Week 68 (17 - 23 January 2015)
Something's happened to TV football punditry in the UK and a lot of it has to do with the former Manchester United and England full back Gary Neville who has brought a new dimension to the analysis of games on Sky Sports and a welcome dash of humour in an arena where too many people have taken it and themselves too seriously for too long.
He was at it again this week when Everton's Kevin Mirallas appeared to go against team orders and protocol to take – and miss – a penalty kick during the Monday Night Football game against West Bromwich Albion.
"If he has done what I think he has and selfishly taken the ball, it is one of the most despicable breaches of team orders you can possible have. You just don't do that," he said with a front-foot honesty which has endeared him to millions of viewers.
Neville's emergence as a major talent under the glare of the studio lights has surprised a lot of people.
As a player he was characterised as talented but truculent. He was Red Nev, the shop steward of the dressing room who was once reported to be organising a boycott of a game among his England team mates.
But Neville circa 2015 is different. Sure the acid humour is still there and he can be truly cutting in his judgement of players and their performances. But that's leavened by a sense of fun which, together with the fact that he really does know what he is talking about, puts him head and shoulders above his contemporaries at Sky and other channels.
Neville succeeds not simply because he has been there, done it and won the medals to prove it but because he is, at core, an excellent communicator. It is his ability to engage with his audience, to go beyond platitudes and the blatantly obvious, which makes potentially dull analytical sessions a delight. The key thing is that watching Neville you always feel as if you are going to learn something and that he iI s going to provide a genuine insight into a game or the performance of a particular player that you simply wouldn't get elsewhere.
In his analysis of a goal conceded by Manchester City in a 2014 Premier League game, Neville brilliantly explained why full-back Pablo Zabaleta had been unable to stop the opposition scoring. It was, we learned, his stride pattern. Having been caught out of position, he had been forced to sprint towards the ball taking long strides for speed which robbed him of the mobility a short stride pattern would have given him, allowing him s to react to a ball passed just behind him to set up the goal.
In the broader scheme of things, stuff like this may not really matter. The goal was scored and would stay scored. Zabaleta may have been at fault but there would be chances for him to redeem himself later in the game.
But the point is that Neville's ability to draw on his recent professional experience to explain why the situation developed made everybody watching that day feel that they had learned something. His ability to communicate – to explain in terms we could all understand – made the viewer feel they had been privileged to be on the inside track. Neville's contribution illuminates Sky's coverage and adds a level of real value that others simply don't come close to achieving.
Neville succeeds as a pundit because he is of the same generation as the players on the pitch and he understands the modern game, the recent Premier League era. He is also a coach to the England national team which not only keeps him firmly in the players' orbit but gives him a unique insight into the pressures of management. But while others shy away from criticism on the basis that it is bad form for one pro to disrespect another, Neville manages to transcend the old mores and really deliver on his job as a pundit. Despite his lifelong long love affair with Manchester United he remains frank when discussing their individual and collective shortcomings yet his attachment to the Old Trafford cause has become pivotal to the studio banter with colleagues including Jamie Carragher, a life-long servant of United's bitterest rivals – Liverpool.
Neville is consistently illuminating, relevant and suitably irreverent in his TV role and has helped raise the bar for those who follow him. How long he will be happy to remain in front of the cameras is anybody's guess as his wit, intelligence and experience will inevitably make him a target when significant managerial jobs become available – not least that of the England team itself.
But for now he is not only finding new ways to explain and illuminate football but his ability to resonate with viewers and add something extra to the experience of televised sport has become an important and valuable weapon for Sky in their multi- $billion dollar battle with BT for digital market share.
Contributed by Kevin Roberts, founding editor of SportBusiness and a leading figure in the sports industry
Photo: University of Salford Press Office