The two finest football pundits to work during what we must call the Premier League Era were in notable action last week; albeit not on Premier League duty.

On Thursday night, Big Ron Atkinson was incarcerated in the Celebrity Big Brother house; surely the final lap in his decade of repentance for that night in Monaco.

At his very best, Ron would have the measure of any player in a word or a phrase; he could squeeze the essence of a footballer into a bespoke label he’d tailored himself.

A bit milky. An amusement arcade. A solid citizen. An insurance man.

It is a very different business he is involved in now, the world of very minor celebrity; where no sane human could be expected to assess what some of these chancers are about.

But when he stuck a reducer, early doors, into a clown from The Only Way is Essex, Ron showed he can still nail his man in a few words.

‘Where are you from?’


Beaten already.

But Ron’s once-magnificent succinctness, his ability to cut to the chase, is no longer prized in football coverage, where both time and space, still the most precious commodities available to a footballer, are in long supply.

Vast studios, interminable build-ups, Batman-level gadgetry. A cast of thousands.

Perhaps the tipping point in the bloating of televised football came last Saturday, when BT Sport had both the time and space to roll out Primal Scream for a live performance in advance of the Liverpool v Stoke match.

In an environment like this, there is no incentive to nail your subject in a few well-chosen words.

Amid all of the razzmatazz and information technology whiling away the hours on other stations, RTE’s pared-down coverage can seem old-fashioned, particularly when RTE has pared down its Premier League coverage to the point where it no longer has Premier League coverage.

But every now and again – maybe six or seven times a year – I think we ought to take time to consider what we have in John Giles. And realise that no amount of machinery could replace him.

John Giles wouldn’t, you sense, be all that comfortable heading into the Big Brother house. Indeed Gilesy would never say the kind of terrible things that would shunt his television career into a long detour via the Big Brother house. And Gilesy is certainly entitled to have no dealings with reprobates from TOWIE.

But the man who was as good as anyone at making time and space for himself, is still Big Ron’s only realistic rival in the noble art of brevity when it comes to encasing footballers in nutshells.

In his book A Football Man, Gilesy told us he has never felt nervous on the RTE panel, because he had done all the preparation he needed on the football fields of Dublin, Manchester and Leeds.

He appears to have been strict in his observance of that policy over the years, because he can now name a very small percentage of the footballers he adjudicates on.

But that is a modest handicap. Gilesy’s methodology is different to Ron’s. Rather than coin a phrase, or customise the language, Gilesy slips back into the middle of the field, lifts his head and sees things as clearly as he ever did.

It is a place where stats and camera angles and gadgets can’t quite reach.

Watching Arsenal in Europe this week, Gilesy saw the thing that vexes and baffles him most; a man doing the wrong things most of the time. “Walcott; I think I’d choke him if I was playing with him,” he said, at half time.

Of course Walcott would go on to more or less win it for Arsenal, almost despite himself. On Sky, they felt Walcott had a great game. And maybe he did, in his unique way.

But that wouldn’t make Gilesy wrong. In fact, judging by a contortion of despair and rage late in the game from Tomas Rosicky, after he won a tackle and gave the ball to Walcott, then watched him give it away; perhaps Gilesy came close to being righter than he has ever been, in calling the first Champions League crime scene.

Truly the only Big Brother we need.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner

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