Send In The Clowns

As a new Premier League season draws ever nearer, the clowns of English football’s three-ring broadcasting circus are waiting patiently in the wings.

We are quietly approaching the one-year anniversary of quite a momentous milestone in television football punditry, the day when a torrid love affair between a Premier League footballer and his manager’s teenage daughter was laid bare on national television like the demented subplot of a Steve Bruce novel. All that was missing, in fact, was a detailed description of Patrice Evra’s car.

The protagonist, in this case a 21 year-old star-in-the-making, would pay for his betrayal by being cast out of one of the biggest clubs in world football and doomed to spend the rest of his career (or at least most of it) slowly withering at a lower-half team that perennially fought relegation, occasionally being linked with the only-slightly-better surroundings of Arsenal before his hopes were inevitably dashed on the rocks of a vastly-inflated asking price and a fiendishly long contract that left him powerless to affect his own destiny, one signed in the heady days of his mid-twenties when everything had still seemed possible. His only comforts now were the millions of pounds he was paid each year and a former teammate, a man with the loyalty and courage to tell the truth, consequences be damned.

Needless to say, back in the early-seventies when the likes of Brian Clough, Malcolm Allison and Pat Crerand were setting the foundations of football punditry in place on ITV, they never had this in mind.

* * *

Manchester United opened their 2020/21 campaign on 19th September last year, a weekend later than the majority of their Premier League rivals due to their involvement in a European semi-final in mid-August. Their opponents at Old Trafford that Saturday evening were Crystal Palace, and, as seems to be the custom these days, a Manchester United legend was on punditry duty, Patrice Evra joining presenter Kelly Cates and Graeme Souness in the Sky Sports studio. In the process of discussing Crystal Palace’s main man and his former teammate at Old Trafford, Wilfried Zaha, Evra dropped quite a bombshell.

We all know Wilfried Zaha is better than Crystal Palace, with all due respect,” he began, with a tone that suggested no respect whatsoever. This was an arguable point, given that the 28 year-old Zaha has made 393 of his 410 senior professional appearances (over 95%) and scored all 68 of his career goals at club level while playing for Crystal Palace (all figures correct at the time of writing). Players who are “better” than a particular club tend to have moved on by the age of 28, and long before they approach 400 appearances for them. But I digress.

The Frenchman was only getting warmed up. “I think what ruined his career for Manchester United is when he had this true or untrue affair with David Moyes’ daughter,” he went on, appearing either too stupid or too brazen to realise the ramifications of what he was saying. “Because I remember in pre-season he was playing in every game, but when that news came out he was out of the game and he disappeared.

We don’t know the background to that story“, Cates was eventually able to stutter in response, to laughter from Evra that was once again either stupid or brazen in nature, perhaps both. Cates would be far less equivocal later on, when she said the following: “We have to clarify a comment made earlier in the programme, suggesting that there may have been a relationship between Wilfried Zaha and David Moyes’ daughter. We understand that Wilfried Zaha has never met David Moyes’ daughter and that the claim made by Patrice was false. We apologise for any offence caused.

On-air apologies and disclaimers aren’t exactly uncharted territory for Sky — for example, another presenter, David Jones, had been quick off the mark the previous December to say that Gary Neville’s criticism of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn for not adequately tacking racism in British society were “the opinions of Gary Neville and not Sky Sports” — but this was surely one of the more outrageous utterances that had ever taken place on a live football broadcast. Maybe Evra truly felt that he was making a valid point about the course of Wilfried Zaha’s career or maybe, like Homer Simpson, he had simply gotten his mouth and his brain in a muddle. Whatever the case, and whatever the truth or otherwise of Zaha’s relationship with Lauren Moyes, the only thing you sensed with virtual certainty was that this was curtains for Evra’s burgeoning career in British television punditry.

