Undoubtedly, Sky Sports afford a platform and plush seat on the Gravy Train to some truly awful football pundits. Tony Cottee is especially troubling, trapped as he is in 1986 and staunchly immune to the news that the game is played outside of the British Isles or that there are tactical alternatives to a 4-4-2 spearheaded by the antiquated ‘big man, little man’ strike partnership. Elsewhere, Alan Mullery’s miserable old-school shtick is as inane as it is irrelevant and Iain Dowie’s pretensions towards eloquence are rarely directed with intended precision.
Still, the regular Soccer Saturday panel are largely exempt from such shortcomings. True, Phil Thompson’s baffling declaration of Wayne Rooney’s superiority to Lionel Messi on account that the Manchester United man ‘scores more goals’ was indicative of the parochial arrogance which has long stained punditry on these shores and presented legitimate grounds for the Liverpudlian’s instant dismissal. Of course, what Thompson meant to say was that Rooney’s credentials as an Englishman plying his trade in The Greatest League In The World provided inherent evidence of his primacy, regardless of happenings overseas. Lamentably, such blustering bombast remains endemic in much of England’s punditry and inevitably given its status as the flagship football show of Sky’s ludicrously overhyped Premier League coverage, Soccer Saturday can fall foul of such crass insularity.
Nonetheless, Thompson’s co-panellists in Matt Le Tissier, Paul Merson and Charlie Nicholas, ably chaired cult hero Jeff Stelling, he of the bad puns and immaculate Just For Men ad grooming, generally combine to offer loosely entertaining, good-humoured viewing for a marathon 6 hours every Saturday. The ‘banter’ is perhaps not always the sharpest and it shall never be mistaken for the South Bank Show but Soccer Saturday essentially meets its remit with the minimum of fuss.
Guilty of not accepting it for what it is however is joyless Telegraph correspondent Jonathan Liew. Opening with the tag-line of ‘For your sake, I hope you don’t watch Soccer Saturday,’ Liew’s charmless rant goes on to denounce the ‘cod-football sewage’ of this ‘exceptionally bad television’ with Merson a particular target for his misguided ire. Now, here at The Mambo it can be argued that belligerent tirades are our stock-in-trade and that Liew’s description of Merson as ‘The Grand High Moron’ is comparatively tame given the things we’ve written about Jeremy Clarkson, Martin O’Neill and obviously, John Terry. Well, quite apart from misunderstanding the messages of peace, love and goodwill to all men that so permeate the publications on these pages, the over-arching distinction is evidently that the repellent ilk of Clarkson, O’Neill, Terry are fundamentally deserving of such righteous condemnation. They are, in short, wankers. Merson however, does not sit comfortably in such company. Jonathan Liew on the other hand…
Perceptively, what pervades Liew’s piece is a sense of snobbery. How could Paul Merson, as a working-class Londoner without the education of say, an unpleasant and condescending journalist, possibly ruminate on the subtleties and intricacies of the beautiful game? What qualifies him for such privileged status? Now as anyone who has ever endured Match of the Day can attest, a fine career in the game spanning 20 years and taking in league title victories and full international honours does not intrinsically make for enlightened analysis yet whilst the self-effacing Merson would readily accept he is far from an intellectual, he certainly understands the game. Talk of players performing with the comfort of ‘a fish up a tree’ or his memorably comic bewilderment at the news that Julien Faubert had secured a loan move to Real Madrid (‘his agent wants knighting’), coupled with the confession that as Walsall manager, he ordered for the away dressing room to be coated in an unwelcoming shade of brown, will do little to endear Merson to the elitist tossers of The Telegraph but happily, the suspicion remains that the former Arsenal man is not unduly concerned.
Indeed, such a spell at Walsall has coloured an enviable knowledge of the football league, as illustrated by his prediction of Grant Holt’s top level success last season whilst a similar assessment of newly-promoted Rickie Lambert’s talents are far from looking fanciful at this (admittedly early)stage of the season. As a technically accomplished player himself, Merson is also quick to quell the excitement which invariably engulfs unremarkable flavour-of-the-month speed merchants such as Gabby Agbonlahor (poor first touch) or Scott Sinclair (‘Aston Villa standard’), which quite apart from chiming closely with The Mambo’s sensibilities also separates Merson from much of the over-excited rabble that populate the nation’s sporting media.
Indeed, such nuanced observations clearly set Merson apart from anyone writing in The Telegraph. The Mambo is unafraid and actually really rather proud to confess that we were unaware of Liew’s existence before this week but a cursory glance through some of the more recent dross he’s committed to copy reveals a man happy to use the phrase ‘unfettered patriotism’ as a complement, enthralled by the frankly disturbing malarial dream of dancing horses sound-tracked by the Anti-Christ himself, Phil Collins and suffering such a poverty in taste as to publically announce Spandau Ballet’s abhorrent Gold as ‘the world’s greatest song’ which ‘automatically induces positive feelings.’ By which, we can only assume that the Thatcherism on vinyl of Gold sees Liew nostalgic for those halcyon days of 1983, which saw a landslide Conservative majority and IRA bombings, bookended by 1982’s Falklands War and the beginning of the Miners’ Strike in 1984. Ah the good old days, eh Jonathan?
As such, he will doubtless get along famously with fellow Telegraph football writer and The Establishment’s spineless, sycophant-in-chief, Henry Winter. It doesn’t take the most colourful imagination to picture the 2 of them sat cross-legged, their Pringle sweatshirts draped over their shoulders, clicking their fingers to True or The Lighthouse Family over herbal tea pitying those ghastly, uncouth proles having their views shaped by Merson or Nicholas, before turning the conversation to school league tables or questions of where best to buy the crayfish and lobster tails for that evening’s dinner party. Liew may hope for your sake that you don’t watch Soccer Saturday but not half as much as we hope you don’t read the rancid rhetoric of The Telegraph.