Tuesday 25 July 2017

Sky's the limit for pundits but Neville revels in up-front role

Dion Fanning

Gary Neville's exponential improvement as a pundit may be alarming to many people. Neville is a deeply serious man and, like many serious men, he has often been considered eccentric or a nuisance.

On the return trip from a Manchester United European game, Neville's team-mates were startled when he began making shuttle runs up and down the aisle of the plane. "My preparation for Saturday starts here," he announced.

Neville has the gift of not caring what others think and, perhaps more importantly, not being too concerned about what he thinks of himself, which releases him from self-consciousness. As a result, he has all the attributes to make it in television.

As Neville's progress continues, it will be interesting to observe if he collides with those who are solely concerned with what others think.

Neville has been applauded by the new wave of football thinkers who have a thirst for knowledge and informed opinion but those who watch over Neville will only take limited satisfaction in the approval from this quarter.

It is conceivable to imagine a time when Neville becomes a pest again. After last Sunday's defeat to Liverpool, Andre Villas-Boas was asked to respond to Neville's excellent line about David Luiz playing as if he was controlled by a ten-year-old boy with a PlayStation.

Villas-Boas refused to comment but added that it was "a stupid approach to an opinion" which was comment enough.

It is such a rare thing for an English pundit to say anything at all interesting -- let alone interesting enough that it leads to a question in a post-match press conference -- that this caused something of a frisson. These moments are rare. When Alan Hansen criticised Theo Walcott after the player had scored a hat-trick, this appeared to be excellent punditry, but I heard that several journalists criticised the timing of it when the timing was the best thing about it.

So Neville's desire to say something interesting goes against all good practice for those in the business of making inoffensive television. This is a world where Mark Bright continues to make a living.

Yet Andy Gray could be critical too and somebody like Luiz or AVB would be his ideal target; a man outside the mainstream whom he could criticise with a rhetorical flourish that relied as little as possible on the facts.

Neville is clearly different.

Surprisingly, he is also a better pundit than Roy Keane, who continues to mature into an old pro. Keane criticises players if they aren't hard enough, but refuses, unlike Graeme Souness, to allow any of his disgust at the human race to manifest itself as on-screen menace.

"He's Italian, what do you expect?" Keane responded when asked if Balotelli had dived during Manchester City's Champions League game against Villarreal, a comment that managed to be offensive and banal simultaneously.

Keane shows why punditry matters and how it works. Television responds to displays of personality. Keane would probably rule the television world if he decided to reveal his.

Instead he remains closed and as a result uninteresting. It's an understandable decision but a regrettable one.

Keane is not just passing time appearing on ITV. Neville's rise and the eagerness with which people have embraced him demonstrates once again the importance of these men on television.

RTE were criticised last week for the failure to get a couple of details right. This is a chronic condition in Montrose but the only time it is excusable is if John Giles has got a name wrong. Giles is football's AJ Ayer, a philosopher-king who can be forgiven for not knowing the name of, say, the Apoel Nicosia left back, or indeed the Arsenal's left back. He deals in greater truths and has educated us all.

It's a sign of Neville's excellence as a pundit that I have no idea if he uses the formulation favoured by those who are eager to impress. Ray Wilkins, for example, never misses an opportunity to talk of the 'Barclays Premier League'. Wilkins speaks and thinks in monochrome so it's easier to notice his nod to the corporate world which he delivers in Technicolor, like the little girl in the red dress in Schindler's List.

Wilkins' colourful moments are not about the triumph of the human spirit but the crushing of it. My friend's eight-year-old son recently referred to the 'Barclays Premier League', a terrible indication of what these men have done.

Yet Wilkins has been sidelined as Neville continues to rise.

Sky are to be applauded for deciding to gamble on him. With his eagerness for self-improvement, Neville has ironed out his tics. In his early appearances, he could be seen 'checking for change' as I'm told they call it in showbusiness -- his hands fumbling in his pocket for the understandable reason that nobody knows what to do with their hands.

Yet I wonder if Sky knew what they were getting into? They can prepare Neville for a life in television but can they prepare tv for him?

In the language used by inferior pundits: How much do they want it?

There are plenty of stories suggesting Sky will be challenged for their tv rights next time by Al Jazeera, who are keen to make their mark.

If Neville continues to speak the truth, he will become a danger to those who wish to conceal it.

Neville is not a man to back down, something he demonstrated during the attempted England players' strike in support of Rio Ferdinand in 2003 and also during his superb appearance on Ferdinand's prank tv show.

This is all the evidence we need that Sky have acquired a man of substance. Gary Linekar, on the other hand, has worked for Al Jazeera.

Neville clearly never wanted to be on TV which is why he is so good at it.

Television has allowed the rise of a generation of vapid presenters who have the ambition of Lucifer.

They know nothing except how much they want to be on TV. Gary Neville, with his knowledge, his weirdness and his ambivalence, is a natural

dfanning@independent.ie

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