For as long as there’s been football, there’s been football pundits. We all make our thoughts known, to our friends, co-workers and disinterested Twitter followers. Some people, however, are paid to do so on television, for audiences of thousands, sometimes millions.
In this list, we’ll outline who we think do it best.
We’ll be choosing from a pool of A-listers, so we’re sorry if your favourite analyst from BBC Radio Cumbria or hipster stats monkey didn’t make the cut. We’ll also be basing the rankings on a combination of insight and entertainment value: while we might not agree with everything these pundits say, we do at least like the way they say it.
Anyway, here’s ten of the best in the business.
10. Rio Ferdinand
As a player, Rio Ferdinand was ground-breaking. He exhibited a composure on the ball which English football had rarely witnessed, least of all from a defender. His then unique take on the centre-half position once made him the most expensive defender in the world. He always had a cowboy spirit, and in retirement Ferdinand has brought it with him into his media career. One of a new breed of pundits, louder, more in tune with a younger audience, Ferdinand is the best example of how to excel in the modern industry. He conducts himself with flair and buoyancy, injecting energy into his appearances on BT Sport.
9. Pat Nevin
A right-winger with left wing views, Pat Nevin is a wonderful departure from many modern pundits. Thoughtful, erudite and affable, the former Chelsea, Everton and Scotland footballer isn’t seen as much on television these days. His is a voice heard more often on radio and Nevin can be found on the BBC’s World Football show as well as Radio 5 Live. His analysis is invariably elegant, straight-to-the-point and void of lazy cliché and generalisations. He’s a top tier pundit.
8. Mark Lawrenson
Mark Lawrenson is a uniquely miserable human being. It’s glorious to behold. Once an ever-present on Match of the Day, Lawro is used more sparingly by television producers these days, with younger, less pessimistic blood instead preferred. By all accounts, he’s a really nice bloke – even if it seems like he despises the game he has spent almost half a century involved in.
7. Micah Richards
Still only 32 years old, Micah Richards is the new darling of television punditry, endlessly happy with a laugh ten times as infectious as Covid-19. He is the ant-Lawro. Having been forced into early retirement last year, Micah’s analysis is fresh and rooted in a firm understanding of the modern game and dressing room – perhaps more so than any other pundit on television. He is capable of poignancy too, a valuable characteristic in an era when the game is becoming more and more involved with the world around it.
6. Patrice Evra
Ex-Manchester United left-back Patrice Evra is emblematic of where punditry is at in 2020. He’s a social media personality as much as a pundit. The Frenchman captured the attention of a younger generation of fans through his curious Instagram habits and – bizarrely – for doing unspeakable things to a raw chicken. In the studio, his words are genuinely insightful, but it’s his passion – particularly for Manchester United – which makes him so compelling. On more than one occasion, Evra has looked close to tears when detailing the club’s demise. About the Black Lives Matter movement, Evra has spoken powerfully too.
5. Jeff Stelling
A permanent fixture on Soccer Saturday for coming up to three decades, Jeff Stelling is part of the furniture at Sky Sports and in the footballing public’s collective consciousness. He’s a really likeable bloke, and crucial to his style is his ability not to take himself too seriously. Jeff is more than willing to take a backseat and let the funnymen do their stuff. In fact, he’s often the brunt of the jokes himself. It is telling that Stelling is the only name on this list who is not an ex-pro – a real rarity. His endearing demeanour has served him well in his other major gig too, presenting Countdown on Channel 4. It’s a testament to his presenting abilities that Jeff is able to switch effortlessly from Gyles Brandreth in Dictionary Corner to a late goal at Port Vale.
4. Glenn Hoddle
Whenever Glen Hoddle appears on a TV screen, you can feel the reverence in the studio. As a player, he is among the most exciting that England has ever produced. His was an organic, inherent talent. In his punditry too, Hoddle is a natural. A silky-smooth talker, Hoddle is able to articulate his analysis with natural swagger, a twinkle unfailingly in his eye. As well as respect, Hoddle also inspires palpable affection – his fellow pundits were visibly moved during his first appearance on television following a heart attack in the BT studio early in 2019.
3. Roy Keane
The playing career of Roy Keane was defined by relentless commitment, exertion and discipline. In terms of those attributes, he has set a ludicrously high bar, one which few players in any era of football can claim to have matched. To the enhancement of his punditry, he expects every individual from the current generation of pampered, pruned, pandered-to players to reach those standards. Of course, they’re nowhere near. As a result, Keane looks at football through a perpetual lens of disdain. The outcome is a hilariously butch brand of punditry. When both he and Graeme Souness are in the Sky Sports studio together, you can smell the testosterone through the television screen. It’s a wonderful festival of chest-beating and machismo.
2. Gary Lineker
Two words: national treasure. Okay, Lineker is less a pundit and more a presenter these days, but in a list of media personalities working in football, he simply has to make the cut. He’s a bit more Hollywood than he used to be, embracing the silver haired, open button shirt look with enthusiastic abandon. But there remains a wholesome quality to his screen presence. In 2020, Match of the Day – a British institution – feels like his programme.
1. Gary Neville & Jamie Carragher
Perhaps this is cheating, but in my eyes these two come as a pair. Carragher is the yin to Neville’s yang; Neville is the yang to Carragher’s yin. A Scouse and a Manc – an unlikely partnership at first. But in the decade or so they’ve provided punditry for Sky Sports, few have reached the duo’s level – both in terms of analysis and entertainment. They’ll be remembered as something akin to this generation’s Saint and Greavsie. Intelligent, socially conscious, funny, self-aware – these two are a producer’s dream.