Michael Owen and the Problem with Punditry

The much-maligned TV pundit and helicopter pilot Michael Owen was on sparkling form during Manchester City’s 2-1 shock home defeat to Wigan in the FA Cup quarter finals. Musing about how close the Blues were to getting back into the game (with the score at 2-0 at the time), he noted that Edin Dzeko’s header that clipped the base of the post didn’t go in.

Furthermore, he explained to those not quite as savvy in the football world as he was that had it not hit the post – and had it dropped just to the post’s right – then it would have been counted as a goal. This was because it would have gone in the goal. And when the ball goes into the goal it’s a goal. But when it doesn’t go into the goal, a goal cannot be given because a goal has not been scored. Since the ball hit the post, which is a part of the goal though isn’t actually in the goal itself, it didn’t go into the goal.

A confusing situation, I’m sure you’ll agree, but thankfully the former England international was on hand to use all of his expertise to educate us lesser mortals in the mysterious ways of football.

Further, he went on: The situation was much more complicated, since David Silva was arriving to try and put the ball into the goal, too. But, because the initial header hit the post and bounced away from the Spaniard, he couldn’t do it. As Owen rightly pointed out, Silva can’t put the ball into the goal if he can’t reach the ball because it’s going the other way. Here, though, is where it might get difficult for the viewers, because had Dzeko’s header missed the post in the other direction and had been going wide, then it would have been perfect for the midfielder to tap it into the goal – and that’s because it would have been nearer to him.

Nothing – absolutely nothing – gets past the eyes of Michael Owen.

I bring this up because, just a little over a year ago, Stan Collymore got his knickers into a bit of a twist over, what he called, “football snobs” – in other words, writers or broadcasters who had earned themselves a degree in journalism and expected to get a job in that industry. Specifically moaning about how ex-professionals are shunted to the front of the queue when it comes to football.

As a man who has never played football professionally (those who have been part of the same teams as I have might argue I’ve never really “played” on an amateur level), but a man with a degree in journalism, this is me. I’m a Football Manager playing so-called ‘expert’, with no experience of the sport at a high level (other than thousands of hours of watching it), but with a piece of paper that says I’m a decent enough writer and broadcaster to pass a university course.

I’m not trying to say here that my hard work means I should fall on my feet in some cushy job analysing matches for Sky Sports, but what I am saying is that to be dismissive of that because of a lack of professional playing experience is lunacy.

I understand the point that there are thousands of people who write a football blog once a week that have “aspiring journalist” in their Twitter biographies, but equally there are too many ex-professional footballers that add so little to live broadcasting that they’re actually devaluing the show – there needs to be a middle ground; an area where everybody is judged on their merits and their ability to analyse matches before they’re given jobs.

The criticism that Collymore – and he’s not a bad pundit, if a little excitable (can you ever tell who has scored on TalkSport when the cries of “ooooooh! What a goaaaaaaal!” are being belted down the microphone at a volume that makes even metal music lovers go, “alright, steady on”?) – hears about there being too many ex-pros getting into the top jobs is correct and Michael Owen is the prime example.

Collymore compares it to being a banker: Top bankers often appear on the news to talk about the economy, so top footballers should appear on Match of the Day to talk about football. To an extent that’s right, but the bankers on BBC Breakfast analyse the markets, they don’t just say “that’s where money is won or lost” or “he’s a real banker that guy, he’s a top, top banker”.

How many times has Alan Shearer said “it’s a great cross to the back post and he just gets his head on it and sticks it in the net” and everyone has nodded along sagely? I, with my broadcast journalism degree and years of experience of football writing, can do that too – but because I’m still yet to represent England at any level, I’m being the likes of Shearer or Owen in the pecking order.

Hell, I can give a reasoned opinion about what a defender needs to do to stop the cross or where suchabody needs to move in order to open up space for Mr Midfielder to dribble through. Some of the best managers in the game never played at a high level; some of the best pundits and analysers can’t kick a ball straight – the ability to do is not the ability to understand.

There are some very, very good (and unpaid) football writers out there, who will probably never get anywhere near the heights their talents deserve because there are people in their way that have played the game and it’s naturally assumed they can talk about it, too.

Equally, there are some terrible writers who produce unresearched piles of arse-gravy – but you’ll often find they are slaughtered by readers, because football fans are not idiots when it comes to the press. They enjoy good quality analysis and will tear apart analysis that doesn’t meet that standard – which is why Michael Owen trends on Twitter every time he’s on BT Sport.

Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have revolutionised the football pundit on TV – they offer insight that isn’t patronising to viewers, but does draw on their years of experience playing at the top level. Those are the types of ex-pros that we should be encouraging into broadcasting.

Instead, we seem to be asking who they played for rather than what they know.

I’ve finished now, so anyone reading from the BBC – I’m free most Saturday evenings for Match of the Day.

Written by David Mooney

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