“I thought it was a brilliant challenge.”


That’s how former axe-wielding Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane described Hector Moreno’s tackle on Luke Shaw. A coming-together that snapped the latter’s leg on the opening night of this season’s UEFA Champions League. We talk about the commentators’ curse being a pundit’s high praise of a player just before the very same player cocks up and makes a mistake; but the real tragedy of today’s punditry is the duty of retired professionals to provide insight on a game they hardly recognize anymore.

A day before Luke Shaw lay howling on the wet grass in
Eindhoven clutching a leg that all of a sudden resembled a twisted birch
branch, Danny Mills was on call for West Ham v Newcastle United back in London.
Apart from once being infamously stripped of the ball and nutmegged all at once
in his own corner by a petulant young forward named Thierry Henry, Mills is
better known for a career at eight different English clubs from the mid-90s to
2008, and now more recently for his color commentary work for select Barclays
Premier League broadcasts.

“Once upon a time that wouldn’t be a foul,” he huffs
to a nostalgic tune. The Hammers’ Cheikhou Kouyaté has just gone shoulder to
shoulder with Newcastle’s captain, Fabricio Coloccini. The South American comes
off second best and tumbles out of bounds over the end line, relieved to hear
the whistle peep somewhere behind him. Soon after, Mr. Mills offers a warning,
a hint of frustration in his voice now. “We have to be careful it doesn’t
become a non-contact sport,” he advises, clearly bothered.

The tone of ex-pros-turned-media analysts on air
today is gruff and refreshingly unfiltered because they’re the last generation
of players to be in touch with the roots of English football’s working class
game. Their epoch was a time when the integrity of grit was valued far above
the deceit of skill, when kicking a lump out of somebody was perceived as a
well-earned lesson for your prima donnas rather than a criminal assault to be scrutinized
in slow-motion by computer stiffs and their high-tech gizmos. Ironically, for
the retired, the perception of English football past is cleaner and more honest
despite the meaty challenges, missing teeth, and zombie-like images of Terry
Butcher’s splitting cranium being held together by about five feet of
blood-sopping medical tape.

The once fair, hard challenge is now known, in
today’s terminology, as “the use of excessive force,” punishable by dismissal,
an early bath, and impending ban in that order.
There’s no more ‘first-five-minutes-let-him-know-you’re-there tackle
nowadays. That’s been replaced by a yelp, a yellow card, and a lull in the
action for medics to prance on to allow some cheater’s exaggeration to reach
its desired point of self-appeasement. So truthfully the best barometers of
these loathsome changes in the game are the voices guiding your weekend television
match-viewing; they were there before the glass men and finger pointing.

In December of 2012 Reading was having their asses
packaged and replaced by Arsenal in a league encounter when Liverpool old boy
Steve McManaman could no longer hold his tongue in the commentary booth. He
urged that somebody in the Reading team start running around kicking Arsenal
players just to instill some life in the team! To a younger audience seduced by
the talent that mega-million conglomerate television deals have drawn to the
English top flight this kind of jargon sounds as dated as it does archaic.  But one wonders whether or not today’s
imported ‘lift you off your seat’ skill that has replaced old-fashioned brawn
was ever necessary to a generation of fans who were already standing. Is the
tame demeanour of some modern crowds also a reflection of the lack of robust
bravado allowed on a football pitch in the current game?

In his book, The
Game of Our Lives,
author David Goldblatt extracts a quote from a piece
written for the Daily Telegraph by
David Thomas that eerily depicts a
very plausible and dim future for the sport’s personality:

“A decade or two from now, the roar of the crowd may
well have dwindled to an appreciative murmur as up-scale audiences applaud the
subtle interplay of footballers moving with balletic grace… but as dusk
approaches, the ghosts of footballing legends will look down from on high.
They’ll remember the passion. They’ll think of the steam as it rose from a
pulsating, shouting, singing crowd, who watched hard men play a hard man’s

“…Hard men playing a hard man’s sport,” isn’t
exactly the words one might imagine Roy Keane would use to describe the game
today. So is the true misfortune the fact that the opinions of our expert
commentators become more and more obsolete with each passing game, or is it the
damnation and dismissal of the sport’s blue-collar, hard-nosed roots?

Written by Bobby Mohr