In early 2013, Sky Sports had been jostling with a rival broadcaster to secure Jamie Carragher as a pundit when he retired. The defender’s directive was clear to his prospective new employers: he’d only be interested if he was appearing on prominent shows. Carragher wanted to be involved in meaningful content and had specifically mentioned Monday Night Football.
The show, under Gary Neville’s shaping and with Ed Chamberlin as the host, was the channel’s standout product. It attracted a wide audience, garnered plaudits and forced competitors to polish their own work.
MNF was doing just fine, phenomenal in fact, without Carragher. Yet Neville believed it could be even better and supported the move.
He was obsessed with the offering not getting stale, constantly challenging the producer at the time, Scott Malven, to ensure it didn’t. Adding Carragher was an almighty risk, but Neville felt it had the potential to further enhance punditry on Sky and in the sport.
“When I came on, he didn’t have this ‘what are you doing here? This is my show’ attitude,” Carragher told this writer. “He said Monday Night Football is bigger than any individual and we all have the responsibility to make sure it is an outstanding product.”
Whether you like what he says or wish he’d shut up, Gary Neville has set and repeatedly lifted the benchmark of football punditry in the country. He is media gold, as evidenced by his top billing on Sky and the manner in which they spin off his every word: count those social media views, podcast downloads and subscribers to The Overlap.
He is ridiculously good at what he does and has forced those around him to lift their own standards. This is why there has been so much drama over his refusal to state the obvious, contorting in every which way to avoid it, when he has built an incredible career on being so forthright.
But equally, how can a 5-0 undressing on your own turf at the hands of arch-rivals, who took the p*** from the hour mark, be analysed without any fault being ascribed to the manager?
Neville was critical of United’s discipline, organisation, inability to press properly, tactical idea, line-up and overall form.
“It’s been coming for five, six weeks,” he said of Liverpool’s obliteration of his former club without needing to hit their stride. “This is what Manchester United’s performance levels have been like all season.
“As soon as they’ve come up against a good team, they’ve been torn to shreds and it’s told them exactly where they are at.
“This is as bad as it gets. It’s the nature of the performance. They have capitulated. “They’ve lost everything today – discipline, organisation. But what stands out in my mind is their organisation around the press … Manchester United are kidding themselves today that they are a pressing team. They are all over the place.”
Neville attributed the decision to eschew a counter-attacking blueprint in favour of a floundering high press to “the manager and his coaching staff” but every other part of his analysis felt as though Solskjaer was divorced from United and their on-pitch problems, rather than at the crux of it.
His defence was as diabolical as the two out of ten showings at Old Trafford. Except Neville dragged himself out of position all on his own, not by virtue of Roberto Firmino’s movement.
“I never asked for Ron Atkinson to be sacked.”
“I didn’t want David Moyes to be sacked.”
Carragher was so exasperated, he had to spell out – like the rest of us – “I’m not asking you to say you want to sack the manager.”
All that was requested, what the job demands, and what Neville himself has been a pioneer of, was honest, informative analysis.
Pep Guardiola has been criticised over Manchester City’s weakness in transition, Jurgen Klopp’s choice of hampering his midfield to solve last season’s centre-back crisis was slammed…
Even the very best are routinely picked at for perceived or obvious mistakes yet it felt like Neville was committing a sin just saying Solskjaer’s name in proximity to a United fault.
Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal were used as distractions. Neville has previously admitted that he likes to keep great distance from his subject matter, so it doesn’t taint his punditry.
We now see why. The conflict of interest was as crystalline as United’s absence of structure in and out of possession. Neville was in no position to provide an objective view and it would have been less painful to declare that than engage in mental gymnastics for close to 20 minutes.
Better was expected of him because he has always demanded better from himself. When asked if he watches any other football shows for comparative purposes, Neville said: “I personally prefer to work off our standards rather than anyone else’s”
The reaction he has seen is on account of that standard slipping.
Something’s not right at Manchester United. Gary Neville just can’t be truthful about what, or rather who, that is.
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