Big Game Sofa Squad Falls Short
BY POPULAR demand - no, really! - and to cosy up to the seething twitter-mob (a bandwidthwagon?) waving cyber-pitchforks at Mark Lawrenson and Co - here's a remix of this week's Big Picture column from the steam driven paper version of the Gazette.
DULL, one-dimensional and with their weaknesses cruelly exposed on the international stage... at least we've got the pundits the team deserves.
With a complacent approach, a dearth of imagination and a reliance on tired old line-ups long past their best, the small screen sofa squads on both sides have failed to deliver.
Roy Hodgson's side performed to the level you would expect given form, ranking and history. They laboured through the group then went out to the first technically superior side they came up against. On penalties. There can be no real complaints about that.
But off the pitch, viewers have plenty to get irate about. The armchair audience has been very poorly served indeed. Again.
Dismay at the talking heads has been a regular theme at recent tournaments (certainly I have banged this drum before) - but this one really is worse than ever.
On the big stage the 'experts' - patronising, defiantly ill-informed and brass-necked about ambling along on a banter driven conveyor belt of cliche and stereotypes - have fallen woefully short.
The matchday commentators, with one or two exceptions, have been poor. They have swung wildly between inanely stating the bleeding obvious and hysterical hyperbole, between reading out rehearsed factoids with all the panache of a satnav to smugly crow-barring in pre-scripted but ill-fitting football fortune cookie sound-bites at the first opportunity. There is a gaping vacuum in between where the insight should be.
You get the impression that some are desperately in search of their 'Kenneth Wolstenholme moment,' and have spent long hours concocting abstract statements to suit imagined scenarios they are wishing to unfold just so they can get in their contrived microphone money-shot that will cement them in clip-show archives for all time.
If the commentators have been bad, and generally they have, then their side-kicks have been worse. Far, far worse. On ITV the regular co-commentators Jim Beglin and former Boro man Andy Townsend suffer from being, well, boring. Flat, dull, uninspired, unengaged. Zzzzzz. Townsend in particular has the bewildered air of a man fidgeting with his keys who can't remember where he parked the tactics truck.
And they are both 'foreign.' I'm not going to get animated about that - but I wish they would. Games, often exquisite in fluidity, are reduced to plodding affairs in which they trail the action by a long way and only ever relate the slo-mo replay in detail and with any confidence. We know, we saw it too. It's a visual medium.
Then there's no-nonsense Mick McCarthy - a man who sounds like he should be commentating on One Man And His Dog - who like his teams goes route one as an article of faith. That can be refreshing and at times he has a nice turn of phrase but if I wanted to hear an aggressive old bloke growl "that keeper is a right tart" in a gruff regional accent I could go to the pub.
Come on lads, tell us something that illuminates, illustrates or excites. Explain the thinking of players, the problems in a ball arriving at that speed and angle, the dynamic of space and shape, not cliche bingo platitudes about "the boy'll be disappointed with that."
By far the worst offender up on the gantry is the BBC's world weary Mark Lawrenson, a beige and monotone figure who appears to be descending into a cloud of despair. He has become a parody of himself. He is tired. He needs putting out of his own misery.
There was a time when he was the new broom. No, seriously, there was. He carved out a role of cutting edge comic foil when paired up with the declining Pathe News cartoon figure of John Mostson and at times almost subverted the sheepskin statto stereotype with his contemporary cultural references but now his act is as fly-blown and out-dated and as easily satired as was Motty back then.
His jibe at twitter users as 'sad' (at a time when his employers are anxiously trying to plug into social networks) was a telling moment. Not only did it attract direct unfriendly fire from cyber-space and give the smart phone sharp-shooters on the virtual terrace a legitimate target, it also shows exactly how far out of the cultural loop he now is. There was a time he would have laughed and taunted Motty with talk of hashtags, trending and 'tekkers.' Now he just sounds like a befuddled and mumbling pensioner denouncing modernity.
His delivery is one-dimensional, his predictable forced quips filleted of topical content. If you strain you can just hear the tad-boom-tsssh he whispers under his breath when he is particularly proud of the word play of one of his quips. His remarks are less confident, more forced and quieter, almost as if he is playing to an audience of one. He is a ghost ship drifting in search of a moment long gone.
Listening to him has the dated, dusty feel of chancing upon a 1987 edition of Three Of A Kind on Comedy Gold+1 when channel-hopping and wondering who exactly in television ever commissioned that. Look at those clothes! Did people really laugh at that!
Still, there's alway the red button and the "choice of audio" option. Great, Alan Green, a man whose simmering self-righteous sense of indignation at being forced to watch such sub-standard fare is delivered in a whine that makes you yearn for the vuvuzela. It must be a decade since Green actually enjoyed a match. He sounds like he is broadcasting live from purgatory, and boy is he going to make us share his suffering.
(At this point it is worth noting that if you do need to listen to a game at work or in the car then over on Radio White Van Man... TalkSport... Stan Collymore is running rings around the Beeb with commentaries that are well informed, entertaining, engaging and convey some of the drama, tension and passion that most supporters expect. He expresses a shared love of the game and makes it sound like a labour of love.)
