Ok, we need to talk about Andy Gray and Richard Keys.
We’d rather not, of course, but we’ve been left with no choice.
Not when the faces of beIN Sports’ Premier League coverage invade living rooms across the Middle East every week with what barely passes for football punditry any more.
While no one has ever mistaken Keys for anything other than a hugely irritating sidekick, we have every right to expect more from Gray.
In his Sky Sports pomp, before he and Keys were let go in disgrace, the former Everton striker was considered the preeminent authority on the Premier League, bringing rarely before seen tactical insights into the game.
Sadly for those of us that have to endure the modern reincarnation of Keys and Gray, those days are long gone now.
Football has moved on, but not for them.
Week after week their old chums act continues to hit new levels of banality, their analysis consisting of nothing more, if we’re lucky, than endless discussion of refereeing decisions, and more often than not needless, childish sniping at some of their favourite targets.
Last weekend, it was the turn of Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool.
The news that Liverpool had hired a “throw-in coach”, Thomas Gronnemark, was received by Gray with the kind of dismissiveness that we’ve come to expect towards any development that might be deemed progressive in football.
Don’t understand the sniping at Klopp’s appointment of a throw-in coach. If it brings about one extra goal, an extra point or two, it could make all the difference to a season. It’s the little things…. https://t.co/meUJIxaDMf
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) 4 September 2018
He could have speculated on whether such a move was intended to speed up the game; to exploit the underutilised rule that players cannot be offside from a throw-in; to improve the movement of the receiving players; or to devise set plays from what is essentially a set-piece situation no different than a free-kick.
“You cannot have enough specialists around,” Klopp said. “I must be the guy who makes the decision when to use the specialists, but you cannot have enough.”
After all, a throw-in is just another form of passing – one that arises 40 to 50 times a match according to Gronnemark – and you wouldn’t ridicule the notion of improving that, would you?
But Gray had little time for such innovation or Klopp’s desire to gain any marginal advantages that may over the season just prove to be the difference between success or failure.
“I’m sorry, a throw-in coach? Here’s the ball, pick it up with both hands, take it behind your head and throw it with both feet on the ground,” Gray said.
And he didn’t stop at that.
“I’ve got a new one,” Gray joked. “I want to be the first kick-off coach.”
Yes Andy, because that would be a ridiculous aspect of football to try and improve too, as those hipsters in the Bundesliga have shown.
“Britain has some of the tamest kick-off routines in Europe. But this isn’t Britain… This is DIE BUNDESLIGA!” pic.twitter.com/7uKqueXwyy
— MUNDIAL (@MundialMag) 6 September 2018
Millions of viewers were left wondering if only there were coaches for football punditry.
Are Middle East football fans supposed to be grateful for this level of analysis?
Worse still, studio guests often get sucked into the vortex of cliché that swirls around Keys and Gray.
Former England goalkeeper Paul Robinson, seemingly a well-spoken, intelligent man, was perhaps peer-pressured into agreeing with the play-ground bullies.
“How do you become a professional footballer if you can’t take a throw-in?” he said. “Two, how do you become a manager of a top team in the world if you can’t educate someone on how to take a throw-in? And what makes you qualified to tell someone else to take a throw in?
Well, being a certified coach does, Paul, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good laugh.
Keys and Gray, let’s not forget, have long held antiquated attitudes towards coaches and players who don’t happen to belong in their old boys network.
Nothing highlighted this more than their barely veiled glee at Pep Guardiola’s troubles during his first season in charge of Manchester City.
Welcome to the Premier League Pep, they’d sneer as Guardiola’s players struggled to implement his methods on the pitch, as if there is an exceptionalism to English football that makes it fundamentally resistant to clever tactics.
Of particular source of hilarity to the excellence-phobic duo was Claudio Bravo’s troubles and, after a match in which City had been outfought in midfield by then champions Leicester City, Guardiola’s assertion that he does not practice tackling.
“It’s typical here in England when they (talk) a lot about the tackles. I’m not a coach for the tackles. So I don’t train the tackles,” Guardiola had said after his players did not win a tackle in the opening 35 minutes. “What I want is to try to play good, score goals, arrive more [in the box].”
This naturally prompted outrage and howls of derision from Keys and Gray. Yet Guardiola’s is not as absurd a mindset among football’s more enlightened minds.
After his time at Liverpool, Xabi Alonso once remarked that tackling, a quality many young players at the club prized, should be a last option and never a priority.
‘Tackling is not really a quality,” the Spanish World Cup winner said. “It’s more something you are forced to resort to when you don’t have the ball.’
Then again, what do Guardiola and Alonso know, right?
Clearly, to any self-respecting football pundit at least, one of the world’s top coaches was alluding to the idea that the physical act of tackling, something players are taught from a very young age, is quite different from the concept of winning the ball back tactically.
If Keys and Gray think that Guardiola should spend hours on the training ground teaching some of the world’s best players the basics of a slide tackle, then they really should venture beyond their Doha studios once in a while.
But as long as you have the last laugh, lads.
Of course the real bete noir remains Rafa Benitez, a man whose every move seems to enrage these enemies of progress.
Despite sticking with Newcastle after relegation, leading the club to promotion at the first attempt and securing a top-half finish last season, the man who won two LaLiga titles, a Champions League and two Europa Leagues can do no right in they eyes of Newcastle owner Mike Ashley’s cronies.
“Rafa has done really well there, he’s won the fans over, they love him,” Gray said, “He’s very good at that.”
“He did that at Liverpool. Rafa as a manager, he’s very single minded – he manages for himself. Never forget that.”
The disrespect for Newcastle’s supporters is hardly disguised.
One minute Keys and Gray are claiming the fans would rather lose 5-4 than win 1-0 with Benitez’s tactics, and the next, paradoxically, that those same supporters are delusional for demanding trophies at St James’ Park.
These are the moral and linguistic gymnastics they are willing to perform for their pal Ashley to be right.
If that means insulting a thoroughly decent man and his adoring fans at the expense of their own crumbling credibility, then that’s a price they seem more than happy to pay.
So Guardiola, Klopp and Benitez are fair game; and you don’t have to look too hard to spot a pattern.
Proper Football Men like Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew and David Moyes – when in between jobs – are, on the other hand, given a welcoming platform to spout their bitter, stereotypical and borderline xenophobic drivel.
It’s perfectly understandable that a show about the Premier League will be presented by pundits and guests with experience of English football. What’s not acceptable is that barely any thought is given to the needs of the audience.
The millions of fans watching the Premier League across this part of the world do not care one bit about the good old days when football dinosaurs roamed across English football grounds.
We deserve better, we really do.