least I can grow a goatee' Steven. This is far from a stellar cast and it's clear that if football punditry is a squad game then RTE will struggle once the season hits the hard winter months. Whelan is fairly amicable and talks a lot without really saying anything, but it's nigh on impossible to listen to him without marvelling at the wonder that is his accent, from Dublin to Liverpool and back again all in the space of a few seconds, great stuff. Cunningham is clearly deranged and looks like someone who's attended one media seminar too many, next time he's on, mute the tv and watch him, it looks for all the world like he's threatening to eviscerate the person he's speaking to as his eyebrows dance merrily around his forehead, lunatic. Houghton should come with a health warning for depressed people as he can manage to turn even the most exciting of games into something akin to the most torturous of ordeals, it's unproven as to whether suicide rates go up during Houghton's air time but I believe it to be true. Trevor Steven's appointment was a misguided attempt to bring a bit of panache to the panel, the bigwigs at RTE must have looked at his CV and seen his time spent with Marseille as a clear sign of a cultured man who would bring an air of calm, authority to proceedings. What we've got instead is a mosquito brained imbecile who rarely, if ever, says anything of note. However, hope is not completely lost, as amidst this gaggle of misfits is a ray of light which comes in the guise of Richie Sadlier. Aged just 31, and having being forced to quit the game at a young age due to injury, Sadlier has gone on to form an embryonic career in the media which has culminated in him making occasional appearances on some of RTE's football presentations. From the off it's been clear that Sadlier is not your ordinary retired footballer, and it's a joy to watch his insightful and in depth analysis on the game, and all done without the need to resort to the insincere tones of rapture favoured by his English equivalent Jamie Redknapp. Sadly the talents of this young man are made all the more evident by their rarity, and to look at the current crop of Irish players on the cusp of retirement and therefore potential candidates for the world of punditry, doesn't leave you feeling too confident. You'll notice that I have chosen to completely overlook the artisans plying their trade on second rate broadcasters TV3 and Setanta, this is mainly due to the fact that anybody willing to pay the likes of Trevor Welch and Pat Dolan to ruin our lives is worthy of nothing but utter disdain and apathy.
In England however, there is a more competitive nature to the battle of the broadcasters, even though Sky quite clearly are the biggest draw, although this is more due to them flexing their financial muscles than anything to do with the quality of their coverage. Sky's head honcho is of course the detestable Andy Gray. Such is this man's high regard for himself, he is quite happy to host a Sunday evening show called 'The Last Word', which as the title suggests is the last and therefore presumably the definitive word on all the weekends action. The fact that Gray hosts this show with his sycophantic sidekick Richard Keyes means that he has free rein to spout his theories unchallenged and will in essence always get the last word, clever thinking it has to be said. He has also seized the opportunity to bore us even more with the return of Sky's Monday Night Football, which consists of Gray playing with his modernised subbuteo set while Keyes oohs and aahs in the background. Gray firmly believes that each and everyone of his opinions is pure, unrefined ambrosia and we, the viewers, should consider ourselves grateful for the chance to hear them, if there was an award for smuggest, patronising buffoon on TV, then Andy Gray would win it year in year out. Sadly it's debatable as to whether he's even the worst pundit on Sky, yes step forward Jamie 'Skinny tie, shiny suit' Redknapp, never has a man spoke so much and said so little. Redknapp is the equivalent of a tiny, yapping dog that never shuts up and constantly nips at your ankles without ever actually biting you, his opinions veer from left to right as he babbles incessantly on and by the time he runs out of steam he's left with a blank expression on his face as he, and we both, wonder what the fuck he's just been on about. Sky have a large coterie of pundits whom they can call on, depending on whichever game they're screening, but aside from an occasional Phil Thompson rant on Soccer Satruday, the chances of ever witnessing a heated debate on the channel are as remote as Andy Gray admitting he's wrong about something.
The poor relations of broadcasting in England are the once mighty BBC and it's gimmicky, quirky rival ITV. The BBC was once a byword for all things quality but in terms of their football coverage at least, this mantle is gradually slipping away. Old experienced heads Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson have become so complacent in their position on the sofa opposite Gary Lineker that they may aswell be reading from an autocue, it's as if they're still patrolling the back line for the all conquering Liverpool 80's side, as they just go through the motions on a weekly basis barely breaking sweat. When the third cog in the wheel is the monosyllabic, dullard Alan Shearer then it's easy to see why Hansen and Lawro give off an air of total disinterest and boredom. But just as Richie Sadlier offer a shimmer of hope on RTE, so the BBC have their own bright, young talent willing to shake things up a bit. Robbie Savage was, and still is in fact, one of the most regularly goaded and taunted players to grace the modern era, his shock of blonde flowing hair makes him instantly recognisable on the field and his reckless, and often feckless, nature only add to his notoriety. But get him in the studio and suddenly this headless chicken of a football player is transformed into an eloquent and strong willed individual, who's about as shy in giving his opinions as he is in going into tackles, whether he'll manage to maintain this manner of punditry without upsetting someone higher up is debatable, but if he does fall foul to his paymasters at the BBC then it'll only be a matter of time before someone else picks him up given his unique talents in front of the camera. ITV are, and always have been, something of a joke when it comes to football punditry, given the fact that they spend the majority of their air time taking breaks it's a wonder why they bother even having anyone in the studio to be honest, they've recently taken to doing pitchside analysis which is quite a clever cost cutting exercise from their point of view. When their pundits do get a couple of minutes to hurriedly run through the events of the game it's usually Andy Townsend and Gareth Southgate who are charged with the task, is it really necessary to give an opinion on the respective merits of these two hapless oafs?
So now you can understand it's quite clear to see that while we're all worrying about the future of the game and the influx of foreigners ruining the opportunites of young homegrown players, the real problem that we should all be pondering is where the new, bright, articulate pundits are going to come from? Watch any post match interview after a Premier League game and you're likely to be swimming in a pool of 'Y'know's', 'likes', 'the lads', 'sort ofs', and various other catchphrases which will consist of 98% of the actual words spoken by the interviewee, rendering the whole process pointless. The recent interview with Danny Murphy where he aired his views without fear of censure or remit was a breath of fresh air and reminded us that not all footballers are semi literate, unschooled mercenaries without an original opinion to call their own. But as the game continues to grow to an almost sickening level of media coverage worldwide, it's clear that more and more ex-pro's are going to jump on the gravy train and give their tuppence worth regardless of whether they're qualified to do so or whether we want to hear them or not. I for one, can't wait.