Eyebrows were raised when Gary Neville joined Sky Sports as a summariser during the summer Mark Critchley has been running an eye over his performance in front of the cameras so far, and finds that he is holding his own, even though his performances so far have been somewhat removed from the fire-brand expectations that were placed on his shoulders.
During this summer’s riotous political climate, it proved important that all of Britain’s law-abiding citizens and honourable armchair generals ‘stand firm’ in a literal as well as figurative sense. For one’s eyes to glaze over, upper lip to curl around fledgling facial hair and hips to sway as if channelled by either Oxide or Neutrino was fishy – behaviours reminiscent of those adolescents whom had just ransacked our national stockpiles of trainers, immodium and value rice. Yet one man did not listen. One man did not stand firm. One man showed all the aforementioned suspect manners and more on television, hotstepping his way through this season’s first Monday Night Football, plain refusing to stand the fuck still. Calls for rubber bullets need not have been made, though. Gary Neville is nothing a nail gun couldn’t fix.
That or a few weeks media training. Early performances, particularly his vertical debut during the Manchester City vs Swansea fixture, showed Neville take to broadcasting like a duck to corrosive acids – no Ed Chamberlain quip could be more insincerely appreciated, no sentence more vigorously thrown downstairs. Yet gameweeks come and gameweeks go, and an essence of on-air competence has soon met the widely lauded insight of Sky’s latest pundit. Whether this comfort is borne out of a growing self-assurance or simply declining Jamie Redknapp’s offer of a shared trouser wash, the nerves have certainly gone. Neville is now forever hands-clasped and collected, all set to relate this half-time interval’s precise Fergmaster 3000 heat setting as and when its pregnant air cascades through the locks of Jonny Evans. Invaluable, I know.
What many seem to have forgotten however, is that this cool, calm and castrated shell of an analyst is far from what our couch-sores were promised. Neville’s reputation as a class agitator and staunch partisan was celebrated throughout the off-season, his arrival threatening football punditry’s sacred cows of objectivity and poise with guarantees to ‘tell it like it is’. True, we’ve seen other ex-pro’s burst into television studios holding similar promises to unearth a logical truth behind that dodgy offside call at the DW, but this time it meant something. This time it felt real, man. We were promised a revolutionary; short back and sides, dressed appropriately and pockets over-brimming with the Murdoch dollar. As of yet we haven’t seen it. This belligerent side of Comrade Gaz has not been televised.
Whilst sat next to a Paul Merson on the edge of psychological oblivion during the autopsy of Arsenal’s 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, Neville displayed his new and neutered persona in fabulous techni-beige. By choosing not to bray or mock but instead give measured analysis – puncturing Manchester United’s domination at the right points, offering concerned solutions to Arsene Wenger’s persistent red discharge – he set a marker between himself and every other non-Gooner that evening. He passed up the chance to rejoice in a competitor’s melancholy, an offer which very few other staunch partisans would refuse.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to actually dislike this Gary Neville, and perhaps that is what, for some, is so disconcerting about his first few television performances. Only a dressing gown-clad Andy Gray, surrounded by blue DVDs and vacant Toblerone wrappers could meet his replacement’s showings with any real indignation, watching on as clammy Mancunian digits creep through pixels he used to own. Indeed, Sky are so impressed they seem to have taken the rug from underneath Alan Smith’s doubly anodyne ruminations and handed Neville the chief co-commentary microphone. Rightly so, too. There’s no doubt he’s proved himself analytically good enough. Yet there remains a creeping sense that in looking to address the poverty of insight on our goggle boxes, someone somewhere has neglected the appetite for personality.
Monotony’s supremacy over football coverage is after all the reason why Neville’s decision to venture into the media was so well received. Unlike the tart Savage, essentially a moll for the lens who’d readily rub down farmyard animals to widen his profile a half-inch, what we had on offer was a hardened old hand with defined opinions and as many friends as enemies. However in the search for a quarrelsome sort to light a studio’s ignition, you arguably couldn’t find a man quite so unsuitable. Towards the end of his playing career, as he became increasingly familiar with the rear end of podiums and wingers alike, Neville was a vague memory, some essence of a high grade footballer beginning to lose continence and put his bins out on a Sunday. Any dash of vigour left in him was confined to minor bursts and Carlos Tevez, only the ‘cross-every-tee’ focus remained at anything like a peak level. One word that doesn’t connote ‘controversial’ but did feature in all the various eulogies to his playing career was ‘professional’, and for that reason perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this new Neville at all.
Since bedding into the swivel chair his erudite meditations and proactive attitude towards research have caught most of us off guard, and maybe there’s time yet for an on-air contretemps that’ll finally see Ben Shepherd’s balls drop, but it looks unlikely. Gary Neville is simply carrying on as he left off. He is not a revolutionary. Gary Neville is doing as he is told and doing pretty well.
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