It’s approaching half-time at Elland Road on Tuesday night and Leeds United have a free-kick deep in the Crystal Palace half, about halfway between the corner flag and the penalty area. It could only be described as “in a dangerous position”. Raphinha stands over it.
“This is going to get whipped in with unbelievable pace, that’s my prediction,” says a supremely confident Ally McCoist. The Brazilian raises his right hand and proceeds to smash the ball about 30 yards over everyone and out for a goal-kick.
You can hear McCoist start to laugh. “OK,” says a deadpan Jon Champion. “We can wind back and you can redo that bit if you like.”
“Well actually I’m standing by it. I didn’t say how high it was going to go … there was a lot of pace on it … ” At which point McCoist creases with laughter. It is impossible not to laugh with him.
It’s a wonderful moment. A drab football match brought to life by a master of the craft. It’s a busy week for him – he’s is still trending on Twitter the day after the Merseyside derby. Delivering joyous co-comms is one thing – single-handedly turning a social media platform into a positive and friendly place is quite another.
It is interesting that more people are tweeting about the bloke talking about the game than the game itself. It feels harsh on Diogo Jota and Jordan Henderson but the analysis of the analysis often piques our interest more than the thing we’re meant to be discussing.
Having hosted numerous shows on TalkSport with him I can confirm that Ally is everything you’d hope and expect – warm, funny, smart, self-deprecating. So there is no objectivity here but he appears to have the achieved the unachievable in sports broadcasting – taking obvious historic rivalries aside – to be universally loved. I can say with categoric certainty that I do not know that feeling. But who does? Barry Davies? Jeff Stelling, perhaps?
Ally’s prime week follows the increasingly high-pitched debate between Roy Keane and Jamie Carragher about Cristiano Ronaldo on Super Sunday. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s widening smile is a complete joy. The camera zooming in as Carragher yells: “WHAT’S THE POINT OF SIGNING HIM?” with an unyielding Scouse urgency.
Having been caught in a Jonathan Wilson loop on the subject for the last few months I find myself firmly in the Carragher camp when it comes to Ronaldo. But the row is so loud and intense you almost forget what they’re talking about by the end. It’s got to be something more important than football.
The scene wraps perfectly with Dave Jones patting Keane three times on the thigh – finishing with a gentle clench. “Time to go,” as if he’s trying to get a five-year old to leave a friend’s birthday party. How long did Dave spend debating whether and when to go in for the triple pat? It’s a brave move. We’ve seen Keane react to less. The timing is perfect. And most important it’s great television. How much analysis do you need when you’ve got Roy Keane shouting: “Cups. Cups. CUPS”?
The following day the Guardian Football Weekly podcast received more questions about that than virtually all of the weekend’s Premier League action. Are they staged, choreographed and pre-arranged? Is Keane becoming a parody of himself? Should pundits be shouting like Arsenal Fan TV?
The real question is does any of that matter – if it’s engaging and entertaining, then crack on. Not many TVs will be turned off during that exchange. At half-time or full time you’re competing with kettles, toilets, pubs, second screens – you have to make an impact. Keane might not be challenging McCoist for universal love – but in broadcasting terms he absolutely has it.
There are many ways to be a brilliant pundit. What is your role? How does the team fit together? What’s the chemistry? From the rage of Keane to the joy of Ian Wright. The tactical nous of Emma Hayes or sheer happiness to be at the football conveyed by McCoist.
I’m currently in Australia hosting the Champions League coverage for Stan Sport alongside two brilliant pundits – Craig Foster and Mark Bosnich. Foster is a forensic analyst who can pick apart tactics mid-game and explain them in a straightforward and engaging way at half-time, with the Monday Night Football-style touch screen. Bosnich brings an energy and an infectious joy to covering football at five in the morning – as well as the experience of playing at the absolute highest level.
They’re very different and that’s why it works. There’s clearly a big disclaimer here: we’ve got at least two and a half more years of working together and I don’t want it to be awkward next Wednesday morning, but it is fascinating to watch them at work – to see what different things they’re looking out for and how quickly they see patterns in the game, how they complement one another, and how they discuss the same game in different ways.
We have a wonderful obsession with who is talking about the game and how we talk about it. There’s a brilliant (award-nominated) podcast devoted to and called Football Cliches hosted by Adam Hurrey – painstakingly delving into the ludicrous minutiae of every bit of it. It picks apart the acceptable use of language – “the managers’ merry-go-round”, “downing tools”, “not even getting out of first gear”.
If football isn’t a matter of life or death, then talking about it absolutely isn’t. So the key is to not take any of it particularly seriously. Because someone somewhere will hate you and tell you you’ve ruined the show, their day, their radio station, their TV channel, their life – or all of the above. Unless of course, you’re Ally McCoist.