There are two kinds of pundit. Okay, there are many types of pundit, but in the context that suits this particular laboured metaphor, there are two types of pundit. There are those who like to put the boot in, invariably motivated by their conviction that football was better in their day and the current generation are a bunch of overpaid pansies. Then there are those who think everything is just fine and dandy, that Player X is having a bad day at the office, that obviously he’s a class act (even if he’s playing for Leeds) and he just needs time etc. The latter pundit can be usually found stinking up the place with his banalities on the BBC – yes, even Alan Hansen – ITV and Sky. The former is only to be found on RTE, where Johnny Giles, Liam Brady and Eamon Dunphy scoff and sneer their way through the broadcast. It gets a bit undignified at times, especially when the has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed Dunphy explodes with an over-ripe plum at some act or statement that offends his (ahem) sensibilities. But for sheer entertainment value it’s hard to beat.
The two schools of punditry have something in common though, and that’s an unwillingness to let the facts get in the way of an opinion formed over years of only partially rigorous observation. John Maynard Keynes famously observed that “when the facts change, I change my mind”. Like the Bush administration in Iraq, football pundits ignore anything that doesn’t fit into their preconceived notions. The aforementioned Dunphy is the king of this form of rank stubbornness. To dismiss one team’s prospects in the European Cup from a long way out only for them to go on and win it is unfortunate. To continue dismissing said team’s prospects AFTER they have won it is careless, Eamon continuing to explain why Liverpool wouldn’t win it even after the cup took up permanent residence in the Anfield trophy cabinet. But to do exactly the same thing last season, ridiculing Barcelona’s chances well past the point when Carlos Pujol lifted the shiny new trophy in Paris . . . even George Bush has stopped pretending that the war in Iraq has been a success.
The agents of cheerfulness on English television are no better in this regard. While England really should be doing better in major tournaments based on participation levels among the populace, the eagerness to extrapolate ultimate success from a poor history (two semi-finals appearances in twenty-three tournaments held outside of Blighty) and mediocre performances in the group stages (needing Peter Crouch’s dreadlock-tugging skills to topple the might of Trinidad & Tobago, the smallest team ever to compete at the World Cup) spoke of an unwillingness to admit that earlier proclamations viz. the galactico talents of Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand (who IS a good player; witness Man Utd’s defensive record, another phenomenon on which the hacks are loath to change their tune), Cole (Ashley), Beckham and, eh, Walcott might have been slightly overblown. Even if it was justifiable to be optimistic, blaming it all on Mr Burns was a woeful copout.
Of course, it’s japes all round when someone makes an incendiary proposition that is then proven hopelessly wrong. Watching them try to justify the unjustifiable or rewrite history to say that no, that’s not quite what they said, what they meant was, misquote, taken out of context . . . the whole point of punditry is not to inform. We already know that this was a good pass or that was poor marking. As for Andy Gray and his tactics boards (and I pick on Andy because he is the most obvious exponent of this ‘science’, not because he’s a Manc-loving Bluenose jackass), if all this guff was worth anything, he’d be a manager. We get our kicks from pundits by them being good for a laugh, usually at their expense.
That’s all very well when they make outrageous predictions. But what happens when they make a reasonable prediction which is then proven wrong? The summer saw Liverpool make a few judicious signings in weak areas and the pundits fell over themselves to anoint us the team most likely to knock Chelsea off their pedestal. Nothing too unreasonable there, having only finished nine points adrift of the top of the table, had two tremendous runs during the season and won the FA Cup to keep the trophy cauldron simmering. Meanwhile, the scorn from seasoned scribblers about Man Utd’s close season efforts would have had me feeling sorry for them had they not been, well, the Mancs. We had them overspending on Michael Carrick, Rooney making an arse of himself in Germany, aided and abetted by Ronaldo who did his best to reduce his value to the square root of zilch by expressing his desire to join Real Madrid and Demento almost pleading that Heinze, Scholes and Solskjaer represented new signings. Scouse Red good, Manc Reds bad.
This isn’t how it’s worked out (duh). You wouldn’t believe watching the box though. There’s a palpable refusal to believe that the Mancs have matched Chelsea stride for stride, dishing out some awful beatings to teams along the way. As for Liverpool, every poor result and /or performance seems to be a one-off. Bolton are a good team and Liverpool were unlucky [reality check: Bolton got hammered by Man Utd and Pepe has being begging to be caught out with that lark of kicking the ball outside the area). West Ham are a team going places [West Ham are not the team they were last season, not by a long way]. We lost to a cracking goal against Chelsea [from the same Didier Drogba that we’re always being told is rubbish]. Sheffield United could be a decent outfit this season [no, they won’t]. Blackburn are a tough nut to crack [they’ve subsequently been cracked by no less an outfit than West Ham].
As for Everton and Man Utd, that’s enough reality for one column.
The reluctance to admit they might be wrong is understandable. Pundits who so aggressively talked up the Reds at the start of the season are hoping the early season form is only a blip, much as a poor opening to last season’s campaign eventually morphed into an eleven-match winning streak and a defence tighter than Jose Reina’s haircuts. We should probably be relieved at such indulgence because the mutterings of discontent, present in all clubs to some degree but so peculiarly manifested at Anfield through the grandee voice of Noel White, could become shouts that cause a vicious circle of confidence-denting recriminations. Because if circumstances change to the extent that the media collectively changes its opinion – and you really begin to wonder whether the Arsenal result is the tipping point – then it becomes doubly difficult to change it back again. Fool me once and all that. Let’s hope that recent improved results mean we don’t have to change our collective opinion on the Rafalution.