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Is there a big difference between doing football punditry on British and Irish TV?

John Hartson and Connor Morris of Setanta Sports give their takes on this oft-discussed topic.

THE SOMETIMES less-than-subtle differences between Irish and British football punditry has long been a topic of discussion.

The perceived contrast between British and Irish styles of analysis is a favourite subject among sports fans in this country, who invariably have a choice between the two supposedly disparate styles of punditry during Champions League nights and for major international tournaments.

The apparent divergence of opinion between the two has been satirised brilliantly by RTÉ’s Aprés Match on occasion (e.g. below), while viewers also frequently comment on these frequent inconsistencies, with the general school of thought being that while Irish TV invariably embraces controversial analysis, the more high-profile channels across the water are somewhat less willing to accept or engage in it.

Source: Michael Flanagan/YouTube

However, for many obvious reasons, it is rare enough for the people involved to comment on these discrepancies.

Yet recently, Graeme Souness suggested, in an interview with Newstalk’s Off the Ball, that there was a greater degree of freedom to be outspoken on RTÉ in comparison with his current role at Sky.

“Sky send camera crews out to training grounds and there is a certain caution attached to the way they would approach things, whereas with RTÉ, it was very much pub talk,” Souness explained.

Another person who has worked in both environments is John Hartson. The former Welsh international striker recently signed a two-year punditry deal with the BBC, while he also provides analysis for Setanta Sports in Ireland.

The ex-Arsenal and Celtic man agrees with Souness’ intimation that there is a more freewheeling aspect to working on an Irish show.

“Live television is not as easy as people think. You still have to deliver. You still have to get your words out and slow it down,” he explains.

“It’s like telling a joke. Lots of us have got good jokes. But it’s how you tell it. We all know what we see. A good joke is about the delivery.

“When you’re watching a game at home, you think ‘this is what I can see’. But to go on national television and describe it and slow it all down and get your voice ready, that can be a challenge.

He continues: “I don’t feel quite the level of pressure when I come over to Ireland as when I do the BBC… I think there is slightly more room to express myself when I come over to Ireland. It’s a different audience for a start. Whereas on the BBC, it’s a bigger viewing audience.

“And like Graeme, strangely enough, to say I don’t quite feel the pressure is wrong, but I feel like I can relax a little bit more over in Ireland.”

Hartson, though, still has great respect for a number of British-based pundits, citing Souness, Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer as being among those he most admires.

“And there are other pundits that I would turn the television off if they came on,” he adds. “People probably turn it off when I come on, but there you go.”

There is little surprise, however, when he reserves special praise for one individual in particular.

“The best pundits will be honest and they’ll actually get you off your seat and say what you’re thinking. Gary Neville’s raised the bar and now we all have to step up in terms of improving all the time. He’s going through his analysis and his formation and how players are in the wrong positions, that’s taking it to another level. And that’s what we’re trying to do all the time at Setanta.

“I like the pundits that actually say something. A lot of pundits say a lot without really saying anything. I know managers that, when you talk to them, they’ll talk about ‘the philosophy’ and ‘the group’ and ‘the development’. I think the best philosophy in the game is to get your winger to beat the full-back and cross for your centre-forward to head it in the goal.”

John Hartson with Connor Morris Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

(Setanta pundit John Hartson and presenter Connor Morris pictured in the studio ahead of the new season)

Setanta presenter Connor Morris also feels that there is “a certain amount of truth” in the suggestion that, on Irish TV, pundits have greater scope to say what they want without footballers and clubs constantly watching over them.

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“We would approach as many as a dozen people in the close season through agents,” he tells The42. “We’ve been doing it this time with people like Joey Barton, Craig Bellamy, who are known to be quite loose-tongued at times. They don’t do much media work in the UK or England in particular, because it’s very much under the microscope of the English press and clubs. But they are open to coming over here and talking to us, because it’s so highly off radar. We’re aware of that, we use it to our advantage.

“We ordinarily find that guys are very much at ease with what we do here. It’s very relaxed in terms of the working atmosphere. And again, we try to tap into that… There’s a trust that builds up over time. You can ask the hard questions and guys will say stuff that is controversial and it will be picked up in the press. But ordinarily, they’re fine with that.

“We don’t like guys throwing out platitudes and paying lip service to players. If that is the case, we have to think twice about asking them back on a regular basis.”

