AS Chris Coleman has said time and time again: “I tell you what.” So I will tell you what. This World Cup has missed Martin O’Neill’s punditry.
Four years ago, when the BBC showed the third-place play-off between Germany and Portugal live, O’Neill spent much of the build-up and half-time break declaring that the game was a complete waste of time.
You can count on O’Neill to cut through the platitudes of punditry to say what he really thinks, even if he’s not always sure what he’s really thinking. (As proved by his memorable – and not entirely complimentary – dissection of Robbie Williams’ early solo career to the singer’s face during France 98. It was far too random to have been premeditated.)
There has been a distinct lack of real eccentricity in the TV coverage of this tournament – both in the studio and the commentary box. Sure, Gareth Southgate managed to slip in an Einstein reference during one game, while Emmanuel Adebayor talked very, very fast. And Peter Drury greeted the tournament’s opening goal by yelling “Goal, Bafana Bafana”, and somehow made himself heard over the vuvuzelas.
But there’s been no one to match O’Neill’s left-field ramblings, or Hugh Johns’ habit of greeting a near miss with the incomprehensible phrase “that was so adjacent”, or Archie Macpherson booming his way through Greece v Nigeria like a furious schoolteacher. Even Kevin Keegan, who seems to have been doing World Cups for ITV since about 1938, has been less daft than in the past.
Instead, we’ve had Chris Coleman saying “I tell you what” a lot. (What, Chris? What? You really, really want to zig-a-zig-ah? Is that it?) And don’t get me started on Hansen and Shearer.
There have been glimpses of eccentricity, though, if you’ve known where to look. Mark Lawrenson, for example, has supplemented his weary sarcasm with the odd touch of Lancashire slang, even slipping a “Crikey O’Reilly” into the quarter-final between Argentina and Germany.
And on the other side, Craig Burley has developed an original line in withering put-downs. Witness his summing up of Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera’s error, which allowed Marcell Jansen to head Germany 2-1 in front tonight almost without realising it.
“Well, it’s a super ball in, but the sooner Muslera goes on holiday the better,” Burley suggested. “Clear his head, a couple of paracetamols, forget about the last two or three weeks.”
Burley will cover tomorrow’s final for ITV as a late replacement for Jim Beglin, who has an inner ear infection. He has been at his best during this tournament when paired with the equally waspish Jon Champion.
For tonight’s third-place play-off, though, he was alongside the almost puppyishly-enthusiastic Drury – who commentates with the air of a man who would be thrilled if you got him a Kinder egg for Christmas.
“This could be fun,” said Drury at the start of tonight’s match in Port Elizabeth, despite the fact that it was a third-place play-off. As it turned out, it was fun, if you had nothing better to do on a Saturday night.
Thomas Muller scored first for Germany, following the first of Muslera’s two blunders for the night. Muller, don’t forget, was the man who blamed England’s failure on having too many alpha males. And so he has been lucky in avoiding the Lucozade sponsor bumpers that have popped up through ITV’s coverage, and which have irritated me five million times more than anything any commentator or pundit has said.
In the world of Lucozade, the alpha male is king, and the spirit of the Three Lions will overcome any girly stuff such as technique or tactical awareness. You see, it’s all about pumping your fist and shouting: “Come on!”
Their ads have consisted of colour-washed football footage, with a testosterone-powered voiceover intoning such bollocks as: “The penalty shoot-out. Twelve yards of skill. Forty-six yards of courage.”
Or: “The first 90 are about who wants it. The final three are about who wants it more.”
Or: “Great footballers don’t just play midfield. They own it.”
Or, most hilariously of all, over a shot of an England line-up: “History will be kind to us, because we intend to write it.”
Because, of course, aggression and belief are all you need to win football matches, eh? Wazzocks.
Muller’s goal was cancelled out by Edinson Cavani before half-time, and then Diego Forlan gave Uruguay the lead early in the second half. That put Forlan and Muller level with David Villa and Wesley Sneijder on five goals in the race for the Golden Boot.
Having carefully thumbed the FIFA rule book (no petting, no bombing, no diving, no ambush marketing), Drury explained that, in the event of a tie, the winner of the Boot is decided on assists, which would make Muller the winner.
“Why can’t they all share it?” asked Southgate afterwards. It’s a lovely thought, Gareth, and we’d all love harmony and world peace and all that, but even the Community Shield goes to penalties these days.
However, if you really want to go down that route, perhaps Thomas could have the studs, Diego the laces and the sole, Wesley the tongue and David the instep. Although given that Sneijder only really scored three of his five goals, he should be lucky to get anything.
After Jansen and Sami Khedira had put Germany 3-2 in front, Forlan could have knocked Muller out of the Golden Boot reckoning, but hit the bar with a free kick right at the end.
That ensured Paul the psychic octopus, who tipped a Germany win, was right for the seventh World Cup game out of seven. Perhaps they should give him the Golden Boot – and a place on the BBC or ITV pundit panel for tomorrow’s final (he has gone for Spain). The expert in the tank has blown those in the studio out of the water during this World Cup.