England's Negative Alchemy

Paul Myerscough · Football Punditry

If there’s one thing this World Cup has exposed even more cruelly than the emptiness of England’s footballing pretensions, it’s the shallowness of TV punditry. The assumption that ex-stars - and Lee Dixon - can talk as good a game as they once played is one we know well enough to avoid in other fields. Artists do not generally make good critics. ‘I want whatever he’s having,’ Alan Shearer said after the motor-mouthed broadcaster Danny Baker was allowed onto the BBC sofa for a few minutes a couple of weeks ago. Baker had delivered himself of a few jokes, a string of chancy speculations and one very canny observation: ‘England aren’t playing well enough to go out yet.’ England proved him wrong, as it turned out, by going out playing very badly indeed, but that isn't the point: as a pundit, with that comment, Baker had done the business. Shearer, though, is a void, as uninspired as he is uninformed. He has nothing fresh or insightful to say about why England failed so miserably in South Africa. Why should he? As an ex-England captain, he is part of a long-standing institutional problem, not its solution. Which is why, at the end of the game against Germany, his instinct was to get in ahead of the tabloids with the first kick in the traditional blame game – England failed, so the manager must go.

TV’s unthinking deference to vacant star pundits is puzzling given the expertise of their audience. Every football fan is also a buff, an armchair tactician and pub philosopher. Yet TV football coverage gives them so little to think about and no one to argue with. That said, the thinness of what’s on offer wouldn’t be so clear if there weren’t such a lot of good stuff elsewhere. The commentators I’ve found myself returning to most often these last four weeks are the bloggers at Minus the Shooting. So far as I can tell, they are a loose international network of friends and contacts, most of whom usually blog about other things - philosophy, politics, music, architecture (all of those blogs look good too) - but have gathered together to think about football for the duration of the World Cup. Recent entries have been about the behavioural economics of penalty-taking, the semiotics of football advertising and why the FA should read Karl Popper. The contributors have a good eye for a link, too: Mark E. Smith of The Fall explains why he should be managing England, and ex-England star John Barnes (where is he when the BBC needs him?) argues that the national team needs to be more socialist in its outlook. One of the contributors, Mark Fisher (a.k.a k-punk), has focused the ‘negative alchemy’ of the England shirt, its ability to turn good players miraculously into bad. Fisher has persuasive things to say about why England fail. Such a shame that so far as the FA are concerned, he may as well be talking to himself.


  • 5 July 2010 at 4:15pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    John Barnes ...argues that the national team needs to be more socialist in its outlook.

    Not many people know that John Barnes attended the same London grammar school as jazz critic & LRB diarist Eric Hobsbawm. Not concurrently, obviously.

    • 5 July 2010 at 4:39pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Get about don't you? You forgot that he's one of the best Marxist historians (Eric, not John.) The German team (groan, here he goes again) happens to have adopted John barnes's philosophy (or is it Erich Hobsbawm's?) They are a cooperative, each with a specific role to play on the pitch but there are no stars, just eleven very good Football players. The rewards are hardly socialist though, they each get €250,000 for reaching the quarters and probably a million for the Final. I don't think that they will win - in fact my money is on Spain, but they are young, they are an amalgamation of a dozen different ethnis origins - including one German Brazilian who is unfortunately injured so he probably won't get on. Cacau is his artist's nom de plume and he is a very good attacking midfielder. The team call him helmut because he knows a lot of German history as a result of taking the quite rigorous test for German nationality. (Helmut for Helmut Schmidt of course - you though it was Helmut Kohl didn't you?) They desrve to win soemting but it will be Euro '12.

    • 5 July 2010 at 8:24pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Someone pointed out to me the other day that in Interesting Times Hobsbawm mentions that for twnty-five years he & his family spent summer holidays with Clough Williams-Ellis in and around Portmeirion (later to be the setting of the 1960s tv thriller The Prisoner).

      Oddly enough, another jazz critic went to that school: Benny Green. Unlike Hobs he loathed it, however. Adam Ant went there too.

    • 6 July 2010 at 2:18pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Humphrey Littleton went to Eton, didn't he?

    • 6 July 2010 at 6:09pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I believe he was born there. His father was a housemaster.

  • 5 July 2010 at 4:18pm
    James Alexander says:
    Enough football already! This is getting to be the London Review of Football blog. Do take it down the pub.

    • 5 July 2010 at 4:28pm
      Daniel Soar says: @ James Alexander
      Should we switch to the Tour de France?

    • 5 July 2010 at 4:42pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Daniel Soar
      Please! We'll come dpwn to earth next week. Until then, I leave you with this thought - The Oil Spill is right out of the headlines right now - I wonder why?

    • 5 July 2010 at 4:44pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Daniel Soar
      I think James is wondering whether you've read any good books lately.

    • 5 July 2010 at 8:26pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Daniel Soar
      The London Review of the Tour de France.

    • 5 July 2010 at 9:37pm
      Pete Hindle says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Yeah, review the Tour de France. Review the lack of news on the oil spill. Anything apart from this continual boring useless torrent of non-information about football, because if the most interesting thing that you can say about it is that "it doesn't have a good critical presence on ITV" you're down to stating the obvious.

      It's tedious talking about football at the the best of times. Perhaps talking about something interesting would be good. A review of the commercially available types of bread, perhaps? Or the new show of the Cirque de Soleil, which just opened in Newcastle? Anything, indeed, apart from this miserable grinding out of posts on a subject that could be summed up as, at best, a distraction, and at worst a folly. It's a waste of good writers.

