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MARTIN SAMUEL COLUMN: TV pundits should leave singing to the fans

Alan Shearer goes viral wildly celebrating Newcastle’s winner against Chelsea. Up in the gantry, Jamie Carragher joins The Kop singing ‘We’re going to win the League’.

On Premier League TV, Ian Wright’s jubilation when Arsenal equalised against Chelsea — right down to his mocking imitation of Cesar Azpilicueta’s tongue-out celebration — welcomed viewers back from a commercial break.

What happened to impartiality? What happened to calling the action, rather than being a part of it? Fans with typewriters was a jibe first aimed at Scottish journalists covering their national team at the 1978 World Cup. It was not a compliment. Now fans with microphones invade every broadcast and are almost encouraged to act out by their bosses.

Gary Neville (left) and Jamie Carragher (right) are almost encouraged to act out when on TV

Ian Wright mocked the celebration of Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta after Arsenal got a 2-2 draw

Ian Wright mocked the celebration of Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta after Arsenal got a 2-2 draw

When Gary Neville joined Sky in 2011, it was wondered how he could remain independent when so obviously loyal to Manchester United. Neville worked impressively hard to dispel those suspicions, proving himself an outstanding broadcaster and an independent voice. Now he appears to be urged to play up his allegiances, to be that fanatical Red. It is the same with Carragher.

Last weekend’s match between Liverpool and Manchester United pitted them against each other, as super fans, rather than two of the finest cold analysts of a game of football. In the land of banter, the one-eyed man is king.

Obviously, we know who Neville and Carragher support. We know that of Wright and Shearer, too, and of Gary Lineker, Matt Le Tissier, Glenn Hoddle, Paul Merson, all men with very public careers, and understandable partisan leanings.

And they are also professionals, who can be trusted to put these feelings aside when making judgment calls. Neville has been absolutely scathing about aspects of Manchester United’s management and never tries to put a gloss on a poor performance. But that’s easy for a reporter to say. We’re in the same boat.

Every football writer has a team. It would be unnatural otherwise. Those allegiances were decided upon long before any media career path. It would be a weird little kid who resisted supporting a club, in case he cracked a job in sports journalism. 

So in the press box we get that Wright can cheer Arsenal one moment, and then dispassionately analyse performance the next. It’s what we do all the time. Minus the cheering, because nobody should cheer in a press box. If you want to cheer buy a ticket.

And nobody wishes to remove the joy from sport. It’s not war. It’s meant to be fun. And it’s the greatest form of reality television because it is genuinely unscripted and there is skill involved.

Yet a viewer, watching these rerun scenes of jubilation in the commentary box or studio, might feel very differently. What if it is your team that has just lost, that is looking at relegation, maybe? And then you’ve got to listen to an unapologetic fan of the other side analyse the game? We are one production call away from seeing a pundit celebrate a controversial VAR call that has gone for his club. And how would that go down?

A camera showed Neville furious after a missed Manchester United chance at Anfield

A camera showed Neville furious after a missed Manchester United chance at Anfield

Watch Neville and Carragher touring the Etihad Stadium before a big game recently, reaching the Legends Lounge. ‘There’s nobody in it,’ mocks Carragher. ‘Steve Lomas and Georgi Kinkladze, here we go,’ adds Neville. And it’s very amusing. But if the same analysts are then calling the game, how might a Manchester City fan feel?

How should a supporter of West Ham, Leicester or Aston Villa react, when an obvious ally of an elite rival says Declan Rice, James Maddison and Jack Grealish need a bigger club. It may be the truth, but it sounds like a sales pitch.

Carragher’s anger getting the better of him at the wheel of a car after Liverpool had lost to Manchester United in 2018, might have jeopardised his career in another era. And not simply because he spat in the direction of a Manchester United supporter who was crassly attempting to wind him up — while filming it, as is the modern way — but because he reacted to provocation like an unhinged fan. It compromised his impartiality.