Au contraire, mes amis. Evra not only continued in his role, he was afforded the opportunity last December, some three months after the aforementioned Zaha incident, to inflict more word-vomit on the viewing public at the expense of another couple of professional footballers, one the current captain of Arsenal and the other one of his predecessors in the role. “I will tell you a quick story,” he began, to Jones on this occasion, with Souness again the unwitting witness to the madness about to unfold. “Thierry Henry one day invited me to his house to watch an Arsenal game. He turned on the TV, the first image we saw on the screen was Xhaka leading the Arsenal team, being the captain. Thierry Henry turned off the TV. I said, ‘What happened?’. He said, ‘I cannot watch my team and Xhaka being the captain of my team’ and he turned off the screen. And we did not watch the game.

It remains unclear at the time of writing whether Henry had simply forgotten that Xhaka was the captain of Arsenal when he invited Evra over to watch the game, or whether the former Manchester United left-back was at all put out by the abrupt change of plans. What I can tell you is that while this revelation was by no means as flagrant as the Zaha comments, which, along with attacking the integrity of both Zaha and Moyes, managed to impugn an innocent third party into the bargain, the apparent ease with which he simultaneously betrayed the confidence of a former teammate and rubbished an individual who had captained Borussia Mönchengladbach, Arsenal and Switzerland by the age of 27 felt every bit as uncomfortable.

Perhaps worst of all, however, was the impoverished level of analysis being offered by someone ostensibly being paid serious money to provide insight into football from the perspective of a former professional. Insight which, given Arsenal’s plight at the time (they sat 15th, five points above the relegation places after a 0-1 defeat at home to Burnley), may usefully have included a primer on the motivations of Premier League footballers and the culture of the dressing-rooms that house them. What Evra managed instead was this: “I have nothing against this player. But I am sorry it is time for him to say ‘Do you know what guys, I have done enough here, I am hurting the fans, I am hurting my team-mates, I am hurting the manager, let me go away’.

Aside from the fact that the rest of Evra’s contribution suggests that he, in fact, has plenty against Xhaka, the idea that a professional footballer should walk away from a reported weekly salary of £100,000 because of some sense that he’s hurting the fans, his team-mates or his manager (who keeps picking him, incidentally) is a level of analysis so wretchedly infantile that you wouldn’t even get it from AFTV, which, despite its myriad faults (e.g. one of its main contributors once spoke directly into the camera and told Xhaka to “fuck yourself blud“), would never be so delusional as to suggest that a player should walk away because he’s been judged to not be good enough.

This position is especially egregious coming from a fellow (former) professional, one who gladly hoovered up a reported £75,000 a week from West Ham United as recently as 2018, at the age of 36 and about half a decade past his best years, shortly after being sacked by Marseille for kicking one of his own supporters in the head and during a five-month spell where he managed a mere five appearances for the club.

As a Liverpool supporter of some 35 years’ standing, I’ve seen the great and the good, as well as the bad, the ugly and the just plain ridiculous, coming through the club. This has included names like Sean Dundee, El Hadji Diouf, Torben Piechnik, István Kozma, Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini, Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Bruno Cheyrou, Milan Jovanović, Christian Poulsen, a semi-retired Joe Cole, Andrea Dossena, Phillip Degen…the list goes on. Some of the players listed above were just not good enough for where Liverpool wanted to be; others were lazy or disruptive into the bargain, or so injury-prone that the club may as well have been flushing money down the toilet every week; and some cost enough that the club’s subsequent transfer business was adversely affected, for years in some cases. Never, at any stage, did I hear it suggested that any of them should have held their hands up and voluntarily left Anfield. Clubs make mistakes in the transfer market all the time; only a true halfwit would expect the players to effectively give them a free pass.

Well, this is exactly what Evra, in all apparent seriousness, suggested Xhaka should so. And in a season where he had already tacitly accused Zaha of having a sexual relationship with his manager’s teenage daughter, Moyes (and presumably the entire Manchester United hierarchy, given that Zaha was still at the club after his sacking) of fatally undermining an eight-figure signing for personal reasons, and Thierry Henry of having a frankly unhinged hatred of Granit Xhaka such that it would prompt him to immediately stop his friend from doing the very thing that he had invited him over to do, despite the fact that he would have been well aware beforehand of who the Arsenal captain is…despite everything, in some ways this intelligence-insulting rubbish was a new low.

