Football is a simple game – yet only footballers are considered experts

Alan Shearer, his eyes tight, his forehead crinkled, is allowed to tell us exactly what it is we have all just seen.

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I am going into St Barts Hospital this week to have a triple heart bypass, which is going to be tough, not just for the obvious reasons – being cut to pieces – but I have this long-ingrained cynicism about experts. It is illogical, silly, childishly perverse, but I have always found it hard to keep a straight face when experts start pontificating.

Lawyers, accountants, politicians, plumbers, financial advisers, especially financial advisers: I suspect half the time they don’t really know what they are talking about. And they rarely understand why things went wrong.

They have had the training, got the Latin, lord it over the rest of us, which of course is reassuring. We like to believe we are in good hands.

But in football, everyone feels they are an expert, even if we only kicked a ball once in the school playground and then fell over. After all, football is such a simple game. Kicking a ball, who can’t do that? Kicking it well, in a straight line, or to someone wearing the same shirt, we can admire that. Getting it between the goal posts, hurrah, we can all rejoice, if it is our team scoring

But the strange thing is, those who have made a professional career out of playing football don’t think that we, the fans, the watchers, are qualified to truly understand football.

They think we should not boo or criticise. They just want us to applaud, show respect, reverentially. Respect, that is a vital element in the football psyche. They expect it, demand it. Calling them idiots, drunks, druggies, philanders, rapists, criminals is nothing compared with showing them disrespect as footballers.

Even the professional football-watchers, the hacks on the back pages, who have been following football full time for decades, are dismissed by players and managers. How can they know about football, unless they have played it ?

This is why in TV coverage of live football, the studio experts are always ex-players. It must be someone who has played the game to a high level. So Alan Shearer, his eyes tight, his forehead crinkled, looking solemn and serious, is allowed to tell us exactly what it is we have all just seen.

José Mourinho is always rubbishing the football press, convinced they are out to get him, that it is their fault when things go badly. They know nothing, not like him, a constant winner. So far.

Which is true. Mourinho is brilliant, does understand football, is an excellent analyst and communicator – but this does not mean we humble watchers cannot have our own opinions. He never, of course, played football himself, not to any half-decent level.He acquired his expertise by watching, just as we all did.

I do think there is a football brain – a brain that can watch a game and immediately know what is going wrong, who is playing well, who is playing badly, observe undercurrents before most of us have spotted them. This is the skill managers have to have. But they also have to manage players, which is the harder thing to do.

The person with the best football brain I ever met was Martin Peters. When he was at Spurs, and injured at one time, I used to watch reserve and junior games with him and he would spot and explain things that I was totally unaware of. But when he himself became a manager for a short time, his football brain was not enough.

Brian Glanville of The Sunday Times has a good football brain. When I occasionally used to report football games, I would make a point of speaking to him afterwards, just to check what happened.

Despising critics happens elsewhere, in films and theatre. If they criticise, it is because they don’t know what it is like to get up there, go through the agonies of performing.

Football is show-business, entertainment. Everyone who pays to watch it, in the flesh or on TV, is entitled to rubbish the performers. If we don’t admire what they’ve done, we have a right to jeer and hiss.

Football is not cardiac surgery. Our life is not in their hands, just our passing pleasure. Some experts do have to be respected. So come on you Barts…

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war

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