James Lawton: Duelling pair provide breath of fresh air in TV punditry


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The Independent Online

Gary Neville is not yet, and quite probably never will be, the slickest item you ever saw in a TV studio. Beside him, the reigning champion of football analysis, Graeme Souness, oozes a mature urbanity, which is a remarkable achievement for someone who, as the hard and brilliantly creative midfield master of Liverpool in some of their great years, was said by a team-mate to be so pleased with who he was that had he been a chocolate bar he would surely have eaten himself.

Yet between them the old pro and the new boy under the lights have produced something that, in these days of droning overkill in the broadcasting booth, should be weighed in gold by their Sky bosses. It is the intoxicating force of authentic football debate between men of the highest achievement who are prepared to put into words precisely what they are thinking.

The effect, which we saw at its most compelling during Sunday's superb contest between Liverpool and Manchester City, is to blow away, as if none of it had ever been uttered, the studio double-talk that has tumbled so relentlessly down the years.

On Sunday they were required to fight two big rounds and both of them stepped into the centre of the ring as if was the most natural thing in the world. First Souness went to the defence of City centre-back Joleon Lescott, suggesting that he was unlucky to see Charlie Adam's shot fly off his outstretched boot and past goalkeeper Joe Hart.

Souness reasoned that Lescott had had the worry that the lurking Dirk Kuyt might have attached himself to the end of his team-mate's powerful shot. No, said Neville, Lescott wasn't unlucky. He had made a mistake. Defenders, the full-back said to the midfielder, are supposed to have ice in their veins. They are supposed to know where, precisely, they are in relation to their own goal and attackers and they are also supposed to execute under the greatest pressure. Anyway, Neville added, Adam's shot was moving too quickly for a Kuyt intervention. Souness frowned reflectively.

On my scorecard: Neville's round.

Souness returned to the attack over Mario Balotelli, sent off after less than 20 inconsequential, utterly undisciplined minutes. For Souness it was an unforgivable crime – fresh evidence that Roberto Mancini's gamble on the player was ultimately doomed to failure. Yes, of course, the kid had exceptional ability, but what was the value of it in the long run if he couldn't be trusted? A manager had to know his player, be sure of what he would deliver in those situations which can shape the winning or losing seasons.

Neville disagreed, but rather elegantly. Yes, maybe Balotelli's unreliability could never have been accepted in dressing rooms occupied by Souness and himself, but times and values change and Mancini could claim that already the verdict was in: Balotelli had scored nine goals this season. Didn't that justify the manager's willingness to live with such an extraordinary problem?

No, said Souness. Balotelli stripped down a team's values, undermined all the watchwords of a winning coach: consistency, application in all circumstances, awareness, sense of team and responsibility to it. Neville the new-age, natural-born pragmatist, shook his head.

Scorecard: even round.

There were some early indications that Neville's TV career would be blighted by vivid memories of his frequently malignant partisanship as captain of Manchester United. It was a reasonable reservation, no doubt, when you thought of his Liverpool-baiting days. However, what we have seen, progressively, is a professional of vast experience covering new terrain, accepting his requirement to provide insight rather than a series of patronising insults to the intelligence and understanding of the average football fan. For so long Souness has been providing such a service, the possibilities of which were flagged by George Graham more than a decade ago when he was manager of Leeds United.

After an especially tedious goalless draw Graham was asked by an interviewer to explain some of the more subtle tactics achieved by his team while prising a point from such an intriguing contest. Graham replied, solemnly, "That's difficult because it was maybe the worst game I have ever seen."

Souness has never been reluctant to put in the critical boot. Yet he has been equally ready to acknowledge exceptional achievement. No one can accuse him of living in the past. Indeed, even some of his warmest admirers believed that he had taken this virtue to a fault when he claimed earlier this year that Barcelona were the greatest team in the history of football, better than Real Madrid and Milan, Ajax and even his own Liverpool. But his joy in the best of the game, his admiration for those who strike out for the highest achievement, is sometimes strong enough to be intoxicating.

That wasn't quite the gift of Sunday's critical slugfest. It was more an example of what happens when professionals are prepared to share some of the core conclusions of their working lives, when they give something back to those people who helped, with their bone-deep fascination with the game, to pay the wages all those years.

Gary Neville, like Graeme Souness before him, has come into a new world with the splendid resolution that brought him so much success in his old one. He was, even his worst critics had to allow, a ferociously honest performer. Plainly, it is a habit not likely to melt under the television lights.