Joey Barton has ignited a debate. This column will play the ball not the man and will leave it to others to query the tone and motives behind what Barton has said, or whether the correct response is outrage, agreement or perhaps even concern for the individual.
Some of his comments about who gets to talk and who has to listen clearly tap into broader questions beyond football, but in terms of what we want from our sport on TV, I believe he has made a category error. Simply put: talking ain’t the same as doing.
Barton says: “Obviously it helps to talk about the men’s game if you have played that men’s game, and the higher the level arguably the better because it gives you a unique experience.”
By that rationale, though, the pundit with the unique experience whose opinion is of most worth would be Lionel Messi, and it’s hard to see TNT Sports getting him booked for Fulham against Wolves on a Saturday lunchtime. And would it even be the case that Messi would know what the challenges are of being, say, a Burnley goalie low on confidence being told to play out from the back, or an Everton full-back turned too easily onto his weaker side by Mo Salah?
Does it necessarily follow that a player who was the best at football has more insight than the lesser lights? If so, what would be the cut-off point? Would a player who’d only appeared for Premier League strugglers not be allowed to talk about Manchester City?
And does it work the other way for Barton: do you need specific experience of what it’s like to play as a defender in a relegation-threatened side to talk about Luton; would someone like Thierry Henry, say, not be qualified to comment?
But even if the only people allowed to talk about football are those who have played for the biggest clubs, there’s a flaw in Barton’s thinking. The boys in the studio, as we once knew them, are not there to play football: they are there to discuss it. There is demonstrably a difference between being really good at doing a thing and being good at talking about it. Otherwise, Ballon D’Or winner Michael Owen would be a broadcasting great, unmissable TV, an entertainment legend. Michael is not these things.
The pundit whom everybody likes at the moment is Ally McCoist but that’s because he is enthusiastic, dedicated, charismatic and funny, as well as being a veteran of thousands and thousands of hours of live broadcast.
Perhaps it is unfair to pick out individuals, but is someone like Michael Dawson or Jamie Redknapp, on duty for Spurs vs Newcastle on Sunday, regularly making you sit up and think “wow I never thought of that, my viewing experience and appreciation of football is enriched by these remarks”?
On account of being a saddo, I will jot down excellent bits of football punditry that have made me think about the sport in a different way: there’s still plenty of room in that Woolworths 49p notepad. For instance: Daniel Sturridge was excellent on Monday Night Football recently talking about the fear of humiliation players feel when facing Erling Haaland being different to the cautious and deep respect they have when lining up against Harry Kane.
But if it’s a man with creaky knees and a League Cup winners medal saying “he’s hit the ball first time” or “that Var decision is bad” then, come off it.
Or indeed a woman with creaky knees. As more and more female ex-footballers come into the punditry space, what we are seeing is an equality of sorts: a lot of them are nothing special either.
If it were the case that male pundits were consistently giving the viewer precious and arcane insights, privileged peeks behind the scenes, a unique flavour of the technical or mental challenges, and they were being done out of a livelihood by useless female rivals, then that would be one thing.
But nine times out of 10 it’s a basic “say what you see” and no matter what gender the pundit is, direct personal experience is only part of the story. They’re not on a football pitch, they’re in the communication business and, like so much in life, some people have got it and some people haven’t.