Neville & Carragher Spur Each Other On

by | Oct 31, 2018

Regular readers will know that I have a greater respect for ex-players-turned pundits in Gaelic football and hurling than association football’s equivalents.

Gaelic Games have a higher number of university-educated participants and, while it may border snobbery to suggest that broadcast-articulacy entirely depends upon tertiary education, that background very often shows when the most telegenic reach TV, radio and website studios. The controversialist Joe Brolly may sometimes split Ireland between those who hate him and those who despise him. But his intellect is powerful and demonstrable, honed by decades as a barrister.

Ex-association football players who become pundits straight from the game are, of course, only ex-players. Which very often shows too (the prosecution confidently rests on the words “Robbie Savage” here). But I’ve written (more than?) enough about the inadequacies of so much football punditry in this country. Time for a small celebration, of the best of it.

There are few pundits I would specifically tune in to watch. Brolly is one of only a few even in Ireland. Graeme Souness is another, however much I find myself disagreeing with him. But, as many others have said before, Sky’s Gary Neville is the standout, with Jamie Carragher benefitting from time in Neville’s experience and ability slipstreams. Their ‘heated debate’ on Sky’s latest ‘Monday Night Football’ (MNF) was them at their best, which was only partly because it WAS a debate, rather than the predictable consensus and stating-the-bleedin’-obvious of most studio punditry

There were problems with their eight-minute-or-so discussion of Tottenham Hotspur’s transfer and team-building strategy, after Spurs’ 1-0 Wembley loss to Manchester City. Not least the fact that only dogs could hear snippets of the closing moments as both rose through the octaves in direct proportion to their level of disagreement.

But it was also a fabulous watch. Neville’s smug satisfaction at a point well made, or his eye-rolling despair at a point badly missed. Carragher’s own despair gauged by the ferocity with which he waved his arms in the air like he didn’t care (he had already been in prodigious arm-waving form, nearly cleaning out presenter David Jones as he mimed what Spurs’ Keiran Trippier SHOULD have done to prevent Manchester City’s goal.

Carragher, who criticised Tottenham’s transfer spend pre-match, pleaded for Tottenham’s board to give “the best team they’ve had in 30 years, the best manager they’ve had in 30 years” a “bit of help” to “push it an extra level,” a level demonstrated by a fist-pumping action which belonged firmly post-watershed. And watching Spurs fans were very probably getting collective neck-ache nodding in agreement.

Neville insisted that Tottenham, particularly chairman Daniel Levy, “actually run their club very well under a budget” given the financial constraints imposed by a “five-or-six-hundred-million-pound stadium” and “the shock over the last 12 months that its 100-and-odd-million pound over budget” and “probably taken away more of their playing budget than they’d imagined.” He insisted Carragher couldn’t “be critical of that.”

Oh yes he could. He derided Tottenham’s £29m net transfer spend over four years, despite being “in the Champions League every year” and having “Premier League money.” And, not entirely relevantly when you think about it, he added that “Stoke spent sixty million and they’re in the Championship,” pronouncing Stoke in his very scousest manner, which, as we know, is very scousest indeed (you’d be a while counting the ‘Rs’ in his suggestion that Spurs’ fund-raising by selling players “didn’t werrrk”)

Neville seemed the more sensible (at least until Alan Sugar weighed in on Twitter to rubbish Carragher). “We sit here. or hear people talk regularly about how we don’t like clubs who spend more than they should,” he noted, correctly, wondering what Carragher was “shaking your head at,” asking him if he was “advocating that they spend more than they can afford” and, more than once, “what part of spending five/six hundred million pound on a stadium don’t you understand?”

Yet you could see Carragher’s point. “You stand still, you fall behind,” he said early on, a point I made in these pages many years ago about Everton. “Do we just sit here and say the same thing about Tottenham, ‘well done getting in the Champions League.’ Is there not another level?” Carragher asked, revealing which club he was REALLY thinking of by adding: “eventually Wenger goes.” He didn’t make the point himself. But Carragher could have used Neville’s £100m inexactitude over the cost of Spurs’ new stadium to suggest they could find the necessary money in there.

Jones deserved huge credit for letting them talk…and talk, feeling the need to interject only every four minutes until an ad break loomed (“We’ve got to go in a second,” he advised. They didn’t) . Mind you, it was clear from his noises off (snorts of laughter, mainly) that he was enjoying the encounter as much as anyone.

There was much else to enjoy, especially Neville’s headline-grabbing excoriation of past Tottenhams, who “for 30 years of our lifetimes, were spineless and soft. Flaky. Rubbish. You could be two-nil down against them and think you’d win 5-2.” And he was being kind here, or forgetful, having played at Spurs in September 2001 when Spurs led THREE-nil before losing five-THREE. “You just knew that one little bump in a game and they’d fall over it,” Neville added, gloriously. “They were pathetic.”

Carragher reminded Evertonians of his shape-shifting personal history, the boyhood Toffees fan condemning Spurs by noting that “me, being a Liverpool supporter, I’m thinking at least they’re TRYING to win the league.” He surely irked East Midlanders too, after his repeated, confused dismay over “Harry Maguire going to Leicester,” asking “how can that happen to Tottenham Hotspur?” And Neville surely irked Man Yoo fans by suggesting that the “next level of job is available” for Pochettino “at, you could argue, the greatest club in the history of football,” i.e. Real Madrid.

Much of last Monday night’s ‘MNF’ was excellent and arguably better than the match. But Neville and Carragher battling it out over Spurs’ future had the added thrill of live theatre, especially when they exposed professional, if not necessarily personal, tensions; Neville’s occasional digs at Liverpool (which he’s been at all his professional life, of course) and Carragher dismissing Neville’s financial prudence as coming from “the man who got Peter Lim to fund Salford,” briefly reducing matters to silence before Neville noted: “we still spend within a budget.”

Maybe I’m mellowing in my mid-fifties. Recent radio commentaries by BBC controversialist Alan Green have been less nauseating, even if Green still intermittently fails at the basics of his job. (I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure “what happened there?” should NOT be a radio commentator’s near-catchphrase).

More ex-players are improving media presences, following the example of Gary Lineker, who showed himself to be a consummate broadcaster on Match of the Day last Saturday, in the immediate aftermath of a sad day for football and his own team, Leicester City. Dion Dublin, for instance, on BBC daytime show “Homes Under the Hammer” is nowhere near as toe-curling as that concept sounds.

Neville and Carragher still top the punditry tree, though. And on Monday night, with their sincere, if high-pitched, passionate indignation, they were a delight.