I don’t know if Patrice is still employed by Sky. I recall that he asked for his release live on-air during Manchester United’s 6-1 shellacking at the hands of Tottenham last October (“I really would like to end my contract with Sky. I’d prefer to comment different games than the United games if I keep working for Sky“), but the company certainly never gave any sign of overly caring about his controversies. Despite having had to apologise for him already, they were willing to persist with Evra because he got people talking. Regardless of how empty or worthless, or even wreckless, his opinions might have been, he got social media buzzing. That, essentially, is what he was being paid to do, in fact what all Sky pundits are paid to do. From that perspective, I hope he got himself a nice Christmas bonus for that Xhaka madness. Incredible.

* * *

Eamon Dunphy, then in the twilight of a long second career in broadcasting and journalism, once described football punditry in these terms: “We’re in showbiz, baby“. He was right, of course, although his erstwhile partner in punditry, the Abbot to his Costello, the ever-serious John Giles, would no doubt disagree.

Dunphy would have known it better than most: highlights of his 40-year television career with RTÉ included a pen-throwing incident during a tirade against Ireland’s 0-0 draw with Egypt at Italia ’90 which made him a national pariah for a while; wearing Cameroon colours in solidarity with the exiled Roy Keane during Ireland’s opening game of the 2002 World Cup, shortly before being suspended for having “a few drinks” before going on air (by his own admission); describing one columnist critical of Keane as “the guy who ran away and left his wife for a young one“, and an array of alarming opinions expressed on individual players down through the years (e.g. Harry Kewell was a “fat clown“, Steven Gerrard a “nothing player“, Cristiano Ronaldo a “cod” and a “brat“).

Keane himself now seems to have picked up a few tips from his former ghost writer. We’re just over a year removed at this point from him saying of Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea that “I would be fighting him at half time…I would be swinging punches at that guy” and suggesting that the Spaniard should be made to get a taxi back to Manchester after a mistake against Tottenham (all while Evra laughed it up in the background).

The direction of travel is clear and, to be fair, is consistent with Sky’s approach over many years. From the moment presenter Richard Keys goaded an emotional Kevin Keegan into an on-air meltdown in May 1996, the company has typically prioritised sizzle over steak. Whether they are keeping someone like Paul Merson on the payroll, a man who struggles to put even basic English sentences together at times, or making Chris Kamara into something of a minor celebrity purely for his gaffes and affability, or awarding Micah Richards a punditry career apparently based on nothing more than his booming laugh and ability to somewhat humanise Keane (something of a talent, admittedly), drama, pantomime and occasionally even high farce is what they want from the individuals in their studio.

The reality is that all of the above is fine, if that’s what you’re into. I’m not, and so the 2006/07 season is the last time I paid money to subscribe to that particular channel, having grown tired of being force-fed sensationalist drivel like Andy Gray wondering aloud in September 2006 what would happen if Steven Gerrard gave then-Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez an ultimatum (play me in the centre or don’t play me at all) a few months after Gerrard picked up the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award and made it onto to the PFA Premier League Team of the Year having primarily played on the right. There is nothing worse than tabloid gossip, unless it’s tabloid gossip dressed up as serious analysis.

Nonetheless, there are many poor souls who continue to labour under the misapprehension that television punditry has something for everyone, including those hungry for a bit of serious analysis. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and the prime example of that isn’t the cavalcade of light entertainment provided by Evra, or Keane, or Merson, or Richards: it is the continued employment of Sky’s punditry dream team of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, presented as a couple of broadsheet guys in a tabloid world, a panacea for the grown-up football supporter, yet are just as implicated in, and compromised by, the showbusiness of football punditry as any of their peers.

