David Preece: Criticism is essential, we ‘pundits’ are not gibbering cheerleaders

Gary Neville is a brilliant, and entertaining, analyst of the game.
Gary Neville is a brilliant, and entertaining, analyst of the game.
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I was recently asked: ‘Do you mind if I call you a pundit?’. The fact that someone had to ask the question says much about what thoughts the term ‘pundit’ conjures up.

The person in question obviously thought that I’d be offended at the title, but, although I wasn’t bothered how I was referred to, it did make me think.

I’ve taken far too much time deciding what to describe myself as in my Twitter bio.

‘Broadcaster’ seems too grand to me and ‘pundit’ doesn’t seem grand enough. So, for the moment, I’m sticking to a Mark Lawrenson quote when he referred to me as ‘That bloke off Twitter’.

Technically, he isn’t wrong, but, although I spend far more time on it than I should, even the most humble version of me took umbrage at being reduced to just that.

The truth is, the word pundit had become the antithesis of what it actually means.

The dictionary definition is ‘an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called upon to give their opinions to the public’, but, in football terms, it became associated with lazy analysis and an even lazier vocabulary.

It was for this reason that I decided to write a piece. some years ago, bemoaning the lack of goalkeeping analysis.

That piece was important for me personally because it was around that time I decided to take the matter into my own hands and attempt to make goalkeeping part of the conversation.

Whether someone agrees with me or not is mostly irrelevant to me, because I want it to cause people to think about it themselves, and create debate.

Now, in this new age of analysis, more is demanded of those of us who are at the point in our careers where we talk about the game more than we play.

There are two key points that have to be adhered to, to keep the attention of those who are reading, listening and watching what is said.

It either has to be entertaining or educational – or eventually they’ll be replaced. What is the point then, other than filling pages and airtime?

In the case of the Jamie Carraghers and Gary Nevilles, they do both and that’s what makes them so good.

This week’s criticisms of Arsenal and Chelsea has created more chatter, but this time all the talk isn’t about the football but the talk itself.

People are now questioning whether the criticisms have gone too far, but I don’t think so.

It’s impossible to have good analysis and honest opinion without criticism.

Without either, pundits would become gibbering cheerleaders.

Paul Whitehouse’s Fast Show character who walked everywhere telling us everything is brilliant was funny, but if that’s all we got fed we’d switch off.

The ‘noise’ that Gary Neville has described punditry as, would just become white noise that faded into the background, rendered as pointless.

As long as it is unbiased, criticism is a necessary part of progress and it’s one of the main reasons why analysis of goalkeeping has historically been so poor.

Because goalkeepers have been so reluctant to be seen criticising others, it has allowed the narrative of what’s good and what’s bad to be led by outfield players who aren’t as knowledgeable about the position.

That’s led to the perpetuation of the ‘should never be beaten at the near post’ myth, alongside many others.

Giving critical analysis doesn’t mean slaughtering others. It’s about giving another perspective so the viewer’s opinion is better informed.

Some mistakes need no explanation. They are just that. But when they form a pattern, that’s when you need to uncover why it’s happening and add reason to the criticism.

Explanation of an error leads to understanding and then we can steer clear of just sticking lazy adjectives on to label situations.

And then there’s the entertainment aspect. The likes of Sky Sport’s Monday Night Football and 5 Live’s Monday Night Club have become as must-see/listen as the game itself.

Some Mondays, I’d rather tune in to those that watch the game that night because I know it’s both enjoyable and informative. But, like I said at the start, it doesn’t have to be both.

Anyone who thinks we ‘pundits’ over-analyse the game at least has the choice to switch off or turn down the volume.

As for the managers and players who respond sensitively to questions they are asked about what pundits have said, they are just wasting their time.

When asked to comment on criticisms this week, Antonio Conte should have just shrugged his shoulders and said that he didn’t care what was said about him and his side, instead of calling it ‘stupid’.

Whether it was stupid or not, they should remember the purpose of punditry is similar to their own job.

Managers and players either have to win or entertain, and the best of them do both. If they do neither, then they should understand the criticism is deserved.