Would he be able to divorce those emotions from a game, or from a view of Manchester City and FFP, say. Sky backed him because he is an excellent analyst, but also because having encouraged this realignment of pundit as fan, they could hardly slink away from the consequence.

Banter is king and Carragher is quick-witted and game and the perfect foil for Neville in that respect. Nobody is denying that as a pair they entertain.

Not every pundit wants that role, though. It was certainly surprising to see Wright’s mugging for the camera on Tuesday night — and the ex-players know they are being filmed off-air these days, just as all reality show contestants know how the game works — because when he first resigned from media duties in 2008 he gave the explanation that he was being treated like a ‘comedy jester’ and not taken seriously.

Equally, Slaven Bilic was mortified that ITV showed him climbing on a table to celebrate Dimitri Payet’s second goal for France against Albania at the 2016 European Championships.

Bilic, Payet’s club manager at the time, insisted that was a spontaneous reaction and he had no idea it was being filmed. He thought ITV undermined any points he made as a pundit. It was a private celebration, he said, and had he been asked it would have stayed that way.

Gary Lineker famously presented Match of the Day in underpants after Leicester won the title

Gary Lineker famously presented Match of the Day in underpants after Leicester won the title

Sky had no issues with Jamie Redknapp analysing matches in which his father Harry was a manager — yet one of the channel’s leading cricket analysts, Nasser Hussain, has turned down a number of requests for consultancy work in cricket because he felt he would be compromised. He accepted a role with Essex, then left after one day because he believed it harmed his impartiality.

It was this country’s most traditional broadcaster, the BBC, who started the descent. Long before Lineker presented Match of the Day in his underpants, for doubting his Leicester team could win the League, Olympic coverage at the station was shamelessly partisan. In 2014, when Jenny Jones won a bronze in the snowboard slopestyle event, two professional broadcasters burst into tears and the studio expert had her microphone switched off for cheering when a rival fell. Back then, there were 300 complaints and an apology.

Now, there would be a viral video of the BBC team throwing snowballs at a crew from Norway, before joining Team GB in a celebratory conga line through the media centre.

‘The England team have just arrived to a big cheer, from me,’ noted a BBC reporter covering the women’s World Cup in 2015.

You can have fun with football. You can be a fan. When England play, or Team GB compete, we all want the same thing — and no doubt always have. Without question, there have been celebrations in studios since the first broadcast and Alan Hansen always wanted Liverpool to win. But that never defined him.

Television has access to some of football’s smartest minds, why not leave the singing to The Kop?

Why we may have to take it on the chin

In the days when Jimmy Hill presented a show called The Sporting Breakfast, his guests were discussing an accusation of racism in football. Jimmy, being of a certain generation, was very much an advocate of ignoring it and getting on with the game. 

He said comments were made about the size of his chin all the time and he never let it bother him. It was pointed out that chin size hadn’t really been much of a factor in issues such as slavery, racially-aggravated murder, discrimination, apartheid, the denial of basic freedoms and centuries of oppression. That’s why racism was different to chins.

Goalkeeper Lucy Gillett (pictured for Brighton in 2018) spoke against in-game discrimination

Goalkeeper Lucy Gillett (pictured for Brighton in 2018) spoke against in-game discrimination

This memory now leads us to the match between Crystal Palace women and Coventry United earlier this month. Crystal Palace goalkeeper Lucy Gillett said she was the victim of sexist abuse from a group of eight men who gathered behind her goal. 

‘They were making comments about my bum, about the size of it, singing “I like big butts and I cannot lie”, telling me it’s time to renew my gym membership,’ she said. ‘They were telling the ref to check the gender of players on our team.’

It sounds very unpleasant, for sure, and stewards should have acted. Yet it was Gillett’s proposed solution that would have wider ramifications.

‘I would walk off the pitch if it happened again,’ she said. ‘Speak to the referee, and then, if there’s no control over it, walk off and see where things go.’

