Destructive criticism

English pundits are widely seen as bland, irritating sycophants, but in Ireland Eamon Dunphy and friends pull no punches on RTE, earning popularity with viewers if not managers. Paul Doyle reports

So you’re assigned the task of creating a panel of people to inform and entertain television viewers before, during and after football matches: what do you do? If you work for the BBC, you round up a giggling gaggle of self-satisfied golfing buddies and tell them to inform and entertain no one but themselves. If you work for Sky, you collar some besuited former footballers and order them to rehearse bland cliches and beatific grins in preparation for a hard day’s cheerleading. If you work for Irish state channel RTE, however, you hire abrasive codgers who can be relied upon to call a spade a spade, a bungling manager “a boil on the arse of humanity” (Eamon Dunphy on Mick McCarthy) and, just for kicks, BBC pundits “spoofers and muppets”.

Actually, Dunphy didn’t make his “spoofers and muppets” outburst on RTE; he said it last month in an exclusive ­downloadable interview with a mobile-phone network and followed it up in his weekly tabloid column. His lucrative ubiquity is an indication of just how popular football ­straight‑talking can be. A fact that makes the blandness of the widely panned English TV punditry all the more puzzling. “The way they do the punditry in England is bizarre,” railed Dunphy, reprising a theme that he has, in fairness, also addressed many times in his 17 years on RTE. “They just don’t seem to have any conviction about how they make their judgments. Sometimes they talk like they’re on sleeping pills and other times they just spout hype, hype, hype.” Dunphy’s fellow RTE pundits, notably Johnny Giles and Liam Brady, regularly express the same opinion, though not usually in the same terms as Dunphy, who, at various times, has branded his English counterparts “sycophantic”, “obsequious” and ­“bullshitters… who think their viewers are vegetables”.

His particular beef in February was with Gary Lineker and Alans Shearer and Hansen for “talking once more about Cristiano Ronaldo being the greatest player in the world. Not the best player at Old Trafford, not someone who’s having a good season, but the greatest footballer in the world! It’s crazy! This on the same weekend when Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick for Barcelona against Real Madrid! They weren’t even able to illustrate it – they took out three clips of Ronaldo doing nothing against Middlesbrough and that was it. When you see these clowns trying to hype up guys like him, you have to wonder about the BBC’s sanity.”

A few days later, Shearer took up an Irish radio station’s challenge to defend the Beeb’s punditry. “We have a laugh and I think that’s important,” he waffled, missing the point somewhat. Asked if he found it difficult to be critical of players he knew and liked (as opposed to Owen Hargreaves, who was slammed by the Beeb before the World Cup – largely, you suspect, because he played in Germany and therefore had never fraternised with the panel), Shearer stammered: “No, I don’t think it’s hard to give constructive criticism.”

The RTE panel offer both constructive and destructive criticism and aren’t worried about offending, and not only when their targets are out of ear shot. Dunphy was famously damning of Jack Charlton, who as a result banned “that bitter little man” from attending press conferences; ­McCarthy would close up at the very mention of Dunphy’s name. Brady and Giles didn’t shirk from slamming Brian Kerr’s management, even though they had got on well with him when he, too, had been an RTE pundit. “Punditry’s supposed to be real and a reflection of what the fans would be arguing about when watching a game,” says Dunphy. “It shouldn’t be boring.”

The straight-talking is compulsive viewing. It’s also infectious: Graeme Souness is coy on Sky, yet within days of joining RTE’s panel for the World Cup he described Garth Crooks as “a disgrace to journalism” for failing to put any tough questions to Sven-Göran Eriksson. That spoke volumes for RTE’s approach; and the fact that it had never even occurred to me that Crooks is supposed to be a journalist says a lot about the Beeb’s.

Mind you, when during a subsequent match Souness expressed his incredulity at shoddy defending by snarling “organising a defence is one of a manager’s easiest tasks”, none of his normally lippy fellow panellists raised the issue of Souness’s Newcastle. Even they, it seems, know there are times when it’s just not wise to carp.

From WSC 243 May 2007. What was happening this month