On Sunday’s season finale of Match of the Day, Ian Wright managed (much to the bewilderment of Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer) to mention UK rappers Russ Millions and Tion Wayne, described Leeds United as an “imperial star-fleet coming out of hyperspace” and even voted for a Tottenham player, Érik Lamela, to win goal of the season for his outrageous rabona in March’s north London derby. With some pundits, club bias can often come across as dreary or tired, but Wright is so obviously a diehard Gooner that he is nothing but endearing on screen: crushed by Arsenal’s defeats and bouncing off the studio walls when they win. That said, Wright represents a lot more than energy and allegiance; he is often insightful and has shown in Home Truths, a recent documentary that tackles his own (and others’) violent upbringing, another side to his broadcasting skill. Wright has always been box office, a magnetic figure on and off the pitch, but it is his ability to marry that charisma with humility – evident in his recent appearance on Desert Island Discs – that makes him so likable. Oh, and on top of all that, the guy knows how to dress.
Would the backlash to the European Super League have been so severe without Gary Neville? Perhaps, but the pundit’s unscripted monologue from the Old Trafford gantry against the breakaway league on that Sunday afternoon – minutes after the news had broken but a few hours before the official announcement by the clubs – was one of the defining moments of the season. There were concerns that certain fans of those six Premier League clubs would be taken in by the greed and opportunity of the ESL, but Neville’s emotive speech – in which he labelled the breakaway “a criminal act” – was succinct, informative and insightful, and he has followed up his call for an independent regulator with a petition to the UK government that gathered 127,000 signatures in one day. Whether on Sky’s Monday Night Football or his Soccerbox series, as an interviewer to the game’s biggest names or as a co-commentator to Martin Tyler, Neville is arguably the UK’s best pundit.
Alex Scott will be the new presenter of Football Focus next season, and few would dispute that she is an excellent choice to replace Dan Walker. Scott may be asking more of the questions in future, then, but her answers have long been bursting with stats and she is thought to be one of the best prepared in the business, which is hardly surprising given her experience and journalism degree. She remains a slick broadcaster, equally comfortable and knowledgeable across men’s and women’s football and arguably outshone Clare Balding, Lineker and Gabby Logan in co-hosting Sports Personality of the Year last December. “When I was a kid, I would never have watched TV and thought someone like me could be presenting a programme like Football Focus,” she said on her appointment to the show, and in a year in which female pundits continue to receive an unfairly disproportionate amount of online abuse, her deserved prominence feels like a small step forward.
Troy Deeney has had quite the year. On the pitch, he remains club captain and a legendary figure at Watford, who were promoted to the Premier League. Off it, he is increasingly visible and audible and has earned a newspaper column and a regular spot on TalkSport, speaking honestly and articulately about a host of subjects from the Black Lives Matter movement to the scrutiny that footballers faced from politicians over lockdown. He spoke candidly about his time in prison and the death of his father on Louis Theroux’s podcast and has even started his own – Deeney Talks – on which he recently interviewed Elton John. The 32-year-old speaks with both a confidence and vulnerability, whether he’s the interviewee or the host, and doesn’t seem to care whether his opinion is popular. A breath of fresh air.
It is hardly surprising that Cesc Fàbregas makes for a good pundit. When your footballing education is split between La Masia and Arsenal’s Invincibles, you’ve played every position from defensive midfielder to false nine, and have won almost every honour at club and international level, it makes you slightly more qualified to talk about the tactical side of the game than the average opinion-for-hire. Fàbregas is also not afraid to publicly criticise other pundits – be it putting Adrian Durham in his place over Dennis Bergkamp or reminding Michael Owen about the more artful side of the game – and even though his punditry appearances on BT Sport are only occasional, he’s impressed enough BBC executives to be asked to join the team for the Euros this summer. Cerebral, honest and with a few languages under his belt, one gets the feeling that the 34-year-old is destined to be a manager once his playing days with Monaco are over but chatting about the game in the off-season isn’t a bad way to make a few Euros in the meantime.