Dream team v scream team
Colin Murray's axing as host of 'Match of the Day 2' has trained spotlight on the abilities of studio 'experts'; Chris McGrath picks his best and worst line-ups for fans on the sofa
You can't apply the usual Fantasy Football rules to this exercise. For a start, a budget of £100m would barely upholster the sofa required to cushion the drooling somnambulists who slump together every Saturday night on Match of the Day. But football on TV above all needs to go outside the box, as it were, and abandon its discredited enslavement to ex-players.
Many exasperated viewers nowadays measure mainstream cliché and consensus against the sophistication and heterodoxy they reliably find elsewhere. Yet producers and pundits alike persevere in the fatuous misapprehension that you are only eligible to pass comment if you have also passed the ball at the highest level – unlike, say, Jose Mourinho or Andre Villas-Boas. That's why the first name on the team sheet is blank, a rotation of the best voices emerging from underground. We all have our favourites, from podcasts or Press Pass or Revista La Liga or whatever, and every few weeks yours would be on the show.
Rare is the man both eligible to comment, according to all these complacent ex-pros, and competent to comment, as a broadcaster. In fact, he is just about unique – and his name is Gary Neville. Never the most popular of players, he has dismantled all prejudice with his meticulous insights on Sky. On Monday, he froze frames of Nemanja Vidic staring at David de Gea after Manchester United conceded that last-gasp equaliser. "It's not because he fancies him," he deadpanned.
Neville is an automatic choice, albeit his rather solemn, urgent style probably needs complementing with a lighter touch. But that is only one of many reasons for installing James Richardson as host. He is funny and intelligent but has the humility, rare in his line of business, not to impose his personality on proceedings. Perhaps that is why much of his career has been mysteriously wasted on the margins. Unless it is because he might not indulge undue egotism in anyone else, either – a major problem, demonstrably, for the current MOTD shower.
Jeff Stelling would bring many of the same virtues, and more smoothly. In a spirit of Fantasy Football, however, we'll limit the number of appointments from any one channel. Perhaps the other man from Sky can instead be Graeme Souness, if only because he shows uncompromising opinion is permitted even to ageing Anfield stars. He seems immune to the endemic vice of the ex-players, who dread offending anyone they might meet at a golf day.
From ITV and its coverage of this weekend's FA Cup action we'll summon Lee Dixon, far too considered and pleasant a fellow to have lingered long in the MOTD clubhouse, while Pat Nevin represents the BBC, where his fringe role betrays the corporation's chronic mistrust of cerebral flavours among the slop of blandness.
Now for the nightmare line-up. If restricting ourselves to no more than two per channel, we are somehow supposed to omit one of those weird shirts from MOTD. At the end of the deah, you know Alan Shearer will come in and do a job; and Alan Hansen would be unforgivable. Diabolical. (But how do we leave out hangdog Lawro? I know, I know…) For Sky, Jamie Redknapp is a top, top pundit. Literally. ITV offers one or two nice guys with nothing to say and a nasty one with disappointingly little to say in Roy Keane.
As anchor, let's recall Richard Keys from radio to remind everyone what a blessing Sky made of the crossroads it met when required to dispense with his smug, creepy style. To think people feared Keys and Andy Gray might leave a void! To remind yourself exactly what those look like, you only have to tune in to MOTD every Saturday.
Pundit fantasy five-a-side: best and worst of talking heads
Gary Neville (capt)
Most likely to say: "He shouldn't be there. And he shouldn't be turning his back."
Least likely to say: "I know he's achieved a lot but I do wish Sir Alex would try zonal marking."
Most likely to say: "If I was his manager and he did that I would have him on a butcher's hook for a week."
Least likely to say: "It's easy to say that he underhit that back pass, but sometimes funny things can happen with these balls when it's damp."
Most likely to say: "The trajectory of that pass reminds me of something I once saw in the Schirn Kunsthalle at Frankfurt."
Least likely to say: "Can't we get a new theme tune done by Phil Collins?"
Most likely to say: "It's high time we put the pun back into punditry."
Least likely to say: "And that's why Italy, Spain and Germany are all looking on enviously at the greatest league in the world."
Most likely to say: "I don't have a problem with that, but I do think it would help if they looked at it this way."
Least likely to say: "To be honest, I'm not really sure what I'm looking at, now I don't have the two Alans to explain it."
Alan Shearer (capt)
Most likely to say: "OK, should have scored, but it was good play. They'll be all right."
Least likely to say: "I've seen a lot of this kid for Catania and I think he could be the making of Frei at Fulham."
Most likely to say: "What am I doing with this bunch of *^#@*?"
Least likely to say: "Of course, I might be wrong. I'll look into it thoroughly and see."
Most likely to say: "That Gary Neville, he's working for al-Qaeda. You wait and see."
Least likely to say: "Don't you think we need more women on this panel?"
Most likely to say: "Pace. Power. Grit. Determination. And that's an unbelievable pass."
Least likely to say: "Now see how Martinez changed it after he brought Jordi Gomez on."
Most likely to say: "They've shown literally 200 per cent improvement since he came back – he's a top, top professional."
Least likely to say: "He's a friend but I'd say it to his face: he's had an absolute shocker today. I'm sorry, but he's over the hill."
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