Friday 6 December 2019

Neville and Carragher bringing the best out of each other


Two one-club men are now united on television, the pundits for Sky Sport's Monday show, and both are proving a hit after starring on the pitch.

It is 6.10pm on a Monday deep in the bowels of Sky’s Isleworth headquarters and Gary Neville is urgently knocking on the doors of dressing rooms one and three. “Carra, Carra, we need to go through this,” Neville says. “Ed, Ed are you ready? We can’t get the right clips in time. And Scott, Scott, where’s Scott?”

Carra is Jamie Carragher, the former Liverpool centre-back who is now Neville’s co-analyst on Monday Night Football (MNF).

Ed is Ed Chamberlin, the man who succeeded Richard Keys as the presenter of Sky Sports’ flagship football show in 2011.

And Scott is Scott Melvin, the long-standing producer who, according to director Duncan East, has “the best arguments in the world” with Neville amid what he describes as a “husband and wife” relationship.

They all quickly emerge; Carragher still in his pants, Chamberlin playing around with his shirt collar and Melvin, notepad in hand, ready to listen patiently to Neville’s latest idea.

An impromptu meeting begins in the corridor outside the make-up room. Since a rehearsal between 3pm and 5pm, Neville has spent the past hour telling anyone who will listen that they must delve beyond Luis Suárez’s attacking brilliance and highlight how his work-rate is rubbing off on the rest of the Liverpool team.

Jack and Will, respectively MNF’s clips-man and stats guru, are frantically searching for evidence to support Neville’s observations.

There are two golden rules on MNF.

The first is that they must be original and innovative in their analysis of the weekend matches.

The second is that every opinion offered by Carragher or Neville should be backed up by fact, usually a killer stat or an illustrative clip.

Neville is unimpressed by the clips that have been uncovered in such a short space of time. A statistic showing that Fernando Torres had actually run further than Suárez in their previous game is also met with a grimace.

But then Will delivers. He has discovered that Suárez produced more “high-intensity runs” than any other striker last weekend. Neville is delighted. “That’s what counts,” he announces, “it’s the sprints that matter not the total distance.”

A graphic is quickly being prepared by another of the 35-strong team that are based in the ‘gallery’ above the studio.

They are all now on the final countdown to fully four hours of live television from 7pm.

As Neville strides past with the exact same look he had while shaking hands with opponents before a big Champions League match, he communicates via an unspoken medium that now is really not the time to be bothering him.

Chamberlin, Neville and Carragher then disappear. Where have they gone? “Oh that’s just ‘the walk’,” one colleague says. The walk? They all return 10 minutes later, game faces on, and Chamberlin – seemingly the most relaxed man in the building – explains.

“It’s a bit of superstition,” he says. “It started when me and Gary began doing the show together. The three of us just walk around the site. It’s a chance to clear our heads and go through the last details.”

Those details have been constantly debated and fine-tuned during a series of meetings and phone calls in the week leading up to the show.

Neville and Carragher have been at Sky since 8.30am and, during a half-hour break for lunch, they explain how being a pundit is far more time-consuming than actually playing.

“We are the last word on the weekend,” Neville says. “It has to be fresh. Two years ago, I was expecting the other shows to cover the things I wanted to do and they weren’t.

"I had bucket-loads of things to do. I think this year everybody has upped their game.”

Despite all the new technology – Neville and Carragher both have replica touch-screens to practice on at home – it is still the personalities that drive the show.

And Sky have never had an analyst attracting the attention or critical acclaim beyond football that Neville has.

In August, he was invited to speak at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. In an interview last month with The Telegraph, Hollywood actress Keira Knightley said that Neville was her main reason for owning a television.

“He is just amazing, absolutely f------ amazing!” she said.

The success of MNF stems from an appreciation of football fans as people who are highly informed and yearning for an intelligent insight into a Premier League dressing-room.

“Five, six, seven years ago you had either impact punditry or pundits who will repeat a commentator which is a waste of time,” Neville says. “We are more of a teaching show. I think fans want to learn more. I think you can push them. You are insulting them if you think they can’t understand. If they don’t, they will try and work it out.”

