Mind your language

Football commentator Jon Driscoll asks just what it takes for an ex-pro to be a pundit and recalls those he has worked with who suffered from foot-in mouth

Before the first football commentary I did for Talk Radio they told me they’d hired Andy Gray as the pundit. Excellent. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was right not to. They had hired Andy Gray the ex-Palace and Spurs midfielder. He was rubbish.

“Andy, they’re two down – is there a way back for Palace?” “Yes.” Fair enough. Technically, it answered the question – but it didn’t really enrich the listeners’ enjoyment of the game. And he was wrong. I had a feeling the other Andy Gray would have been better.

I have tried my best to forget that experience but another game I covered will never dim in my memory. Malcolm Allison did much to develop the idea of the expert as we know it today. Those who remember the 1970 World Cup say Big Mal brought tremendous humour and knowledge to the role. By 1996 he had moved on to another, less-welcome innovation. I was the touchline reporter and he was the expert sum­mariser for Century Radio at Middlesbrough games.

Boro’s Craig Liddle gave the ball away and I vaguely detected I had heard someone say the f-word. We didn’t have to wait long for confirmation. Newcastle’s Les Ferdinand hit a poor shot goalwards. It should have been simple for keeper Gary Walsh but somehow the ball slipped through his hands and into the net.

“Fucking ’ell,” exclaimed Malcolm. In two words he had summed up the feelings of 90 per cent of the people in the ground. Unfortunately it brought the axe for Mal. More people actually con­tacted the station in support than to complain, but for regulatory reasons swear­­ing in commentary never caught on.

You might use a variety of titles for the former pro who sits next to the commentator, but for Sky Sports he is simply the co-commentator. Andy Melvin was the ex­ecutive producer of Sky’s football coverage in its early years. “We didn’t want two guys who sounded like they were at opposite ends of the ground. In the past the ex-player would only talk when the main guy had run out of things to say. With someone like Andy Gray we want­ed to get him more involved. We wanted it more conversational, although they do follow a discipline, and we didn’t like the word pundit.”

Pundit is a Hindi word. It means “learned expert or teacher”, which sounds like a fairly accurate description of what a decent co-commentator should be. As a viewer as much as a broadcaster, I find it incredibly irritating when they fall into the trap of stating the obvious. Melvin doesn’t argue: “The first piece of ad­vice I gave to Andy Gray was: ‘Don’t tell us what we can see. If a shot goes wide you have to put the light on. Tell us why and how.’ Andy reads the game magnificently well. It’s like a piece of Shakespeare. At first you don’t know what it means but then someone like Andy comes along and explains it and you think: ‘That’s wonderful.’”

But such football enlightenment can’t be dished out by just anyone. I don’t like newsreaders who are young­er than I am – and I like my pundits to have won a few caps and cups. “The mythical super-pundit would be a big enough name for your granny to have heard of him,” says BBC Radio Five Live football executive Caj Sohal. “He would have played in the World Cup and the Premiership, he would be articulate, know the play­ers and have an analytical mind.” He doesn’t want much, then. “Articulate” rules out a good few foot­ballers, so compromise is essential. “Steve Claridge may not have any caps but he is highly entertaining and he’s played with just about every pro in the game. People like him are good value.”

Ray Houghton certainly pas­ses the caps and cups test – he played 73 times for Ireland and won league and cup win­ners’ me­dals with Liverpool. After a spell as a coach at Palace he now works with Sky, RTE and Talk Sport (as Talk Radio be­came). “It’s not the same as being a player. You miss the camaraderie of being with a gang of lads all telling jokes and stories, but let’s face it, what else would you do if you’re not involved in the game any more?”

Houghton is still up-and-coming in pundit terms, but he does avoid the second most annoying trap. “You show me someone doing this who hasn’t fallen out with people in the game and I’ll show you a liar.” Noth­ing strips a summariser of credibility as quickly as defending an old pal when we can all see it crumb­ling around him. But Five Live’s Sohal admits all pundits take their place on the fence from time to time. “The lads still involved aren’t keen to criticise because they’ll come up against the players next week, whereas man­agers appreciate what a precarious business it is and don’t want to twist the knife. They express different views off air so sometimes listeners have to read be­tween the lines. Guys with a bit more distance can be freer in their opinions.”

Hardly anyone agrees with me on this, but I think co-commentators are generally over-critical of officials – especially over offside decisions where they fre­quently have a go at a linesman even when he’s got it right. “That was a close call and the flag was late,” they’ll say. I say does it matter if it was correct? Neither Sky nor the BBC has a policy on this. It is up to the individual and ex-pros generally dislike refs. After all, wouldn’t you slag off your old schoolteachers on national TV or radio if you had the chance?

And these guys can take a bit of handling. “Never, ever,” says Sohal, “underestimate how much foot­ballers have done for them. Some professionals can’t get from one place to another without someone giving them in­structions. We’ve started telling Steve Claridge the wrong kick-off times just to get him there before we start.”

A touch of lax timing is nothing compared to the worst example of punditry Andy Melvin encountered while producing 1,000 live games for Sky. “We had a co-commentator who talked about the qualities of black players – as if they were all the same,” he recalls. “I’m sure he didn’t intend to be racist but it could have been interpreted like that and a few jaws dropped in the production team. He wasn’t invited back.”

Alan Shearer is Sky’s next big project. Melvin says the former England captain is no longer a Kenny Dalglish clone: “When he was at Black­­­burn he used to do interviews play­ing five at the back, but he is an astute judge of football. He’s warm­ing and he’s smiling more.”

It is true that Shearer has lightened up a lot in recent years, but I still can’t see him ever becoming quite as thaw­ed as Malcolm Allison.

From WSC 196 June 2003. What was happening this month