And has Morris been as impressed with what Sky and Gary Neville have been doing as his colleague, Hartson, obviously is?

“There’s a responsibility on you as a competitor of sorts, albeit you’re not comparing like with like because their vast resources mean they have a huge amount of bells and whistles. They have production teams that run well into double figures.

“We have a young, energetic, enthusiastic production department, but we’re talking five or six people here that work across a three-hour programme. They would find that difficult to believe at the BBC and Sky, that what we put out comes from three or four edit suites and half a dozen people, many of them in their first job in TV, who have had to learn very quickly, think on their feet and upskill incredibly fast.

“But yeah, we’ll look at Sky and I think it’s fair to say that Gary Neville has given punditry a new dimension. They’ve had the facilities and the technology to do that. They’ve kicked it on now with Thierry Henry as well.

“And there’s room to do it differently. BT have come on to the landscape with all guns blazing, but they’ve not actually took on Sky head to head in terms of what you see going out on air. Their lunchtime game is very different. There’s a lot of chat that goes on with BT, and I like that. I think it’s something different. You can become too obsessed with the toys at your disposal.

“We’ve come somewhere in the middle. We like to chat about football and are never shy of asking the obvious question for the people at home who want to hear the opinions of the guys in studio.”

During his time as a presenter, Morris has met a host of famous names, and often, he finds individuals’ playing styles bear a certain resemblance to their punditry.

“Kenny Cunningham is very organised, he has an opinion on everything, and as a captain and centre-half who played over 500 times in the Premier League and was very vocal as a player, he’s very much that person when he comes into the building at 10 o’clock.

“The only time you don’t hear Kenny during the day is when he’s having his tea for 20 minutes at seven o’clock. That’s literally the only time you can’t hear him in the building.

“Matt [Holland] tends to be very methodical, softer spoken, but when it comes to the crunch, he will speak his mind.”

The stereotype for the average pundit is of a frustrated ex-player, who chooses punditry as a means to an end if job offers in coaching dry up, with Roy Keane in particular an example of an individual with an ostensible love-hate relationship with the art of analysis. In Morris’ experience, how much truth is their to the cliché?

“I think punditry of late has become very negative,” he explains. “It’s sometimes lazy to point out errors in a goal from a set piece or a piece of play, and it’s easier.

“I think there’s a lot more room for people to appreciate the positive side, appreciate good football, good goals, rather than immediately pointing out the negative — that’s just a trend overall.

“Our guys love being in the green room downstairs. ‘Weren’t you at a certain club at one point with him, or he would have been your manager?’ They like to continue being associated with people who played the game.

“The Setanta pundits like coming over to Dublin, because [once it finishes] there’ll be a social aspect to the programming that we’ve done that day over a cup of tea or a pint. Some [ex-footballers] speak louder than others in terms of a little bit of bitterness and axes to grind.

“The guys we have in here tend to be largely very amenable. They’ll have good and bad to say on the game. It seems to be largely a trend that those who speak loudest in negative terms make for good copy. It’s not a case of empty vessels making the most noise, but that would be true in one or two cases where you’re thinking we know what this guy has to say on that, it’s no longer worthy of a headline anymore.”

And finally, speaking on Newstalk last weekend, journalist Paul Kimmage discussed the topic of the latest Mourinho-Wenger spat and expressed wariness in general about “the same old crap”. Does Morris empathise with this sense of apathy in relation to the upcoming season in some quarters?

“I understand Paul’s point. [Constant discussion] does, in some way, sanitise the experience. Not to say it feels like a job. You come into work and you talk about football, so it’s not all bad. You’re appreciative and aware of that.

“You also get to meet quite a number of high-profile people. And you quickly realise that they’re very like you or I, they’re not these untouchable Premier League players. There’s the veneer that exists that makes them difficult to get to, but once you break down that glass ceiling, you realise they’re very ordinary people.

“But I still get excited by the new season. We’re in work every day, talking about who’s bought who and where it’s going to put them. It’s been a very short off season. It barely feels like we’ve been away. And that’s a good thing.”

Presenter Connor Morris and pundits Kenny Cunningham, John Hartson and Matt Holland were at the Setanta Sports studios in Dublin yesterday to mark the return of Premier League Central for the 2015/2016 Premier League season. Premier League Central, the first place to see Premier League highlights, is back on the air this Saturday, August 8th at 8.30pm.

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