An upcoming post on this blog will explore in greater detail arguably the best example of Neville and Carragher’s theatricality, namely as it pertains to the European Super League announcement last April. Neville, in particular, is a genuine source of wonder to me, not for any insight he may provide into the game but for the fact that he was compromised as a serious broadcaster right from the very beginning when, mere months after hanging up his boots, he began his media career by accusing Liverpool of deliberately throwing a game in order to stop Manchester United winning the Premier League title. Not only that, but he has willingly compromised himself on multiple occasions ever since on the subject of Liverpool, although never quite so spectacularly as that. Yet he has nonetheless gone on to become so successful in his second career that he reportedly makes over £1m per annum and even has Liverpool supporters swearing by his punditry.

Let’s go back to May 2010 and set the scene. With 2 games of the season to go, Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea need only to beat Liverpool and recently-safe Wigan Athletic to clinch the title. With Neville’s Manchester United only a point behind, though, any slip is likely to cost them. Having seen Wigan already lose 9-0 at White Hart Lane earlier in the season, however, everyone knows that Chelsea’s trip to Anfield on the penultimate weekend is likely to provide Manchester United’s only hope. And with Liverpool themselves still in with an outside chance of a top-4 finish (5 points behind and depending on slip-ups from three teams ahead of them), the Reds certainly have the motivation.

Chelsea subsequently won 2-0 at Anfield and hit 8 against Wigan a week later to win the title by a point. A week after that, they clinched the Double. Writing in September 2011, Neville gave his recollection:

Chelsea had a little helping hand to win the 2009-10 title. Some thought it would be a big test for them playing at Anfield with a couple of games to go and the title still up for grabs, but at United we knew that Liverpool would ease off if that meant depriving us of the championship, especially a 19th championship that would take us past their record. We’d heard rumours during the week that some Liverpool players had turned round to one of their young lads and said: ‘There’s not a fucking chance we’re going to let United win this league.’”

While Neville subsequently admitted that “I’ve no idea whether that rumour was true or not,” he went on to say that “you could see the game was a nice end-of-season stroll for Liverpool. You could see half their players were on their summer holidays. Yet we couldn’t complain, not publicly. It was up to us to make sure we weren’t in a vulnerable position. But it didn’t say much for Liverpool.

It does make you wonder why “we couldn’t complain, not publicly”? A lack of evidence, perhaps? And yet here was Neville, in his new role as a newspaper columnist, doing just that. What he chose not to do was provide context, something you might expect as a minimum from any aspiring journalist or broadcaster. The suggestion that Liverpool were likely to “ease off” against Chelsea, for example, is particularly laughable given how badly their season had gone: manager-sackingly badly. “Ease off” what, exactly? The relentless fire, energy and skill which had seen them drop from 2nd a season before to 7th? Did he and his teammates really think that Chelsea, on course to score over 100 Premier League goals for the season, needed Liverpool (whose bench that day read: Cavalieri, Degen, Ayala, Babel, Ngog, El Zhar, Pacheco) to go easy on them?

But of course Liverpool were going to throw a game to spite Manchester United, hadn’t they done it before on the final day of the 1994/95 season? Not quite. Liverpool knew that beating Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn Rovers in May 1995 would almost certainly hand the title to Manchester United but they did it anyway, regardless of having arguably the club’s greatest legend sitting on the opposition bench (the look on Jamie Redknapp’s face after he scored the winner said it all). In fact it was only Luděk Mikloško’s finest hour in a West Ham shirt which prevented it from happening (a game in which Neville played), so the only available precedent for this situation was actually for Liverpool helping Manchester United.

15 years after that 2-1 win over Blackburn, Liverpool were now being asked to do it again but circumstances had changed. They had just endured an awful season by their recent standards, eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League and eventually finishing 7th. It was a season which would ultimately cost manager Rafael Benítez his job and throw the club headlong into the Roy Hodgson era. The club was no longer comfortable in its own skin, the supporters were at odds over any number of issues, criticism of the manager leaked freely from the dressing-room into the media, and the struggles over ownership and the debt piled onto Liverpool by their then-owners would rumble on into the following season as the club came within hours of being placed into administration (and everything that entails – just look at Portsmouth).

