Ex-pros fill the pundits’ chairs – but giving a good game isn’t the same as talking a good game

A problem arises when it is assumed that professional playing experience is the sole source of authority.

A TV reporter commentates in the rain. Photo: Getty
A TV reporter commentates in the rain. Photo: Getty

A hot day leads me to take refuge in Tate Britain (galleries are best when we ask the least of them). In the cool of the basement, I found myself wandering around “Looking for Civilisation”, an exhibition celebrating the life and collection of Kenneth Clark. I spent longest in the room showing highlights of Civilisation, the tele­vision series for which he is best known. In one episode, describing 18th-century England as the “paradise of the amateur”, Clark talked in an especially personal tone. “There was a freshness and freedom of mind,” he argued about Wren, Vanbrugh and Burlington, “that is sometimes lost in the rigidly controlled classifications of the professional. And they were independent.”

Clark had inherited that tradition. He was an authority but only briefly a professional academic. His artistic education – he began collecting Japanese prints at 12 – was founded on leisure and love, not the pursuit of a career path. For all his achievements, he confessed he was born into the idle rich. “Many people were richer,” he explained of his family, “but few were idler.” Aged 30, he was appointed director of the National Gallery. What were his credentials at the time? The same amateur expertise that he identified in Vanbrugh and the Earl of Burlington.

In a very different context, we are now experiencing what happens when the tide turns against the non-professional. The television coverage of the World Cup has been criticised for its unenlightening punditry, almost exclusively provided by well-known former professional footballers. This has prompted a lament for a bygone era of broadcasting, with the drabness of today’s World Cup analysis contrasted with the articulateness and affection of a previous generation of sports broadcasters.

It is true that Peter O’Sullevan, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and John Arlott – all great voices, in every sense – had not been professional sportsmen. Their amateur spirit sustained the depth of their knowledge and love of their sports.

But the accusation that it is all the fault of the ex-pros needs serious qualification. (Full disclosure: I am an ex-pro who now commentates on cricket for the BBC.) The trend of using ex-pros extends far beyond football: every broadcaster does it, every­where. And they should, up to a point. Who would not want to hear the views of someone who has been on the same stage, perhaps playing against the same opponents? Eliminate ex-players and you lose a great tradition that runs from Peter Alliss and Richie Benaud through to Gary Neville and Roberto Martínez.

A problem only arises when it is assumed that professional playing experience is the sole source of authority. We know this is untrue because some superb managers, such as Arsène Wenger, never played at the top level. In the media, the mistake has two manifestations: undue reverence for the views of former stars, however formulaic, and a matey (and very English) suspicion of anyone who stands apart from the clubby level of debate.

The second issue can be dealt with easily enough. There are some brilliant football writers and analysts who never played the game professionally: invite them to join some of the television panels, ask them serious questions and respect their answers. There is a perception that the public won’t tolerate expert opinions coming from people who haven’t played at the highest level. I am unconvinced by this. In my experience, viewers and listeners are much more interested in the quality of the ideas than the “credentials” of the speaker.

The opinions of great players, meanwhile, should be judged on merit rather than confused with their reputations as sportsmen. Great players can certainly tell us things that only great players know. But in some respects the qualities that make a star performer are fundamentally different from the skills of an analyst.

Playing sport is about taking risks. Every attacking shot, each midfield run, every bold second serve: they all require a necessary element of risk. Having decided to take a risk, however, great players are able to behave as though it is not a risk, after all. Conviction – or blind faith – often marks out the true champions. If asked to identify one quality that separates the best players from the merely good ones, I would reply that it is their ability to commit wholeheartedly to their decisions. This quality influences their chances of ultimately being proved right. Hence the two central qualities in a sportsman (judgement and then executing those decisions) are intertwined.

Some players – Zinedine Zidane or Johan Cruyff – can sense the whole pitch and see how their actions shape the wider picture. Yet most of them focus on the task at hand with understandable tunnel vision. That is one reason why brilliant sportsmen often find other disciplines unexpectedly difficult. They continue to form judgements and continue to commit to them entirely and yet, off the pitch, they are baffled why their epic self-belief now has zero effect on the outcome. Someone else is now kicking the ball. It’s up to him. Their judgements, in effect, exist in a vacuum; conviction cannot help any longer.

The person you would select to play with total self-belief, even against steep odds (that is, a performer), is rarely the same person you would want to identify and accurately describe the state of probabilities and how they can be altered by tactics (a pundit).

Expecting every great player to become a great pundit is like expecting every great actor to become a fine director. He might take to it; some certainly do. However, given that there are now so many media slots to fill, it’s time to widen the talent pool.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)