Ex-professional football players occupy a unique position in British society. For anyone else of any other profession or social standing, years having engaged in an activity on a professional basis day-in day-out would afford you with a modicum of respect and a reputation for expertise. You have been there, on the inside. You have seen all of what there is to see.
Not so for ex-professional footballers. Their years in the trenches are, uniquely I think, rewarded only with scorn, derision and pithy 140-character reminders that they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. Now, I know it is hard to face up to the realisation that you might possibly live in a world where Alan Shearer or Gareth Southgate might know more about something than you do, but I am afraid we do live in such a world. The simple fact of the matter is, however garbled or mangled their way of expressing it may be, unless you also spent a 20-year career playing and coaching soccer, Alan Shearer knows more about professional football than you do.
I’m afraid he does.
And so here we are, in a brave new world. Alan Hansen may have made your parrot finally decide to end it all last night with his carefully illustrated talk about “Croatia’s two banks of four”, but this is in fact merely a demonstration of the way that people who have lived and worked around football for their entire career think about the game. Of course, it’s not the way that we, the supporters, think. We laugh when people fall over or blast it miles wide. We like our players to run fast, dribble and shoot from a long way out. The average supporter doesn’t say things like “that was good technique”. Our favourite player is the one who still smokes.
But there would be no point having Joe Public on the half-time punditry panel, though. Everything that they could think or say will be something that most of the viewers at home will already have thought or said. This is why we have these ex-players and current managers holding forth, explaining some of the tactical minutiae that the viewers may have missed because one of the goalkeepers has daft hair or one of the central defenders has a name which sounds a bit like “poo”.
The result of this clash of viewpoints – or rather, methodologies taken to perhaps even reach the same viewpoint – is mithering, griping and shoes being thrown at the telly. And I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. I find the current generation of British football commentators, pundits and presenters almost transcendentally annoying, to the point where it almost becomes a Dadaist performance art piece. Almost. Last week I told Peter Drury to eff off. He didn’t hear me, because he was in Poznan.
But I am working on changing this. At worst, all I will do from now on is just ignore it, let it wash over me or turn the sound off. And who knows, you may even learn something from engaging with it. Alan Hansen knows his onions. He has worked with some of the biggest names in the history of the British game. Look past the fact he largely communicates in lists of adjectives and he offers insights which may allow you to better understand the tactical ebb and flow of the game you are watching.
And all of this would have been easy to achieve, had the BBC not helpfully introduced the option of an “overhead tactical camera” for their live coverage of matches from Euro 2012. Because it turns out that Messrs. Hansen, Shearer, Southgate and Keane are in fact scholarly types, versed in the theoretical understanding of football rather than its actual practical application. Their analysis of shape and movement are extrapolated and interpreted from historical, rather than real-time, data. One look at the overhead tactical camera confirms what we have all suspected at some stage or other: footballers, like dogs, just bunch together and chase after the ball.
Come half-time, I imagine the exasperated coaches retire to the dressing room and take each player to one side. “I told you not to push up during corners because the opposition right-sided midfielder will tuck inside and put you on your weaker foot. Why did you just ignore me?” “Sorry gaffer, the ball came quite close to me so I just chased after it like an Afghan hound with my tongue lolling out. It won’t happen again”.
“Can you guarantee me that it won’t?”
Turns out that Alan Shearer knows nothing about football. You should ignore anyone who tells you any different.
How Tactics Really, Definitely, Absolutely Work