Red Nev and his barely read newspapers

VIEW FROM THE PRESSBOX SOFA: Former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville created a stir last month with some of his comments in his new role as a TV pundit. So when he agreed to appear on Sky Sport’s Sunday Supplement to debate the state of sports journalism with three “Titans” of the back pages, MARTIN KELNER was primed with his remote control

Bad news for those of us with an interest in newspaper sales, which I guess would be most vistors to this website: Sky pundit Gary Neville never picks up a newspaper. Never.

Gary Neville: doesn't read the newspapers
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville: doesn’t read the newspapers

He dropped the bombshell at the start of his much-discussed appearance on Sunday Supplement, Sky Sports’ weekly football discussion programme, whose very existence depends on a big bundle of physical newspapers, three sports journalists, and a large bowl of fruit.

The former England international had been invited on to the programme to face sportswriters Olly Holt and Martin Samuel, of the Mail group, and Henry Winter of The Times after some comments he had made about declining standards in modern-day sports journalism.

As host Neil Ashton put it, Neville was facing “three Titans of Fleet Street”, so his early admission that he would never go to the trouble of actually going out and paying for their stuff was very much the TV equivalent of getting a tackle in early, letting the star player know you’re there, “putting a reducer on him”, as Ron Atkinson used to say.

Not that Olly, who was first to take on the much-admired pundit and property developer (much-admired for his punditry, the jury is still out on his property development), seemed overly daunted, naming some brilliant young journalists and the work they are doing to keep the Titans’ flame burning, an argument I found incontrovertible, and not just because one of the roll of honour will be spending her 26th Christmas dinner round our table.

The dispute between Neville and the fourth estate arose apparently from the way some of his comments on Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius had been interpreted in the press, the reaction of coach Jurgen Klopp and the player himself, and the inevitable brouhaha on social media that followed.

You might have thought Neville would be the last person to want to go back to a time when, if you had a view on football you had to wait till Saturday to ring, god help us, David Mellor. But he explained that he felt journalists, especially those new to the game, without the heft of the Titans, were under pressure to produce “quantity rather than quality”, to get content, however flimsy its basis, online “within 15 minutes” (that might be where his argument falls down, as that’s barely time to make an instant coffee and select a biscuit).

As a result, he felt balanced, informed coverage of football was in peril. He didn’t actually use the word “clickbait”, but the implication was there.

He didn’t actually use the word ‘clickbait’, but the implication was there

Neville, though, tended to destroy his own argument, admitting that his job as a pundit was to be opinionated and prompt debate, in which case he should have been delighted that by responding Liverpool had, in his words, “added fuel to a fire that wasn’t there,” a concept that merits closer analysis.

And as Henry Winter pointed out, serious discussion of football is far from dead, with 11 pages in Saturday’s Times and Telegraph, and 12 in the Mail – though the concept of pages of print sadly might have been lost not just on Neville but much of his and succeeding generations.

Holt pointed to the proliferation of sports journalism courses in colleges and universities. If you are on one, I would urge you to download this edition of Sunday Supplement, and not just for the presence of the Titans. Aside from his argument about the Karius coverage, Neville, who is always brilliantly watchable on television, had some fascinating insights on the relationship between players and the press, and his role under Roy Hodgson with the England team, among other issues.

I don’t often watch Sunday Supplement, preferring instead to catch up on politics with Andrew Marr or Robert Peston, and guests who have gone to the trouble of having a shave and wearing a shirt and tie – exception made for the always elegant Henry Winter. But while not developing into the studs-up row that might have been anticipated, this programme was riveting viewing.

Apart from anything else, I was fascinated by what appeared to be a pain au chocolat or a pain au raisin in front of Martin Samuel. It remained in front of him, as far as I could see, untouched for 90 minutes. So unless they were renewing it during the ad breaks, the Mail‘s chief sports writer is to be applauded for admirable restraint.