The partisan TV pundits are taking over football - but does it matter?

Today’s product takes elements of the short-lived FanZone option with ex-players failing to conceal their emotions

Jonathan Liew@jonathanliew
Friday 17 May 2019 15:12
Man City vs Watford: FA Cup final in numbers

Those of you of a certain age who had access to Sky Sports in the early 2000s may remember a short-lived and long-lamented red-button innovation called FanZone. The idea of FanZone was to add a little partisan flavour to their live football coverage, by replacing the two regular commentators with two fans, one from each team, clad in replica club shirts and possessing – generously – only the most basic of broadcasting training.

Along with the equally gimmicky and short-lived PlayerCam, an interactive feature that allowed viewers to watch nothing but Niall Quinn running around for 15 minutes, FanZone was often compelling television, although not always for the intended reasons. This was, after all, a very different age: long before the explosion of scripted reality television and the viral video turned us all into self-conscious, performative personal brands. An age of Big Brother Live and The Office and David Blaine in a box above the Thames: when there was still a weird voyeuristic fascination in just watching people, even if they weren’t doing very much.

So for most of an average 90-minute game, Fanzone would essentially consist of two guys going: “Oooh… oh… go on… GO ON… ach!” and grimacing a lot. Occasionally, they’d have a chat about which of their two clubs was bigger, or whether young Frankie Lampard was as decent as everyone said he was. It was pretty mundane stuff, but in a way none of that really mattered. Because the only real point of FanZone – the only reason any of us were watching in the first place – was to see them go mental when a goal was scored.

I’ve been thinking about FanZone quite a lot in the last few weeks. I’ve no idea when Sky stopped doing it – like combat trousers and my penchant for really bad highlights, it seems to have died a quiet death around the time I went to university. But in many ways, it was a seminal, groundbreaking moment: the first hint that objectivity may not be the be-all and end-all in football commentary. Because if you look around now, FanZone is everywhere. The only difference is that it’s not fans going bananas and getting into heated arguments about “credit”. It’s everyone else.

One of the more ascendant trends in football coverage over recent seasons has been the ‘studio reaction clip’. Exhibit 1a: Glenn Hoddle, Gary Lineker and Rio Ferdinand absolutely losing their collective minds when Lucas Moura scores his winning goal for Tottenham against Ajax in the Champions League. “I’ve never been happier,” said Hoddle, who is the father of three children, and only just escaped death from a massive heart attack. “I’m so glad that I’m still around to see this. I’ve been a Spurs fan from when I was eight years of age.”

Or take Exhibit 1b: Robbie Fowler on BT Sport after the remarkable Liverpool v Barcelona game at Anfield the previous night. “Probably everyone – myself included – didn’t think we could do it,” he said after Liverpool’s 4-0 victory. “I hoped and wished, but… we did it. I’m so proud and so delighted to be part of Liverpool.”

Great analysis, Robbie. Top insight. And in a way, this marks one of the most fundamental shifts in sports broadcasting over the last decade, one that FanZone so presciently presaged all those years ago: the commodification of emotion, and the consequent transformation of pundits from sober analysis machines to central protagonists in their own right, leaping around and celebrating goals and having feelings all over the carpet.

Glenn Hoddle celebrates Spurs winning in Amsterdam

If England’s 1966 World Cup win had taken place today, you can bet your last half-crown that within minutes, the reaction shots of Kenneth Wolstenholme and Walley Barnes in the commentary box would have been going viral. “I’m in absolute bits here, Ken,” Barnes would gasp over the airwaves. “When Hursty puts that fourth goal in, I just… WOW. That’s the only word for it. Just WOW.”

The other fundamental shift is the rise of the overtly partisan pundit. These days, it’s virtually a given that an analyst – or even a presenter – will come with pre-existing allegiances that they will make no attempt to suppress. Perhaps the two best-known football pundits on British television, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, are inextricably linked with Manchester United and Liverpool, and both have frequently argued that it would be both absurd and dishonest to pretend that connection did not exist.

