One of the greater joys of quoting the work of Barney Ronay at length is the skill with which the Guardian scribe eviscerates the UK’s sports TV fixtures with such surgical precision. So on one of the rare instances where Ronay is offering effusive praise for a soccer talking head, we’ll take stock of his crush on former Manchester United right back Gary Neville (above), currently employed by Sky Sports. With Neville anchoring Sky’s Sunday tripleheader, Ronay claims, ‘it is possible, finally, to actually quite look forward to this bit, those long, idling moments in between where there is no actual football, just the spectacle of men talking urgently about football.” And don’t hold your breath waiting for him to ever make that promise again.
Neville has solidified in recent weeks, losing his ferrety callow quality, turning towards the camera instead a full-face belligerence, a relentless and moreish zeal. I think we can say it now: there’s a new sheriff in town, a new king-pundit. And maybe the pundit is about to enter another of his furtive growth spurts.
His waspishness has always been evident, as has a subtle quality of outsiderdom. There is a story about the old lags at United laughing out of their car windows at the sight of the young Neville staying behind after training to practise throw-ins on his own against a wall while they all sidled off to some appalling shag-carpeted lounge bar. And it is this cussed, puritanical, quietly nonconformist brio that is his great asset, a line in quiet iconoclasm that is now being applied to the role of pundit.
It seems increasingly that Neville may be doing actual research; that his approach to punditry may involve a rare desire to actually tell you interesting things you didn’t know about football. And amid the bombast of Sky’s plastic triumphalism, there is a quality in him of restrained preacherly zeal, the brusqueness of an ambitious young parish curate or a strident Scottish schoolmaster with a flaringly adamant moustache.