Rio Ferdinand and Co should leave being partisan to us mere mortals

Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole working for TNT Sports
The likes of Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole don't even try to hide their club allegiances - Shutterstock/Dave Shopland

As Liverpool’s frustration turned to fury in the second half at Old Trafford, the Sky Sports Premier League social media account posted a picture of a gleeful, gurning Gary Neville – and without a trigger warning, as well – alongside a despondent Mr J Carragher of this parish.

A few days previously, we had seen a joyous celebration from TNT pundit Joe Cole, bouncing up and down with fans and seeking out Rio Ferdinand, supporter of the Man United side that Cole’s Chelsea had beaten 4-3, to taunt. Those four men have 260 England appearances and 17 Premier League winner’s medals between them. But, from the clips and pictures, it seems that they are fans – just like us.

Some football fans find it relatable. Certainly TV and social media producers love it; just a bit of harmless fun with the talent. For the ex-players or their people, it’s a no-brainer for personal brand development: zero cost, high engagement, connects you to the fanbase, a peek behind the curtain. A bit further down the ex-pro pecking order, getting yourself earmarked as a club loyalist/celebrity superfan can be a nice little earner. Would Micah Richards, a fine Premier League player and by all accounts a top lad, have the post-playing career he’s got if he wasn’t something of a rare bird: the clubbable Man City bazillions-era devotee?

It’s peculiar, though, that they use the pundits like this: after all, Ferdinand, say, will know more about playing as a Premier League defender than every United fan alive. But there will be thousands of fans who care more, care harder, care longer than he does about the club. Obviously that’s not to say that he isn’t entitled to support whoever he likes, or in whatever fashion. His identification with United is, I guess, because it was where he worked in his peak years, where he is revered, where he has lots of friends. It seems different, somehow, to the long-suffering season-ticket holder or the young person with the posters on their bedroom wall in Salford, Surrey, or Singapore. Did Rio’s heart sink to his no-doubt exquisite leather trainer-hybrids on Sunday as he saw Big Sam Allardyce glad-handing the new ownership in the prawn sandwich seats?

Did the Ferdinand blood run cold, as it did for many United fans, at the prospect, no matter how remote, of Sam’s fulsome fundament being squeezed into the Old Trafford hotseat? Did he spend Sunday evening worrying that even Sir Dave Brailsford’s special one per cent pillows might not be able to sort out that total shambles of a defence?

There was a time, not so long ago, when the idea of a commentator or expert being so unashamedly partisan would have been frowned upon. The Mount Rushmore men of sports broadcasting – the Richie Benaud tier – would never have been caught celebrating a moment of triumph for “their” team. Indeed, several of them deliberately kept any allegiance quiet so they wouldn’t be accused of bias. Maybe almost too well: Super Sunday, for instance, used to be a regular forum for savage debate as to which club Martin Tyler was a paid-for place-man/mortal enemy of: Arsenal, Man U, Liverpool, etc. Woking fan, as it turned out. National treasure Henry Blofeld told this writer that his producer had said to him before his very first commentary at the BBC: “The first day you refer to England as ‘we’ will be the last day you work here.”

Another legend, Barry Davies, remarked once that “each generation gets the commentators it deserves”. Very true. In making themselves part of the drama and the vibes, these ex-professionals want to insert themselves into the story as a participant rather than mere observer in much the same way that performatively chucking your seven-quid Boxpark lager, or filming yourself celebrating a goal, or even getting yourself in the papers for being a complete toad with your vile chanting ensures that you aren’t just consuming the spectacle, you are part of it, shaping it. You are it and it is you. Rio and his ilk have so much more to offer than just being “sad fan” or “happy fan”. They can leave that to us mere mortals.

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