He might not have had to endure as many Padraig Harrington, Ruby Walsh, John Oxx litanies as some of the rest of us, but Scott Murray cuts to the heart of what makes Eamo, among others, great. Not so sure about Crooks mind.
NB: the point of the Joy of Six is not to rank things, only to enjoy them
1) Eamon Dunphy (RTÉ)
For some unfathomable reason, a surprisingly large number of football fans seem to think the most important thing for a pundit to be is right. This is poppycock, bull, pish, tish and mummery. They can be as hilariously far off the mark as they please to be: the only thing a pundit must be is interesting. Put it this way: would you click on YouTube to watch a 15-minute oration by erstwhile Match of the Day safe pair of hands Trevor Brooking?
Eamon Dunphy, on the other hand, has often been totally, spectacularly, dismally wrong – accusing the more-than-half-decent José Mourinho of being a “Bengal lancer”, for example – and has been known to change his position on subjects so outrageously he would, if it were possible, put Nick Clegg to shame (his Cristiano Ronaldo pronouncements, “a disgrace”, “a puffball”, “the real deal”, being a perfect case in point). It makes no odds. He’s the most entertaining, blindingly brilliant pundit of all time.
His scattergun performances are legendary, impossible to definitively list. But high points include: accusing fellow pundit Liam Brady of putting in a performance for Ireland during the early 1980s that was “a monument to cowardice”; accusing fellow pundit Johnny Giles of deliberately breaking another player’s leg in the early 1960s when at Manchester United (Giles refused to speak to Dunphy off air for a couple of years as a result); accusing fellow pundit Brady, annoyed at a montage of Arsène Wenger prancing around on the touchline, of having “jumped the fence, baby” (Brady being involved with Arsenal youth training); and, when asked early one morning during the 2002 World Cup if Russia were likely to win a game, replying in the still-refreshed manner “I think they fucking should” before failing to reappear after a quickly convened commercial break.
The man is a genius. Anyone who disagrees now stands accused of taking football way too seriously. Shame, shame, shame on British television, which has never unearthed a delicious talent like this.
2) Danny Blanchflower (CBS)
In 1964, Tottenham legend Danny Blanchflower packed up his boots and joined the glory, glory game of, er, journalism. He stuck out like a sore thumb in his new environment, on account of knowing exactly what he was talking about. US network CBS therefore eagerly snapped him up in 1967 for the inaugural season of the National Professional Soccer League. Blanchflower would be their “color man”, the co-commentator helping to sell a whole new ball game to a curious American audience.
Did CBS know that Blanchflower had been the first man to walk off an edition of the BBC’s This Is Your Life in 1961 – “Oh no it’s not,” he told Eamonn Andrews as the big red book was proffered, a celebrity flounce that made the front page of even the austere Guardian the day after? Probably not: it would have offered the network a rather large clue to Blanchflower’s propensity to tell it like it is. The NPSL would not be of the standard Tottenham’s double-winning captain was used to; Blanchflower was not slow to tell audiences that the fare they were being served up was decidedly second-rate.
“To the horror of both league and network,” notes David Wangerin in his superb history of the sport in the country, Soccer in a Football World, “Blanchflower openly disparaged the standard of play.” After Blanchflower had added rather too much “color” by criticising a goalkeeper for lamely letting in a speculative 35-yard shot, the network suits hauled him in for a chat. “We think there are two truths, a positive truth and a negative truth,” they told him. “You could have said it was a good shot … We want you to say it was a good play rather than bad.”
This did not compute with Blanchflower. “I had never met men before who worshiped two truths,” he wrote in Sports Illustrated a year later, telling of his inevitable sacking. “Why had such inventive souls stopped at only two, I wondered? Why not four truths? Or 10? The philosophical winds of it swept through my mind. If they had two truths they must have two gods … But if there was no bad, how could there be good? What would their reactions have been if I had said of the goalkeeper at St Louis: Well, folks … that sure was good negative play on his part, making it easy for them to score that great goal.”
The man has his own talents, but you won’t see Mark Lawrenson going home dissecting his own performance like that.
3) Jimmy Hill (ITV, BBC and Sky Sports)
Jimmy Hill deserves two hefty, neck-bothering medals for services to the advancement of punditry. The first should be awarded for setting up ITV’s 1970 World Cup panel: Malcolm Allison, Derek Dougan, Pat Crerand and Bob McNab argued the toss throughout the tournament, somehow managing to add even more colour to international football’s greatest ever jamboree, giving ITV their only World Cup ratings victory over the BBC to date, and changing the face of half-time telly forever.
Hill’s second gong has been earned for single-handedly inventing the role of the serious analyst. In the late 1960s, as head of sport at London Weekend Television, he got his hands on primitive slow-motion replay tape machines, and served them up for Sunday lunch. “He would take a couple of minutes to examine a passage of play and explain why a move was important,” explained his colleague on The Big Match, Brian Moore. “People were saying, ‘I didn’t realise that’. In five minutes on a Sunday afternoon the old boy changed the whole emphasis of football on television.” Hill continued to deconstruct the game on Match of the Day in the mid 1970s, doing what good journalists should by annoying the powers that be; who do you think John Motson is mainly copping the flak for here?
