Why Sky Sports are in danger of ruining a winning formula
Thierry Henry, in his guise as Sky Sports' latest star pundit, has been hosed with criticism from all angles after his reaction to Real Madrid’s winner on Wednesday night, and there is no question that his reaction was indeed a bizarre one.
After Cristiano Ronaldo weaved his way through the Atletico Madrid defence to lay on a tap-in for Javier Hernandez, Henry vented his furious, curious disapproval at the way Real's Manchester United loanee chose to celebrate: not by worshipping deferentially at the altar of his more prestigious team-mate, but instead by allowing himself some joy and indeed credit for the match-winning strike he’d just dispatched.
At best, it was a peculiar piece of analysis; at worst, needlessly provocative poppycock. But either way, Henry’s worst and most telling moment in his new job came not this week, but last month.
Steven Gerrard had just been sent off for an act of inexcusable petulance during a decisive fixture in his club's season, against Manchester United at Anfield. In the Sky studio, Henry's response to Gerrard’s momentary lurch into lunacy was to praise the stellar career and past achievements of the man he repeatedly called 'Stevie G'. The most scathing criticism Henry could muster was to admit that Gerrard "should have done better there".
Jamie Carragher was sitting next to him that afternoon, and the former Red's own response to the incident was careful, cutting and uncoloured by the star thrall that seemed to have neutered Henry. If you didn’t know which of the two was Gerrard's long-time friend and colleague, only the Scouse twang would have given it away.
When Sky announced, late last year, that Henry would be the newest addition to their increasingly heralded and prestigious studio panel, it was exactly this – his aversion to voicing an opinion of any weight – which left many viewers underwhelmed by his addition.
Anyone who watched his punditorial outings for the BBC at the World Cup in Brazil would have quickly noticed that Henry has mastered the art of looking very good indeed while saying almost nothing at all. It’s an art he’s gone on to further refine at Sky.
It is a shame because, in many senses, Henry is perfectly cut out for TV: he is resolutely unflappable, dashingly handsome and his choice of cardigans is never anything less than sublime. The Parisian timbre is the cherry atop a quite delicious cake. But his broadcasting talents begin and end with aesthetics. He can rarely bring himself to espouse even a halfway interesting opinion.
This may just about cut the mustard at the BBC, who must cater for the casual football watcher as well as their more hardcore counterparts, and whose scheduling doesn't allow time for the more comprehensive fare for which Henry's new employers have become famed. At the BBC, Henry’s charming, accessible, watery brand of punditry fits the bill rather nicely.
But Sky Sports is a different matter. By their very subscription-funded nature, the channels exist to service the stauncher, financially committed football fan. The bland civility of Alan Shearer and the transparent wackiness of Robbie Savage might be okay for Match of the Day, but Sky's coverage has always been proudly forensic.
G-Nev's high bar
Recently, it has been invigorated by the presence of Gary Neville, who, even by Sky's standards, has demonstrated the many merits of meticulousness. In his playing days, the teenage Neville became known for using his lunchtimes to practice throw-ins against the wall of the Manchester United canteen. Judging by his exhaustive weekly deconstructions of English top-flight football, his taste for a hard day's work has not deserted him.
Latterly, Carragher has been signed up to partner him and has kept apace with Neville’s lofty standards. The duo have proven an unprecedented triumph.
Neville and Carragher’s impact has in fact been so great that Sky have effectively remodelled their football coverage. The pundits are now a headline attraction in themselves. It was with this new-look modus operandi that Sky enlisted Henry in January, and they wasted no opportunity to trumpet the pedigree of their latest recruit, most notably with a fleet of soft-focus adverts in which Neville and Carragher dreamily recalled the various humiliations inflicted upon them by Henry the player.
There is a stonking irony, then, to the way Sky’s new approach has panned out. The pundit-as-star format was brought about by two men who were limited and low-profile players but are now supremely incisive analysts, and yet has resulted in the employment of a man who is their exact inverse: a divinely talented superstar footballer whose skills as a pundit are comparatively non-existent.
Punditry over profile
Sky Sports, often derided for their hype-machine instincts, made a brilliant move in appointing Neville and Carragher but are now in danger of ruining their own recipe for success by falling into a self-readied trap of headlines and hubris. They have reacted to their own achievement by reneging on the exact qualities that brought it into being.
The roaring regard for Neville and Carragher shows that, when it comes to the analysts, Sky’s viewers are not won over by profile alone. Indeed, Neville’s popularity as a pundit has, if anything, come in spite of his reputation during his playing career, when he was widely disliked by fans outside of Old Trafford and derided for his teacher’s pet persona. Carragher, too, was hardly revered the land over in his playing days.
Their reinvention as pundits, and their newfound standing as admired and esteemed authorities on the sport, is proof that Sky subscribers respond to informed inquiry ahead of celebrity and suaveness.
But having carefully constructed this new and highly successful approach, Sky seem to have wilted back into the sort of recruiting practices favoured by Hollywood, where stardom and style pummel substance into irrelevance.
In light of this, the star-worship advocated by Henry on Wednesday was in fact rather apt. It was ineffective analysis, too – especially when compared to the Neville/Carragher model of technical, deconstructive examination – although not for Henry’s usual reasons of fence-sitting blandness. Instead, it recalled the Savage model of punditry: spouting Big Opinions for their own sake while blindly ignoring such notions as relevance and perspective.
Given this deviation, maybe we can take Wednesday’s rant as evidence that Henry is attempting to buck up his ideas and finally offer views than hold some heft. But one suspects his attempts will be futile. With their latest signing, Sky have gone for profile over profundity when it’s the latter that’s won them their plaudits. It’s not a mistake they should repeat.