Welcome to the Guardian’s review of the 2021-22 Premier League season. We have nominated some contenders for this category to get the discussion going
In February, it seemed Roy Keane would be lost to our television screens, when Sunderland came calling for an emotional return to Wearside. Thankfully for those who enjoy Keane’s snarl as part of their Sunday afternoon routine, no deal could be struck. Roy stayed in the pundit’s chair. The habitual dismissals of bluffers and fakers, the smirks at Micah Richards’ self-aggrandisement, the systematic disemboweling of the latest Manchester United disgrace are top-value entertainment. Others may be more dab hands with the iPad, have a keener grasp of xG. They may even be more articulate but there is no better man at being Roy Keane, who can turn even Graeme Souness from alpha male to beta when on a roll. Keane’s rants are often glorious entertainment, appointment viewing when one of his pariahs is due a volley. As TV executives well know, Keane is box office. The sense is that the man behind the frown now knows that as well as anyone.
Hear us out here. McManaman is an urbane man, someone who moved to Real Madrid, worked out his place in the pecking order, quickly learned the Spanish language and soon became an important, popular if unspectacular part of a Liga- and Champions League-winning team. At BT Sport, McManaman has done pretty much the same, fulfilling the role of everyman, the bloke in the pub enjoying the match unfolding in front of him, sometimes with surprise, other times with disgust. Darren “Fletch” Fletcher provides the commentary, and Glenn Hoddle, on the big matches, often completes the triumvirate with his still-boyish chirrups, tactical experience and frequent lapsing into 1980s soccer vernacular. The role of “Macca” is to convey the shock and awe of the latter stages of the Champions League and Premier League by being wowed at everything happening in front of his eyes. He knows what he’s there for. Probably.
The co-commentator community has a hierarchical structure, with certain big beasts always likely to be handed the big matches. There are, however, plenty of less big matches to cover for Sky, whose output is often three Premier League matches a weekend, plus a Monday night and on occasion Fridays. Not even Gary Neville is willing to take on such a workload. That leaves opportunity for the second tier co-commentators, among which Hinchcliffe has become a doyen, as well as being a familiar voice to those who follow the EFL. The former Manchester City, Everton and Sheffield Wednesday left-back must own a reliable car, since his south Manchester tones pop up all over the country. All that travelling has left him with a vast knowledge of the game while his wry, off-beat jokes can often be heard making his broadcasting colleagues giggle off-mic.
Female voices are a full part of UK football coverage now, from presentation to match commentary to punditry to post-match interviewing it. It’s time some got over the idea of it being a man’s game. Ward is a former player, and someone whose experience within the game as an administrator, as a former head of education at Leeds, is unrivalled within the football media. Few can have such a wide knowledge of what it takes for young people to make it as a footballer. Her empathy for players is obvious, a strength in the commentary box alongside her reading of the game, tactical knowledge and a keen sense of the momentum a match might take. That’s married to a gentle playfulness, and a proudly northern accent.
The reformation of the Soccer Saturday crew on Sky has taken a while to get used to. When Jeff Stelling announced his retirement, only later to go back on it, it seemed like the TV institution might come to its end. But those still lamenting the loss of Phil Thompson, Matthew Le Tissier and Charlie Nicholas, perhaps even yearning for dear old Alan Mullery and Rodney Marsh, do a disservice to the team who have kept the show on the road. Glen Johnson and Michael Dawson are bubbling, knowledgeable enthusiasts, Tim Sherwood’s arrival has soothed those who like to have a true football man around, talking the near-nonsensical language of the dressing room. There’s still Merse saying Merse things. These days something of a veteran of the studio team, and probably its snappiest dresser, Clinton Morrison offers self-effacing humour, piping hot takes and, just as he did when a player, is not afraid to hold back when he has an opinion. He never shirks an argument. That makes for quality entertainment, just as it did when the old guard were around.