Back on the red button it could be worse than Green. No, really, it could. One match offered the terrifying chance to listen to the game in the dark soulless company of radio's Chris Moyles - an enlarged ego with no visible means of support - and his simpering sycophantic sidekick "Comedy" Dave. For another game the alternative commentary option was a bunch of giggling txt-talking airheads stumbling over soundbites and fumbling half-heard tabloid factoids; it was a team from kids channel CBBC. I fear for our children.
Meanwhile, the star-studded studio sofa teams have been seriously flawed too, with the complacent BBC being, for once, the chief offenders.
The job of the 'expert' is to illuminate, to point out tactical and technical nuances for the layman, to provide insight the mere mortal may miss.
Alan Shearer before Poland's clash with the Czechs glibly revealed on behalf of the studio collective: "We don't know a lot about these teams"... and then went on to prove it.
For Shearer these lads don't play in the Premier League therefore they may as well not exist. The limited horizons of the experts knowledge were clearly marked out.
And even with those players familiar from the Premier League Shearer's knowledge gaps were frightening.
"Mario Balotelli... he's achieved nothing yet," he pronounced, talking down the Italian's main striking threat in his pre-match bombast for the England game.
That will be the Balotelli that has won Serie A three times and the Champions League with Inter Milan as well as the Premier League with Manchester City, what, ooooh, it must be six weeks ago now; a player more than entitled to ask Shearer to "show us your medals."
That alarming trait of brazenly flaunting a lack of knowledge was also present in the last big outing, World Cup 2010 in South Africa when Shearer went so far as teasing Lee Dixon for talking about the pre-match preparation he had done, research on likely players and possible formations. It was an overgrown schoolboy clown teasing a conscientious classmate for doing his homework. He was proudly and publicly championing his own short-comings without a shred of self-awareness.
The arrogant dismissal of preparation, a failure to see any need to be informed about the opposition is symptomatic of a wider flaw within an insular English mindset about the game that sees anything dangerously foreign as not really being worthwhile.
Isn't it Shearer's well paid licence fee-payer funded job to ensure his knowledge isn't so obviously limited? Otherwise what's the point of him being there? No-one expects him to don an anorak of comprehensive Motsonian minutae but surely the BBC research department - or heaven forbid, he himself - could have compiled an idiot's guide?
That's what I expect from an 'expert': tell me something I don't already know. But of course, therein lies the problem. These people are not really experts at all.
Yes, they know plenty about the teams, tactics and culture of the Premiership Big Four (and Liverpool) - they probably play golf with the main protagonists - but they know alarmingly little about life outside the big club bubble. Anyone who follows a makeweight club in England knows that already.
On the international stage that damning deficit is magnified - they don't know the players or how teams shape up or what to expect in terms of tempo, tactics or style and don't appear to have made any serious attempt to find out.
The pundits should have been telling us exactly how Spain and Germany control and manipulate space and tempo; how, when and why they switch formations during a game; and, crucially, how opposing teams can set out to deal with it, neutralise it. Why are these teams the dominant forces in football? What can WE do to match them.
Instead we got dumbstruck impotence and the tentative high level tactical advice that the underdogs in any given game should just "do a Chelsea" and "park the bus."
That tactical illiteracy and an awe of unknowable alien technique that sees tika-taka as just this side of witchcraft is part of England's debilitating self-imposed blindfold.
Until we embrace 'tactics' and 'technique' as part of our football discourse we are condemned to the English recipe of passion, physique and 'putting it in the mixer'. And that change has to start with those who conduct the debate in public.
It is noticeable that it has taken the foreigners on the sofa - Clarence Seedorf, Jurgen Klinsmann, Roberto Martinez and Gianluca Vialli (and over on ITV, Jamie Carragher) - to take up the mission to explain in their second tongue but sad that their imput is listened to reverently if impatiently... then usually followed by some schoolboy quip and giggling.
ITV have had more interesting pundits. Bristling Carragher and the constantly seething Roy Keane are quick to offer not only some insight but also real opinions and flashes of passion and appear not inhibited in the slightest by an otherwise universal urge to placate the sensitivities of cosy football's Magic Circle.
Both are listenable and assertive but are hampered by having Adrian Chiles nearby, thinking not as a journalist and looking for ways to expand what could be an engaging debate, but instead from within his "every bloke" pigeonhole and labouring for a leaden quip as awkward as his screen presence. He makes you lean for the remote.
Gareth Southgate has faded after some early promise in his first tentative studio outings a few years ago, though he has been neutered by his rise up the FA while it will stick in Boro fans' throats to see Gordon Strachan not only dish out tactical advice to big name managers but also castigate players for being rude to journalists.
Generally the old boys network is not great value. It doesn't illuminate and it doesn't provoke. And it certainly doesn't entertain. It doesn't match the big occasion.
For domestic games that doesn't matter as we know the players, the teams and the context ourselves. Their bit is just padding and a chance to make a trip to the fridge.
On the big stage though, when viewers actually need some help they have proved useless.