    • 6 July 2010 at 5:17am
      alex says: @ Pete Hindle
      what have you got against commercially unavailable types of bread?

    • 6 July 2010 at 9:03am
      Daniel Soar says: @ Pete Hindle
      OK, you voted for it, you got it. The Tour de France next, and it must be time for us to look into baboons and overpopulation. And - fine - oil. Now surely there must be some books.

  • 5 July 2010 at 4:54pm
    pinhut says:
    k-punk is a veritable pseud, who attempts to turn anything he writes about into fodder for the academy, where he lingers. Try his witterings on Sonic Youth for conclusive evidence of this.

    This would hardly work on the BBC couch, so it's not a viable comparison. I think the wider problem is that the TV in the UK, particularly when it's going out live, is so stuffy, it's all about avoiding any sort of controversy, flashpoint, and so on. Big Ron getting caught out saying the N-word probably hasn't helped. And having ex-players, obviously, compounds the problem, as those who may wish to return to the game clearly have to be even more guarded in their observations.

    The 'players have zero interesting to say' issue extends beyond English footballers, Latin American one's are just as boring. The difference is that they're not a part of the coverage (unless they're absolutely ancient, with grandsons who played against Bobby Charlton), be it in the studio or working on the live commentary (I'm referring specifically to the ESPN coverage).

    Maybe they'd be better off having a Simon Hughes style nerd to contribute analysis instead.

    • 6 July 2010 at 6:29am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ pinhut
      National media coverage is bound to be, yes, nationalistic. The coverage in Germany is just about acceptable. the broadsheets have evaluated the TV commentators quite well. Something the Grauniad might do. The results were as one would expect. Oliver Kahn was rated as monotonous, and Jürgen Klinsmann seems to have been paid to keep his mouth shut as a commentator on RTL. Said little and nothing of significance. The only one who got a good rating was Mehmet Scholl, ex Bayern player, who actually understands the tactics and can evaluate in a clear and concise way. Interviews with players ought to be abolished. They never have anything articulate to say and are only interested in making sure the Logo is visible.

  • 5 July 2010 at 6:22pm
    DTK Molise says:
    I would suggest that anyone with any interest in the tactical side of football, a side which is often missing from both TV and print journalism, should check out the website of Zonal Marking (

    It really is the best website for people who like to have a bit of insight into the way the game is/should be played. It really is the antithesis of BBC/ITV coverage.

    • 6 July 2010 at 2:16pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ DTK Molise
      Thank you for the link - very useful!

  • 5 July 2010 at 7:20pm
    loxhore says:
    I have found myself turning to Aleksandar Hemon over at TNR's 'The Goal Post'. Especially.

  • 5 July 2010 at 9:47pm
    Martin says:
    I miss Test Match Special, now that I live in the colonies again. South African commentators of all sports are dreadful, although I didn't follow football in the UK and don't here, so I can't comment on that. But English cricket commentators are wonderful, whether sharing their insights or their whimsical musings.

    • 5 July 2010 at 11:12pm
      Sid Smith says: @ Martin
      No need to miss Test Match Special. It's on the Beeb's website.

    • 6 July 2010 at 7:50am
      Martin says: @ Sid Smith
      Thanks. I seem to recall that last time I tried to listen online - a few years ago - I couldn't access it from SA. But perhaps that was another cricket website. I'll bookmark it and listen to Pakistan crushing the Aussies.

  • 6 July 2010 at 12:55pm
    Robert Hanks says:
    When I left school, I thought that never again would I have to sit through phatic exchanges of football jargon, have to put up with being asked who I supported, have to go once more through the ritual of explaining patiently that actually I had no interest whatsoever in football and no, I was not homosexual. Then suddenly it became not just permissible but de rigueur for educated men to have a lifelong passion for the stupid game and a collection of mouldering Chelsea programmes in their loft to prove it. I blame Nick Hornby.

    But at least the LRB was a refuge from all this crap. So yes, please, now, shut up about football.

  • 6 July 2010 at 1:41pm
    Daniel Soar says:
    I'm afraid the LRB has hardly been a refuge from football. It all began at the 1982 World Cup . . .

  • 6 July 2010 at 5:45pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    It's true it's called the LRB; aren't there any good BOOKS about football?

    Robert Hanks, this whole thing is much older than Nick Hornby. Don't you remember at school there were people who were quite bright who also liked football? They're still around. You're not going to convince anyone to renounce their love of sports, so I advise you to stop wasting your time and find something to focus your interest on. I like to discuss outfits and management (oddly, nobody knows much about either one). FIFA and the politics are quite fun, if you're that way inclined. I haven't watched a football match for twenty or thirty years, but it doesn't stop me discussing the aspects of it that I find quite interesting. It's a bit like religion in that way.

  • 9 July 2010 at 7:43am
    Robert Hanks says:
    I'm not trying to pretend that bright people have never liked football, or that Nick Hornby invented interest in the subject. But around the time of Fever Pitch, and at least in part because of it, a terrible fashion arose for talking about it at length. Daniel - I should have said that I make an exception for Ian Hamilton; but who else has written about football half as well?

    My aim is not to convince people to renounce their love of sports; it's to convince them, in the long term, that this interest is shameful and to be muttered about in private; in the short term, never to talk about it in front of me.

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