In other words Liverpool tails were firmly between legs, not pointing straight up, when Chelsea came to town in May 2010. On the pitch, the team had played 120 minutes in a losing effort against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semi-final just over 2 and a half days earlier, finishing at roughly 10.30 on the Thursday night and unbelievably being expected to kick off against Chelsea at 1.30 on the Sunday afternoon. Emotionally and physically shattered after that defeat and without talisman Fernando Torres, 9 of the same players who started against Atletico (and 6 of whom had played the entire 2 hours) nonetheless began the brighter of the two teams and might have scored first with an Alberto Aquilani drive which clipped Petr Cech’s crossbar.

Over the 90 minutes Chelsea’s class told, but according to the BBC report of the game “…suggestions that Rafael Benítez’s side would stand aside…proved incorrect. Liverpool were not betrayed by a lack of effort, it was a lack of energy after playing through 120 minutes against Atletico Madrid on Thursday to no avail that was part of their downfall. And more crucially, in a condemnation of a managerial reign that may well be coming to a close, it was a lack of quality and squad strength assembled by Benítez that was brutally exposed by Chelsea.” It doesn’t sound like “a nice end-of-season stroll for Liverpool” to me; if anything, it sounds like Manchester United should have been thanking their rivals for a herculean effort under difficult circumstances.

Personally, I always dismissed Neville’s accusations as bitter nonsense, a way of trying to play the hero to Manchester United supporters even in retirement by throwing another dig at their rivals from down the road while perhaps taking some of the sting out of his team’s own failings (after all, they had lost to Chelsea at home 4 weeks before the game in question), behaviour which certainly “didn’t say much” for the level of journalistic integrity we could expect from his post-retirement career. And Liverpool shared my view judging by the lack of a reaction from Anfield, which you can understand.

What makes the allegations particularly serious, even heinous, however, are the implications implicit in the way the game unfolded. Chelsea’s first goal, which arrived “as the opening half threatened to drift aimlessly to its conclusion” according to the BBC report, came courtesy of a badly misjudged backpass into the path of Didier Drogba by Liverpool captain Gerrard, the local heartbeat of the team who would surely have felt it more than anyone if Manchester United won a 19th title. The mistake was entirely understandable in many respects given the events of just over 60 hours earlier, and Gerrard had made similar errors in the past for Thierry Henry to win a penalty for France against England (at Euro 2004) and score for Arsenal on Liverpool’s final visit to Highbury (in March 2006).

However, it does make you wonder that if Neville truly believes Liverpool threw that game, does he also believe that Gerrard played that pass to Drogba deliberately? “…some Liverpool players had turned round to one of their young lads and said: ‘There’s not a fucking chance we’re going to let United win this league.’” And then Chelsea’s first goal is gift-wrapped, presenting them, as per the BBC report, with “a lead their lacklustre efforts barely deserved”. Would someone so apparently certain of conspiracy as Neville was 10 years ago see that as mere coincidence? We simply don’t know because he has never been asked to elaborate on his accusations, as you might expect, or clarify where exactly the rumour he mentions came from.

What has always fascinated me in particular is that not one of the players who were involved that day has ever said a single word in retort, neither Gerrard in his second autobiography nor Neville’s aforementioned Sky colleague, a Scouser himself who was also on duty against Chelsea that day (substituted at 0-2) and has since developed an apparent passion for challenging presenters and pundits on their opinions (and spitting at people on the motorway). Maybe one of these days Jamie Carragher could take it upon himself to investigate exactly what Neville believes happened at Anfield on 2nd May 2010 and maybe finally get some answers, perhaps even live on air? I might even pay to see that myself.

My only request to Sky before I hand them my money? Dress them as clowns, so there is no room for confusion.

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