And most of the time, Neville and Carragher are perfectly capable of providing reasoned, dispassionate and frequently excellent analysis. Yet in recent months, and on social media as well as on television, that background noise of club banter and tribal identity seems to have swelled into something larger and more essential: that whatever else they do, whether they are praising or criticising, they are above all ‘Liverpool’ and ‘Manchester United’ voices, rather than decorated ex-players striving for objectivity.

Last month, when Neville asserted after United’s 4-0 defeat at Everton that there were certain players in the dressing not pulling their weight, he declined to name them out of a desire not to create negative headlines for his old club. “I don’t need to name names,” he snapped, disregarding the fact that he would have had little problem doing so with any other club. “Mo Salah, you little dancer!” Carragher cried on co-commentary, meanwhile, as Liverpool burgled a late winner against Tottenham in March.

Carragher later expressed mild regret about that, writing in his Telegraph column: “In retrospect, I fully understand those who think it too partisan. But it was a winning goal in the last minute of a pivotal game in the title race. Emotions run high.” But he also argued: “I make no apologies for my love of Liverpool... it would be pointless pretending where my allegiance lies.”

This cuts to the very nub of a debate consuming not just sports broadcasting, but the wider media on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2013, the US-based Society of Professional Journalists amended its code of ethics to remove the word “objectivity”. And over the last two decades, with the rise of highly partisan news networks like Fox News or MSNBC, there’s been a more general move away from the ideal of impartiality towards a culture in which bias is both acknowledged and assumed.

This school of thought runs thus: everyone has intrinsic biases and allegiances, and it’s actually more dishonest to pretend they don’t exist, than to lay them bare so the viewers can make up their own minds. In other words, when Ian Wright or Jermaine Jenas openly pull for Arsenal or Tottenham during a live broadcast, it’s actually a good deal more real than expecting them to sit there po-faced, pretending they couldn’t care less.

Which would be fine, if that was the limit of it. But in the intensely tribal world of club football, allegiance often goes much further than self-identity. In an environment where everybody is convinced the media has an agenda against their club, there seems to be an expectation from fans – and occasionally from clubs themselves – that ex-players should use the media to openly advocate for their club, as a sort of unofficial mouthpiece. “Lots of people on TV, but nobody a Chelsea man,” Jose Mourinho complained early in his second spell at the club. “Carragher, Liverpool. Thompson, Liverpool, Redknapp, Liverpool. We don’t have one.”

Of course, by the time Mourinho was at Old Trafford, getting absolutely savaged by ex-United players on a weekly basis, it’s fair to say his views had developed somewhat. But the idea that pundits are “representing” their former club remains surprisingly tenacious. This column has heard about one pundit, an ex-Manchester City player, who is being pressured by the City hierarchy to argue the club’s case more forcefully in the media. And in recent years, City’s lack of media “advocates” has been a long-running bone of contention among the club’s fans, as well as perhaps the sole explanation for Michael Brown’s surprisingly buoyant television career.

Carragher and Neville do not hide their allegiances

Where does this all end? Perhaps we got a glimpse of it at the Amex Stadium last Sunday, when Neville made the mistake of walking through a group of jubilant City fans and ended up getting pelted with pints. Perhaps the future of football broadcasting is just one long FanZone, where fired-up partisans shout over each other in the name of entertainment. And if that sounds far-fetched, then just turn on any radio or television news programme these days.

“We’ve discovered we can sell hate,” writes the US journalist Matt Taibbi in his book Hate Inc, a coruscating take on the American news media. “This also serves larger political purposes. So long as the public is busy hating each other and not aiming its ire at the more complex financial and political processes going on off-camera, there’s very little danger of anything like a popular uprising.”

Perhaps, ultimately, this is the point. There are some honest-to-God real problems in football that we need to talk about: competitive balance, ticket prices, the ownership model, wealth inequality, structural racism, structural sexism, the game’s toxic reliance on broadcast income and the gambling industry. But these are questions that often don’t fit neatly into a tribal discourse, that don’t translate into a viral video on the BT Sport Twitter feed, that strike at the very fundamentals of the game and often affect its most powerful stakeholders. The hope, perhaps, is that if we’re constantly being encouraged to turn on each other, they’ll never get asked.

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