Sunday 18 March 2018

Top pundits should take a risk and get back into game

Roy Keane would surely have been impressed with Gary Neville's move. He never saw punditry as
Roy Keane would surely have been impressed with Gary Neville's move. He never saw punditry as "a proper job" anyway
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Why would any former player want to leave their job as a pundit to become a manager like Gary Neville has done. You're onto a loser, surely, if you make the jump from the cozy environment of punditry to the cut-throat world of management, which nearly always ends in failure.

Why would anyone want to go from wearing designer suits to designing game-plans which nearly every fan will moan and bitch about, while also leaving yourself open to ridicule and criticism.

And why would anyone want to work in a job which requires an almost unhealthy obsession.

Ugh. What were you thinking, Gary Neville?

A manager may come into a new set-up with the charisma, charm and intelligence of a Jurgen Klopp. But it seems the end-game leaves you with a sourness, paranoia and, sometimes even, the disinterest of a beaten-down Jose Mourinho.

When Neville took over as manager of Valencia last week he said: "The time has now come for me to stand up." He's put himself out there as a manager, which equates to a free-for-all for everyone to have a cut off him. It's a move which seems utterly mad. And utterly admirable.

Of course, Neville will get nicely paid for it. There's also ego involved, but it's still brave to decide the reward is worth the risk to jump into management.

Roy Keane would surely have been impressed with Neville's move. He never saw punditry as "a proper job" anyway.

In his autobiography, The Second Half, Keane gave a typically tame take on being a pundit. "It's an easy gig. I don't like easy gigs. When I heard, 'I liked your commentary last night', I knew: I was only talking bullshit, like the rest of them. Hopefully, my bullshit was a bit better. I wanted to do something that excited me. TV work didn't excite me."

For Keane and Neville - two of the best football analysts around - punditry wasn't enough for them.

Which, from a selfish TV viewer point of view, is disappointing. We want our experience of watching matches to be enriched by insightful pundits, which is all part of the package of watching a game.

But should the 'brilliant pundit' really exist? A brilliant pundit should be in the game as a manager, assistant or advisor, surely.

If you're the owner or chief executive of a club, you would want that brilliant analyst on TV or radio to bring that intelligence to your operation. Remember that old phrase 'for the good of the game'?

But good punditry is more than just about entertainment. Really good analysts also use their positions to become guardians of the game and raise any issues around its governance.

A few months ago, former Cork hurling goalkeeper Donal Og Cusack gave up his role as a pundit on RTE's The Sunday Game to join Davy Fitzgerald's management team with the Clare hurlers.

When I spoke to Clare hurler David McInerney about it a few weeks ago, he brought up what he knew about Cusack just from watching him on TV.

"He's going to bring a different viewpoint and a new expertise. You see it on the Sunday Game, he knows his stuff," McInerney said.

Cusack's role as a pundit wasn't about the one-liners. After Cork's defeat in the championship last year, Cusack dug deeper than the usual cosmetic analysis and highlighted what he viewed as the lack of a coaching structure in Cork and the cost of the Centre of Excellence.

Cusack brought a heavyweight levity to his punditry role. And, just like Neville (although without the obvious financial reward), it will be riveting to see how Cusack's intelligence works now he's back in the game.

Which brings me to Brian O'Driscoll.

There is a lot about Neville that reminds me of O'Driscoll (not as a player though. Neville was no-where near as innately talented as the Dubliner, and O'Driscoll was not a divisive player like Neville was). Just like the time Neville had on Monday Night Football, O'Driscoll is revealing the full scale of his talent on Off The Ball on Newstalk on Friday nights.

Like Neville, O'Driscoll is intelligent, articulate, self-aware, has the likeability factor, the status, and is passionate as a pundit. Just recently, while it would have looked to most of us that Ben Te'o had a good game defensively during Leinster's defeat at Wasps, O'Driscoll pointed out that those big hits hurt the cohesive unit of the backline.

He also highlighted how Leinster were letting themselves down when it came to generating quick ruck ball, and the need for players to identify en route to the ruck where to secure the ball in the most effective way so as not to commit too many players.

"It's simple maths," O'Driscoll explained, in a way which made it simple to understand.

It was something he learned from Joe Schmidt. And that's what makes O'Driscoll a brilliant rugby brain.

As well as his own innate under-standing, Ireland's greatest try scorer has learnt from two of the best head coaches in world rugby - Schmidt and Michael Cheika.

Plus his four Lions Tours saw him work with various coaches, from Ian McGeechan to Warren Gatland to Andy Farrell. He has a treasure trove of knowledge which is incomparable to most other players in world rugby.

After giving all of his playing life to Leinster and Ireland, it's easy to understand why O'Driscoll would want to set a new career for himself away from the drudgery of the training ground.

But. We are too small a country not to have one of the best rugby brains (not to mind one of the most well-respected former players) in the world having some form of involvement in the game here - even in an advisory capacity if full-scale management or coaching isn't for him.

It's just like we're too small a country to have lost former managers and head coaches like Brian Kerr and Declan Kidney directly from soccer and rugby respectively for various reasons.

It's like the line once used by former Taoiseach Jack Lynch: "There's nothing as 'ex' as an ex-taoiseach". Let's not make the same mistake in sport again.

If he decides on a change of direction at some stage in the future, I would love to see O'Driscoll back in the game in a role which suited and worked for him.

He owes Irish rugby nothing. However, if the current gloom around Irish rugby continues, the sport will need all the help it can get for the good of the game.

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