Neville, for example, wants to debate the evolving role of a ‘No 10’ and how, according to Carragher, David Silva, Santi Cazorla, Oscar and Juan Mata are “getting away with murder” in terms of their goalscoring responsibilities.

Carragher has spotted something different about Newcastle United’s defending that he intends to explore. Neville is adamant that they need a special guest in the near future to offer more expertise on the subject of goalkeeping. He also wants more access to what is happening at training grounds.

Chamberlin says the “never stand still” mentality is reminiscent of Sir Alex Ferguson.

“Pundits are getting analysed by the average fan now,” Carragher says. “It’s like a game, you never do a perfect game, you never do a perfect Monday night. There’s always something.”

And so have they ever said things that they regret? Both nod but are also adamant they would never allow any friendships to compromise their analysis. “No one has ever phoned me up,” Carragher said. “You have to think not so much about the player but the person at home watching.”

Given his role as an England coach, there could be particular sensitivities for Neville.

“I’ve never had an England player come up to me and say they have a problem with it,” he says. “The players are not daft. If you get it right, then you’ve got no problem. If you get it wrong is when you’ve got a problem. It usually revolves around one word.

“I remember when Gareth Barry once turned his back and I said it was unforgivable. That was a wrong choice of word. He’s a good player, a 100-per-cent every week player. As soon as I used it, I was like ‘come back here you’.”

Carragher wonders whether he was a bit harsh this season on Emmanuel Adebayor. “I called him a disgrace for playing well under Sherwood and not doing it under AVB,” he says. “I still stand by it, but maybe it needed a lesser word.”

What do they make of Roy Keane on ITV? “He’s really good for that show,” Carragher says, diplomatically. Neville also chooses his words carefully:

“The job of a pundit is one thing – to make sure whatever you say carries to the viewer and sticks. Anybody who does that is a success. There has to be one thing. One hook. It might be the analysis of one incident, it might be one word, one sentence. I’ve stuck to that clean principle.”

As I stand just behind the six studio cameramen to watch the show unfold, Neville’s remark about delivering that one memorable moment is on my mind. Three things are also striking. The first is that the feature on Suárez is mostly delivered by Carragher. It says something for the team ethic that Neville is largely a spectator for a part of the show he was determined to perfect.

It is also noticeable that Neville, Carragher and Chamberlin visibly relax once the first hour is over and the live match between Sunderland and West Ham United has kicked off. Dinner is ordered – canteen staff note that it is far more healthy than the junk food preferred by Paul Merson, Matt Le Tissier and friends on Soccer Saturday – although a Mars bar is generously thrown across the studio in my direction.

Neville confides that, when he started, his throat was so dry he feared clamming up and that he still always clasps a pen when he is speaking as a means of occupying one hand.

Carragher then likens using the touch-screen pad on live television to the difference between taking a penalty in a real game rather than in training.

While Chamberlin studies the footage we all see at home, Carragher and Neville prefer to watch the overhead camera that shows all 22 players.

Neville is also proved right about there being a moment that does subsequently reverberate. On this occasion, it is not some piece of insightful analysis but his apparently off-the-cuff response to a cheeky question from Chamberlin about whether he is looking forward to the probable title decider between Manchester City and Liverpool.

Neville smiles, pauses for effect and then says: “It’s like having a choice between two blokes to nick your wife”. YouTube views of the clip soon soar past 100,000. Not quite an internet ‘viral’ to match Neville’s commentary when Chelsea beat Barcelona in 2012 but still not bad for a Monday night involving Sunderland and West Ham.

As the show closes to the usual montage of music and clips, Neville makes a point of firmly shaking the hand of Carragher, Chamberlin and the rest of the MNF team before disappearing off into the night.

The next day he is again on the phone to his colleagues, dissecting their collective performance and planning for Monday’s match between Tottenham and Sunderland.

“When you work with them, you can see why they have been one-club men, you can see why they won things,” Melvin says.

“They are so intense, so focused and expecting of everybody else. They couldn’t be more different, but they are very similar.

"I’m sure some pundits would turn up half-an-hour before. They talk about it all week. They’re prepared.

"That’s why they were successful players; that’s why they are the best at this.”

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