Punditry is now performance art

Words By Alex Hess Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 12, 2018

Graeme Souness, if you haven’t noticed it yet, has developed something of a trademark. Just before he answers a question he’ll pause for a second or two, hands gripping his thighs, to lean back in his chair, draw a breath through his nose and bare his teeth ever so slightly. It’s a well-honed gesture of contempt, of suppressed malice. It is terrifically entertaining.

He did it when Chelsea played at Old Trafford two weeks ago, before snarling: “If Chelsea had a proper striker they’d be bossing this game. Chelsea have been fabulous, if they had a real striker they’d be in front.”

He wasn’t wrong. It was half-time, Chelsea drawing 1-1 and Alvaro Morata was enduring his customary afternoon of forlorn failure. Morata’s woes would only deepen over the next hour, when his team would concede again and lose, and, in the studio afterwards, Souness doubled down on his appraisal.

Now Souness is a fine pundit – sharp, eloquent, always simmering with rage – and he rarely says anything wide of the mark. But to base a lavish approval of Chelsea’s performance around a vicious panning of their star striker seemed odd. Is Souness so begrudging these days that he can’t even dole out some obvious praise without dressing it up as criticism? Or is it that his on-screen image precludes him doing so?

Much like standup comedians tend to create an embellished version of themselves to take on stage, so football pundits seem to adopt a public persona in front of the cameras. And Souness’s persona – the grizzled, tough-talking elder statesmen – is more obvious than most. No problem here: having sat through my fair share of Andy Townsend, I’m all for my pundits showing a bit of personality. If it’s a bit affected, so be it.

The problem is that there’s a thin line between persona and performance. And for football pundits, it does seem incredibly hard to resist slipping into self-parody. Souness’s path has also been traced recently by Roy Keane, who these days appears capable of communicating only by the withering aside, the emasculating soundbite, the disgusted wince. He started off as an excellent analyst, but lately the role has taken over – Keane has become Keano – and the priorities list has changed accordingly. Maintaining the character has become more important than evaluating the football.

Chris Sutton, who has risen to prominence with a weird suddenness a full decade after retiring as a player, is in much the same situation. Except he seems to have skipped the first stage completely, establishing himself as a broadcaster not through insight and intuition but through a readiness to play “Chris Sutton”, a world-weary ex-pro who pours shareable scorn on whichever player, manager or team is on the day’s agenda. Again, it makes for magnificent TV. But past a certain point it begins to seem disingenuous. As a smart man once said, just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.

The temptation at this stage is to blame “the social media age” – the go-to culprit these days for anything vaguely new and bad – for elevating the brief and viral-friendly over the balanced and nuanced, for creating a bite-sized world that offers nothing to chew on.

There’s probably some truth in that. (And there is a delicious irony to the fact that Keane, the most belligerently old-school man on the planet, best embodies the pitfalls of punditry in the digital age.) But the fact is that pundits have been slipping into self-parody long before people were tweeting video clips of them. Alan Hansen started life a kind of rock-star analyst, his scrutiny and unsparing criticism of inattentive defenders breathing life into early-90s football broadcasting, “a free-to-air prophet of the new football dawn” as one writer put it. Yet he ended his career on the sofa as a kind of Hansen-by-algorithm, his censures becoming broader and interchangeable, standout performers invariably praised for their “pace and power”. Mark Lawrenson too started out as a sparky, sharp-tongued presence before becoming the professional miserablist of today.

But while it seems a tough fate to avoid, it’s not an impossible one. Gary Neville has come in for some minor criticism over the past fortnight for denouncing the players of Arsenal and Chelsea, during their respective surrenders to Manchester City, with the sort of hysterical invective that lends itself to frenzied circulation on social media. But largely Neville has avoided ever having to adopt a persona, his forensic analysis on its own being enough to make him a magnetic screen presence.

Ian Wright has even undergone the process in complete reverse, starting out as a class-clown character before taking some time out, ditching the buffoon routine, and establishing himself as one of the most sharp, watchable and naturally likable pundits out there.

Souness is an interesting case as he is just about managing to get the best of both worlds: he always delivers insight, and it’s always done with theatrical flourish. But he’s sailing close to the wind, because as soon as it begins to seem like the performance is governing the answers, that the form is dictating the content, then the jig is up. You’re just another Hansen, another Lawrensen. Another Keano.

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