Picture credit: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The problem with football pundits

Why are we so often stuck with inarticulate ex-pros?

You’d be hard pressed to find a football fan who doesn’t fancy themselves something of an authority — indeed, who believes they couldn’t hack it as England manager. For a simple game, football prompts more than its fair share of opinions, which makes sense given the money involved. Where else could three men sit and watch the same footage on repeat and each arrive at wildly different conclusions? It’s fun for those watching, and increasingly fun to watch some of the watchers.

Twitter and YouTube are home to hordes of people adding their tuppence’ worth to the beautiful game — dry tacticos, hysterical men running the gamut of emotions as Leeds draw 0-0 with Burnley, and, of course, girls wearing club jerseys and very little else. But the pinnacle of the football opinion pyramid is still TV punditry. 

You know them, of course — at the BBC it used to just be Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and a moustache. Then came three bald men, one of whom was Ian Wright (who your mother thought was a nice man) while one of the other two wasn’t Alan Shearer, and the third you wished wasn’t. Meanwhile, for legal reasons you’ve memory-holed Andy G*** and Richard K*** on Sky, and cannot recall a time when Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher weren’t attempting to out-octave each other, Micah Richards wasn’t laughing a little too close to Roy Keane’s eardrum, and Keane didn’t look like he murdered Richards in creative new ways every night in his sleep. 

But now, a new force has entered the world of men’s football punditry: women. 

Women’s football is having a bit of a moment — the England team are quite good, and it has become fashionable for a certain type of person to talk up “The Lionesses” as national treasures. They are compared favourably to the men, and with that, and the inevitable drive for diversity, more and more are appearing in studios and commentary booths to discuss the inner workings of Jurgen Klopp’s mind, or what it must be like to be Harry Maguire for an afternoon.

No problem with that, necessarily. Except that they aren’t very good at it — more likely to be ignored by the viewers unless they say something a bit dim, which happens with a regularity matched only by Michael Owen.

This has been leapt upon by former footballer and manager Joey Barton, who has decided to embrace the world of football opinion himself by throwing about the most unacceptable claim in modern Britain — that a woman might not be as good as a man at something. Indeed, Barton says that the women’s game is so far removed from the men’s that the ladies shouldn’t opine on it because they are effectively different sports, and their experiences simply don’t chime.

Yet the main issue with the female pundits foisted upon the viewing public isn’t that they are women — it’s that they are ex-pros.

public speaking and playing football are very different sets of skills that don’t necessarily cohere

The footballer stereotype is one of mental sluggishness. This is unfair, but certainly, public speaking and playing football are very different sets of skills that don’t necessarily cohere. Footballers are taught from a young age that their value lies in their bodies, not their words, reducing the need to develop the latter; indeed, when they turn pro, reticence is drilled into them lest they say something foolish in a post-match interview. Those that are good communicators often find more rewarding careers to follow as coaches rather than talking heads.

This is much the same for the women as it is the men. The difference is the men’s game is much, much larger. The pool of ex-pro talent to fish in is more likely to turn up a decent talker — and given the recency of the success of the women’s game, male pundits of note have had significantly more time to be scouted, trialled, and hone their craft. Even then, it takes constant hard work to produce a good pundit — as true for any area of life, as anyone who has endured an MP try to joust with a columnist on Question Time will understand. Much of what passes for football analysis on television is a cruel pastiche of the stock phrases we all know about “wanting it more” or it being “a game of two halves.” A talkative man with nothing original to say is bad enough. An even less chatty woman no-one knows crowbarred in because she has 17 caps for England is enough to make Everton look as entertaining as the Harlem Globetrotters.

But there is a gendered aspect to all this as well, and that is the role football occupies in many people’s lives as a form of proxy tribal conflict. Football is entertainment, but one that involves playing at war — it is the chance to raid and reave the buggers down the other end of the East Lancs Road, or over the border in Suffolk, without anyone getting hurt bar the odd knee ligament. The atmosphere of football grounds is measured favourably not in diversity or inclusivity, but in mockery and intimidation. The average fan does not, in fact, have a good time in freezing temperatures away to Morecambe of a Saturday afternoon — the joy is to be gleaned in the camaraderie and suffering. The roar of the crowd when the ball goes in, the howling at the referee when a decision goes the wrong way, the entreaties to the board to sack the manager — or to the other side’s board to keep a particularly bad opposing manager — these are what matter, and it’s all guttural, primal, and generally very masculine.

In the commentary box or studio, the reaction of those narrating needs to add to the scene of battle unfolding before the viewer. And sadly, the average woman’s voice doesn’t carry the same heft. Peter Drury can reference the Greek pantheon or Andy G*** can bellow “You Beautyyyy,” and either can work, because the pitch of the voice hits right. Both, in their own vernacular, are invoking ancient divinity — Ares given a voice. Karen Carney or Alex Scott could issue the Gettysburg Address from atop a Sherman tank dressed as a valkyrie — it still wouldn’t carry the same sense of victorious exhilaration as a man in a North Face jacket and a beanie.

And yet, viewership hasn’t gone down with the introduction of female pundits. Barton has caused controversy because he has touched a nerve that football probably isn’t interested in addressing — but while he knows that female pundits are diversity hires, he also knows that people would, in fact, listen to Fred and Rose West opine on the FA Cup third round as long as their team was playing in it. He knows that the TV networks are not run by ordinary fans, and will safely continue to plug female pundits come hell or high water because there is nowhere else for fans to consume their product. But that desire for consumption is also why he knows he will forever find an audience. 

Barton knows that this isn’t a trend the average fan wants, but that they will struggle to turn the channels off. Instead, they will pay their subscriptions, watch the match, and then turn to Twitter to get their fill of bashing all that’s wrong with the game. And he will be there to greet them when they do.

Rather predictably, having called his views dangerous, the minister for sport has progressed to the next logical step of opining that something must be done about Barton — as if consigning him to an oubliette will magically endear Jill Scott to fans. We wait to see whether the inevitable punishment is tougher than that taken against Manchester City.  

Football punditry has undergone a revolution away from the TV studios in the last few years, and whilst not all of it is good, new talents off the pitch have emerged to challenge an industry locked up exclusively for those who used to play on it. Shoehorning in women without charisma isn’t diversity, and doesn’t improve the product. Joey Barton probably won’t become the Joe Rogan of the alternative punditry world — but it is there, off the pitch, that the real unearthed talent dwells.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover