Monday 18 November 2019

James Lawton: To err is human and mercy is divine but Sky’s bottom line will decide Carragher’s fate as a pundit


Jamie Carragher. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Jamie Carragher. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

James Lawton

When Big Ron Atkinson mistook a live microphone for a dead one and made a racist remark, his days as the big-time football pundit were over.

When Sky's anchorman Richard Keys and chief analyst Andy Gray had their sexist banter caught on tape, they were shown the studio door in roughly the time it takes to utter a wolf whistle.

Now, seven years after the fall of Keys and Gray, the big question is whether Jamie Carragher deserves his less instant and arbitrary fate, even the possibility that he will re-appear on the screen soon after serving a few months' suspension?

Only, it is hard not to say if the world of TV punditry has become as careless of its reputation as it often is with the dividing line between intelligent comment and the fostering of the kind of tribalism which provoked Carragher's "five seconds of madness".

Madness? Certainly, it was that along with revolting and potentially self-destructive but there was another aspect which, given the levels of rancour and self-advertising and cheating that increasingly pollute enjoyment of the world's most popular game, has been somewhat overlooked.

Disturbingly, Carragher's plunge into the most atavistic behaviour was caused - as far we can interpret the bizarre incident - by the low-level needling of a law-breaking driver wielding a phone as a camera and recording device.

Gary Neville. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire.
Gary Neville. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire.

This wasn't road rage but a failure to separate the meaning of sport from the requirements of adult conduct. It was a miscalculation of values and perspective on a monumental scale by a public commentator of obvious knowledge and achievement.

Carragher was inflamed by a jibe about the fate of his team. His fellow Liverpudlian Cilla Black would probably have advised that his punishment should be a slap on the legs and a greater sense of public hygiene. Instead of which he may still have to a pay an expensive career price.

If it happens, he can only blame himself. For the rest of us there is another option. It is to say that so much of the culture of TV football opinion has run too far, and too light-headedly, in front of itself.

John Giles no doubt spoke for many when he recently voiced his weariness with the self-regard of a generation of Manchester United players - either untested in the trials of management or a conspicuous failure in the case of Gary Neville at Valencia - who see the ownership of a microphone not as a privilege but a God-given right. This week Neville was quick to say that he looked forward to resuming his public love-hate relationship with Carragher when his Sky colleague had served his time and his repentance. So, roll on the amiable tribalism, you might say, if you can forget the more toxic moment when a 14-year-old girl had to wipe Carragher's spittle off her face - and plead with her father to end the ordeal which he had so chirpily fashioned.

Who knows, when the heads at Sky have resolved the moralities and the significance of the incident, they might just get around to re-defining the responsibility of the pundit, the insights and maturity he brings to the job and the lasting impact of what he says.

Neville has proved a successful broadcaster, abrasive, even bold, but he has never shed the mantle of a partisan who once dashed across the field to inflame a section of Liverpool fans at Old Trafford. Similarly, Carragher has made his impact in the TV booth, worked on his diction, voiced strong opinions, but, as he proved so calamitously last weekend, found more difficulty in separating his passions from his judgement.

No-one wants to hear tepid, me-too verdicts. Debate, as fiery as you like, is the oxygen of the business. But increasingly the standing of a game soaked in riches has a need to do more work on its image and as one of its greatest providers of wealth, Sky has responsibilities and, maybe ultimately, a need protect the product.

What football requires most is a much keener sense of its role in the lives of its millions of supporters, its capacity to influence the attitudes of people who routinely see millionaire players diving and feigning injury and displaying an arrogance which would be roundly despised in most other workplaces.

It is here where the Carragher issue bites most deeply. As he said, if he saw on the football field an example of his own behaviour on a public highway his criticism would have been fierce and might well have lasted for days. He might have asked if that player had the right to be trusted by his club.

Really, what do we want from our TV football pundit? We want the kind of comment which comes from, say for one example, Graeme Souness, a fierce and brilliant player and captain who has experienced, with varying success, every corner of his trade.

We want tough-minded football men who can readily distinguish what is most important - and what is passing form or fancy. Most of all, we want authority, strong-minded and easily expressed and a recurring sense that football should not be about old, unshakeable personal loyalties but new and exciting possibilities.

We are not talking about a precise science, of course. The cheery bombast of Ron Atkinson had its followers, as did that of Andy Gray, and there is no doubt that Jamie Carragher has often made a powerful mark.

Unfortunately, this does not remove the haunting question of whether he has forfeited his right to be a spokesman for football's most enduring values. They say that to err is human and mercy is divine but for Sky, a business enterprise after all, the bottom line will no doubt be the estimated cost.

Irish Independent

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