With barely a column inch or broadcast second devoted to the fallout of Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat to Everton on Saturday, you may find yourself completely in the dark as to how the reaction is unfolding. If so, allow me to assist. There is a general sense that Manchester United might care to raise its head from the pillow provided by its official global mattress and pillow partner, put down the glass of red furnished by its official wine partner, turn its back firmly on the suggestions of its official global lubricant partner, and consider whether – if there really are no commercial worlds left to conquer – it could be time to consider engaging once more with its official football partner.
Commentators have found various ways of communicating this broad message. Perhaps the most eye-catching take came from former United defender Gary Neville, who delivered a lengthy and furious diatribe on the underperforming team on Sky Sports in the wake of the game. When the Sky Sports anchor suggested to him it was high time for specifics, however, Neville rather clammed up. “I don’t need to name names,” he judged. “Everyone knows who they are. They’re in the newspapers every day, they’re on social media every single day.”
And that was that. All Neville would say was “I’ll keep my counsel around individuals for this week”, declaring that “next Sunday evening is the time to reflect”.
But was it? On the one hand, I quite admire the apparent attempt to revolutionise the punditry format, and usher in an era where commentators introduce cliffhangers into their verdicts on a team’s performance. Like a great Dickensian novel, Gary’s thoughts on where any side were after an abject showing would be serialised, with viewers required to wait until the next episode to discover who looks off it at the moment, or who, in all honesty, Gary doesn’t know what’s happened to them.
On the other hand, there is an argument that “keeping my counsel” is not the optimal approach for a person specifically employed to give us their counsel. Indeed, perhaps that argument gained the upper hand in the hours after this high-passion, low-detail rant on his former side’s current state. It is unclear whether it was Neville or his editors who thought better of the original strategy, but either way the revelatory denouement to this piece of analysis was brought forward by a few days. On Monday, then, some names were named. Neville cited five players – Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez and Paul Pogba – who were currently underperforming. Furthermore, Gary volunteered, David de Gea looked “nothing like”. So there you go. However belatedly, I am sure Manchester United fans and Sky Sports customers were grateful to be taken into his confidence.
At this point, I should caution against taking my Neville-teasing entirely seriously. In general, I admire Neville’s analysis enormously. Even so, the impression that they aren’t saying what they really think about their former clubs – or, perhaps, about any clubs – is the most crucial one that all ex-players need to guard against, once they turn gamekeeper and are hired to do just that.
Of course, it isn’t just ex-players failing the candour test. Football coverage (and indeed, football) is riddled with all sorts of rather pathetic omertas, many of which are justified on the basis of the game’s most elastic concept, and sometimes its most corrosive. Namely, “respect” . This player shouldn‘t criticise that player out of respect; this pundit shouldn’t criticise that player; this pundit shouldn’t criticise that pundit; this broadcaster is an upstart compared to that one; this player shouldn’t speak his mind on social media. One of the most tellingly ludicrous punditry rows of the past few years saw then Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius react to some criticism by Gary Neville, only for Neville to suggest it wasn’t his place to do so. The row was soon joined by Gary’s brother Phil, who warned Karius to “say nothing to no one” and “keep your mouth shut”, before even Jürgen Klopp was wading in and demanding “Why do we let them talk about players on television?”
On and on it goes. The one set of people this cosy approach never serves is the fans. At its worst, it merely reinforces a great, dreary hierarchy that ever so ’umble individuals are meant to observe. And yet, the only people that sort of established deference tends to please are those being deferred to. Supporters – in fact, anyone paying for analysis via any kind of media subscription – deserve much more openness.
There is often an argument that the real powers at clubs get away with things for far too long precisely because people who should hold them to account shy away from criticising them. United chief executive Ed Woodward has long had a relatively easy ride, given how inversely proportional his rampant commercial priorities have increasingly felt to the team’s on-pitch success. He is long overdue some scrutiny, and Neville’s post-Everton diatribe seemed involuntarily to hint at this. “I don’t believe at this moment in time there is anybody there able to rebuild that club from a football point of view, the way in which it needs to be built,” he said – before appearing to draw back in the next breath. As he put it: “I might be completely out of order saying it.”
Far, far from it. Please never think you are out of order making legitimate criticisms based on what is a fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of your former club. In fact, if the words “out of order” could be banished from all reasonable football criticism, we’d all be much better off for it.