Sitting side by side on high stools in the Monday Night Football studio in front of an invited audience fielding questions from the presenter Dave Jones, the pundits Roy Keane, Micah Richards, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville do not so much resemble a crack team of in-house analysts assembled to publicise Sky Sports’ coverage of the imminent Premier League season as a has-been boy band announcing a comeback tour prompted by multiple mid-life crises or a large bill from HMRC.
With Kelly Cates, Emma Saunders and the Guardian columnist Karen Carney unavailable due to prior engagements, the empty stool at one end is reserved for one of the original Spice Boys, Jamie Redknapp, who is running late in a state of affairs unlikely to please his bearded Irish bandmate. To be fair, Keane seems in good spirits and is looking fit, tanned and extremely lean.
Indeed, so jovial does he appear to be, that when questions are opened to the floor it seems as good a time as any to inquire whether his well-documented, violent, on-field “previous” with Alfie Haaland could in any way cloud his judgment when at some point in the very near future he is called upon to lavish praise or criticism on Erling, the former Manchester City midfielder’s son. As that famous tackle on Haaland the elder demonstrated, Keane is after all a man who clearly knows how to hold a grudge.
During a previous group discussion on City’s new star signing, Keane had remained silent as his colleagues took turns debating the pros and precious few cons of the club’s decision to sign the superstar striker from Borussia Dortmund but he was quick, at first with a conspicuous narrowing of the eyes, to rubbish the notion that he might be anything other than scrupulously fair in future assessments of the player’s Premier League performances.
“I’ll judge on what I see,” he said. “In the game last week, Jamie mentioned he missed one or two chances but I thought his movement was absolutely fantastic. He’s absolutely an amazing player; there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be a success at Man City and he’ll score bags of goals. When Phil Foden had the shot last week, if you look at his reactions he was way ahead of everybody else. So it’s no issue for me talking about a player because I might have had history with his dad. I’ll just hopefully give him a fair assessment, like I do with all my comments.”
The eventual arrival of an apologetic Redknapp (airport issues) coincides with a discussion about the future whereabouts of Cristiano Ronaldo, with nobody on the panel seeming any wiser than the rest of us regarding the player’s short- or long-term future. To a man they expect him to get regular game time for United if he is unable to force a move. Curiously, the issue of the undeniably gifted but ageing and increasingly immobile striker’s complete unsuitability for Erik ten Hag’s high-intensity style of pressing went resolutely unraised.
With Keane, Richards and Redknapp excused, the remaining trio stay behind to discuss the Sky Sports institution that is Monday Night Football. The difficulties of coming up with fresh themes to espouse or pick apart in their post-weekend slot is raised. In an age where there is an often overwhelming amount of forensic analysis of the game’s often excruciating minutiae available on multiple platforms, coming up with new topics to discuss can be tough.
Neville explains that the opening hour of tactical discussion on the first episode of Monday Night Football in a little over two weeks will be devoted to Manchester United’s new manager and cannot stress enough that it is imperative he and Carragher do it better than anyone else.
During a cost of living crisis when many are struggling to make ends meet, I ask what they might say to somebody – with apologies to those in far more dire financial straits – who can no longer afford two overpriced TV subscriptions and is forced to choose between Sky and BT Sport.
“We’re better than BT Sport,” says Carragher, matter-of-factly. Perhaps, but you don’t have the Champions League, comes the counter. “You can watch that in the pub,” says Neville, apparently oblivious to the fact that particular option will no longer be affordable to many when those energy bills for multiple thousands of pounds start arriving in the post.
“To be fair, this shouldn’t be about BT or Sky,” says Neville. “What they’ve done over the last seven or eight years is fantastic. They have great pundits but so do we. I look at Super Sunday on Sky when I’m at home and I just think: ‘Wow!’ We’ve got 128 Premier League games, and I know I’m sounding like a corporate now, but you have to watch the Premier League. You have to watch it.
“It’s every week, it’s at home, so you’d always choose Sky Sports because of that. And that’s not me being anti-BT because I’m not anti-BT.”
His comment prompts a risque off-the-cuff quip from the decidedly uncorporate Carragher, which prompts loud laughter, the intervention of one of Sky’s PR folk and the extraction of a reluctant but solemn promise from the Guardian that it would not be reproduced here. “You can quote me on that – isn’t that what Fergie said?” insists Carragher, prompting one of the gag’s two subjects, the MNF ringmaster Jones, to stress that he’d really prefer it if we did not.