Roy Keane... From a Fierce Player to One of the Most Ruthless Analysts
It’s thrilling, visceral television. The sort of raw, unbridled authenticity that makes Roy Keane one of the most compelling pundits not just in football, but in any sport. “I’m fuming here,” he says at half-time, with Tottenham 1-0 up against Manchester United and Keane sitting in the Sky Sports studio. And in those words lie a sort of mission statement, a definitive affirmation of an irrefutable truth: football is back, and how we’ve missed it.
No, that doesn’t really work. Let’s try it this way. It was unhinged, unsettling, shocking for all the wrong reasons. As he tore apart Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, rounded on David de Gea for his failure to make a routine save, Keane again displayed the sort of indiscriminate rage that has made him one of the most toxic out-of-work coaches in the game. “I would be fighting him at half-time, swinging punches at that guy,” he spat, a sentiment that Sky seems perfectly happy to broadcast to a primetime family audience. The sooner this petty man with his unresolved anger issues is off our screens, the better.
No, my heart’s not really in that one, either. Clearly this whole “viral rant” business is harder than it looks. To tell you the truth, I struggled to muster any sort of opinion on Keane’s outburst on Friday night. Later I watched it back and found it vaguely amusing in a hackneyed, “play-the-hits” sort of way. Breaking news: Roy Keane is fuming about something. Perhaps, on balance, Keane should instead inform us when he’s not fuming. Not disgusted. Not possessed by violent retribution fantasies. It would save us all a lot of time.
To my eye, far more interesting than the outburst itself has been the basic faultline it exposes in televised football. Which is why we’re here, after all: television is the reason this husk of a season is being played to a finish. And so it’s worth asking: what do we really want from it? Do we want pundits to help us understand the game better, or enjoy it more? Was Keane’s tirade a tired, barbarian anachronism, or a riotously good piece of Friday night TV? In short: do we want explanation or entertainment?
For a generation or more, the answer seems to have been the former. The BBC’s first live Premier League game on Saturday night (Bournemouth v Crystal Palace) was a good excuse to seek out their last men’s top-flight fixture – Arsenal v Tottenham from March 1988 – and marvel at just how far we’ve come. What strikes you above all is the absence of anything remotely approaching thought, of any “why” behind the “what”. “He hit it very well in the end,” Trevor Brooking observes of Arsenal’s early goal, demonstrating that the job of an expert summariser back then consisted largely of narrating replays. “The ball bobs around, Alan Smith hits the shot on the turn, it goes right between Bobby Mimms’ hands, and you see his face there.”
How, then, did we go from “he hit it very well” to Jamie Carragher’s and Gary Neville’s exhaustive freeze-frame analysis on Monday Night Football? From “you see his face there”, to xG (expected goals) on Match of the Day? From Ian Wright the “comedy jester”, a role into which he was originally – and with hindsight, a little problematically – shoehorned in the 1990s, to the Wright who returned to the BBC as a wise bespectacled sage in the 2010s?
The answer is that for three decades, through Andy Gray in the 1990s to ITV’s Tactics Truck in the 2000s to the data revolution of the 2010s, the arc of football media has tended towards greater complexity, deeper insight, more immersive analysis. We wanted the game demystified, not dumbed down. Entertainment? Well, there was always the actual football for that.
Now, though, it feels like a turn has been reached. The gradual migration of the audience away from conventional television towards mobile and short-form video has been reflected in the product itself. The pundit these days must do more than fill airtime: he or she must drive engagement, stir debate, prickle emotions, preferably in shareable bite-sized social media segments. Arguments are good. Tribalism is good. Strong, simple, relatable opinions are good. Big names are good. Nuance, ambiguity, ebb and flow? Well, to coin a phrase, there’s always the actual football for that.
The effect has been to reframe punditry as an event in its own right: a content economy where the goal is not simply to discuss the game’s talking points, but to provide more. On Sky, Neville and Graeme Souness have a “heated debate” about United’s striking options. On BT, Joe Cole gives a “passionate view” on what’s gone wrong at West Ham. To see the game perfected, however, you need to go to YouTube, where an entire industry of partisan amateur ranters – Mark Goldbridge, True Geordie, AFTV (formerly Arsenal Fan TV) – waspishly holds court to an audience of millions.
Needless to say, this is an unashamedly alpha-male space, one in which the ability to flaunt an opinion crushes the ability to weigh one. Perhaps, with that in mind, it’s worth keeping an eye on our screens over the coming weeks. What’s being tried? What’s being discarded? Will a broadcaster ever dare challenge the time-honored model of some men, talking about football, in a room? Meanwhile, at the time of writing the Sky Sports video of Keane’s half-time analysis had received 1.5 million views on Twitter, 1.7m on Facebook, 1.4m on YouTube. Perhaps, as they say, the customer is always right.