And that’s her prerogative. But where could things go? Are we no longer to differentiate between racist abuse and Jimmy Hill’s chin? That’s the implication.  Comments about checking gender are sexist — but being told you need to lose weight is just rude. Not much we can do about rude, even if the hecklers are eight very audible bullies. 

One imagines it must have been humiliating for Gillett and she has our sympathy, but Luke Shaw has probably heard similar and a lot louder, too, and Vernon Philander certainly has on England’s current cricket tour of South Africa. 

Robin van Persie was called a 'c***' seven times in a chant when he played against Arsenal

Robin van Persie was called a ‘c***’ seven times in a chant when he played against Arsenal

If we start to equate every insult with racism, we undermine the protocol procedure entirely. Think about it. ‘Ref, the crowd are making dehumanising monkey noises at our black players.’

‘Ref, those lads keep saying I’ve got a big bum.’ It’s objectification. It’s not nice. But there is a difference. If football finally wants to deal with the wider culture of abuse that is good. But it does not. It cannot. A football ground remains a safe place to behave in a pretty objectionable manner, to paraphrase Richard Scudamore.

Should players put up with it? Not really. Yet Robin van Persie had to listen to a song that called him a c*** seven times whenever Manchester United and Arsenal played and no-one acted, even at Old Trafford. So start with racism and we can deal with bums and chins when we’re done.

So much for fair play, senor 

A provincial court in Pamplona heard this week that Osasuna fixed matches over two years in a bid to avoid relegation. 

The testimony came from former club secretary Angel Vizcay. He claimed that Osasuna paid €400,000 in cash for Getafe to lose at Osasuna in 2013 and that Real Betis were paid €250,000 to throw a match against them the following year.

He alleged Osasuna had also paid Real Valladolid a €150,000 win bonus to beat Deportivo La Coruna and a further €150,000 to Betis to defeat Celta Vigo. There was a €250,000 payment to Espanyol in return for a draw, and Betis received another €400,000 for beating Valladolid. All of these clubs were, like Osasuna, involved in relegation battles.

The news could not have come at a worse time for LaLiga president Javier Tebas, who was straddling another very high horse about Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and financial fair play. Better mind your business on the subject of economic propriety, senor. Looks like you’ve got a live one here.

Tour’s no place for secrets

Kevin Pietersen’s comments about Jofra Archer caused a stir in Johannesburg this week. The England camp hotly denied feeding any negativity around the player, while Pietersen saw echoes of his own England career in a perceived lack of support for Archer. The reality is probably somewhere in between.

A cricket tour throws a lot of factions together for a long time — players, coaches, ex-players, media. They can be away for months, in close proximity daily, sharing hotel space, restaurant space, coffee at a cafe in town.

In that environment, it is hard to keep secrets. What Pietersen sees as briefing might be nothing more than an unguarded conversation between old friends. He is right, though, that this is how stories circulate. It is rarely an orchestrated campaign, however, and unless everyone stays in and orders room service each night, very hard to prevent.

Kevin Pietersen's (left) comments that England are in danger of driving Jofra Archer (right) away from international cricket were met with controversy in Johannesburg this week

Kevin Pietersen’s (left) comments that England are in danger of driving Jofra Archer (right) away from international cricket were met with controversy in Johannesburg this week

If the Russians feel able to take the high moral ground on doping, UKAD must have really messed up. 

‘A wall of mistrust,’ the Russian authorities called the alleged reluctance to release Mo Farah’s blood vials to WADA. UKAD deny the claim but, even so, that’s like getting a lecture on election strategy from Jeremy Corbyn. 

The umpire who took Elliot Benchetrit to task at the Australian Open for asking a ball girl to peel a banana for him may have overreacted. Fruit is sticky. Benchetrit needs to keep tight hold of a racket. 

‘She’s not your slave,’ bellowed the official. But as long as he spoke politely, Benchetrit wasn’t treating her like a slave, merely asking a favour. 

Elliot Benchetrit asked a ball-girl to peel a banana for him during a break of play on Saturday

Elliot Benchetrit asked a ball-girl to peel a banana for him during a break of play on Saturday

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