And yet his much-maligned later years are noteworthy too. By the mid-1980s, Hill had become a fully-fledged joke, but does anything from the decade, by either commentator or pundit, resonate down the years as much as Hill’s faux-Brazilian background “goooooaaaaalllll”s as Gary Lineker rattled in three against Poland at the 1986 World Cup? His suggestion that Manchester United looked a beaten side, ahead of that pivotal match in Alex Ferguson’s career, their 1990 FA Cup tie at Nottingham Forest, may have been wrong – but who was talking about body language in football back then? Similarly his suggestion at France 98 that Romania’s all-blond policy might aid quick team-mate identification; Hill got pelters for that, but it was still evidence of a mind constantly innovating, pushing things forward.
The final memorable Hill era on mainstream television saw him constantly lock horns with Terry Venables before, during and after England played, Hill taking the role of blindly passionate fan, Venables offering a more calm and modern technical breakdown. Hill by this point was seen as a dinosaur, but nevertheless he continued to passionately argue his corner, refusing to bow down in the name of cheap consensus. Hill might rarely have been on the money during this era, but it was brilliant television nonetheless. To buy that sort of unaffected electricity now.
Hill spent his last years on the box being roundly patronised on the Sunday Supplement programme that briefly carried his name on Sky by journalists too young to remember the contributions he’d made to the game. They must have been too young, because if they did recall, then they were almost to a man unbelievably rude in constantly shouting an ageing pundit down. Hill, magnanimous to the last, bravely took their potshots – and yes, you know it’s coming – on the chin.
4) Lieutenant Commander Thomas Woodrooffe (BBC)
The best football commentary of the last 10 years, by some distance, was Clive Tyldesley’s masterpiece at this year’s World Cup semi-final between Holland and Uruguay. Jim Beglin had trapped his finger under the page of a book, or something, and couldn’t move, so for one of the biggest matches of the year, Tyldesley had to fly solo. Which he did with aplomb. Unburdened with the need to play the straight man to a sidekick, Tyldesley called the action simply, embellishing when play allowed, answering his own questions – but only asking them when they were completely necessary. Hats off.
Hats off too, only in a slightly different way, to Lieutenant Commander Thomas Woodrooffe, the BBC’s solo flyer at the 1938 FA Cup final. Woodrooffe had already made his name, with his infamous coverage of a 1937 naval fleet review. “The fleet’s lit up, and when I say lit up, I mean lit up by fairy lamps!” he cried, after imbibing several glasses of port with naval pals earlier in the day. He was describing a ship he would later lose the sight of, despite the vessel having a slightly slower turning circle than Jamie Carragher. Woodrooffe was later forced to barricade himself in his King’s Road home, a wet flannel on his head, while the nation’s incredulous press camped outside waiting for news of a man who’d embarrassed himself in front of the nation.
The BBC let Woodrooffe keep his job, but it wasn’t long before he was making a show of himself again. Tyldesleying wildly towards the end of extra-time of that 1938 final, he decided that neither Preston North End nor Huddersfield Town were likely to score. “If a goal is scored now, I’ll eat my hat,” he announced. Sure enough, seconds after the phrase left the commentator’s lips, Preston were awarded a penalty with nanoseconds remaining. George Mutch put it away, and Preston won the cup. Having just about sobered up from his 1937 bender, Woodrooffe was man enough to take his medicine down in one: he ate a hat live on BBC television a few days later, the titfer in question being made of marzipan.
A good 62 years later, Sky pundit Rodney Marsh was involved in a similar crown-topping humiliation, good-naturedly having his head shaved in the centre circle at Valley Parade after incorrectly tipping Bradford City for relegation from the Premiership. But it was only Woodrooffe who literally had to eat his words.
5) Garth Crooks (BBC)
When Manchester City striker Emmanuel Adebayor scored against Arsenal last season, and rather childishly ran the length of the pitch to cavort in front of his former club’s fans, BBC Final Score pundit Garth Crooks was one of the few people in the country to realise that fans of the Gunners weren’t actually contractually obliged to subsequently riot. “He can celebrate in any way he wants,” opined Crooks, eschewing the big people-pleasing story in favour of reason. Mark Bright disagreed, calling Adebayor out for being unprofessional. Crooks’s response was majestic. “Was you breaking Andy Linighan’s nose with an elbow in the 1993 FA Cup final professional,” he asked, before adding an overly chummy, majestically supercilious, and all-in-italics “Brighty???”
A non-sequitur, and yet faultless logic. Crooks is the nearest we’ve got to a Dunphy; shame, shame, shame on British television, which has never nurtured a delicious talent like this.
6) Brian Clough (ITV)
Cloughie never once chowed down on his verbiage, though perhaps after England’s failure to beat Poland to reach the 1974 World Cup finals, he should have. His denunciation of Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski live on ITV – calling the hero-in-waiting “a clown” – is English football’s most famous example of a pundit getting it drastically, wholly wrong. Clough had also spent the majority of England’s ill-fated World Cup qualifying campaign sticking the boot into Sir Alf Ramsey’s selections and tactics. (Results proved him right, of course, and he was driven by a desire to be given the job himself, but he still regretted it later.)
Along with his Derby-days hounding of Don Revie’s Leeds, in papers and on telly, this early 70s flourish would define Clough as a loud-mouthed pundit who shot from the hip straight down to the foot. But let’s not remember him by failure alone, because he always delivered, even to the high-ABV-percentage last dregs. Witness the way he whips up the atmosphere before this 1991 game between Derby County and Tottenham Hotspur: could anyone else make an afternoon staring at Elton Welsby and Dean Saunders – “Ooooooooooooh I’m looking forward to it” – sound as cataclysmically exciting as this?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010