During the close season (how long was it this year? Sixteen days? Something like that) I’d almost managed to forget about Mark Lawrenson entirely. He’d drifted out of my consciousness and my world was very marginally better for it. His return to the punditry fray now means more of my waking hours are taken up wondering precisely who, if anybody, finds their enjoyment of televised football enhanced by his presence. This annoys me, as I have better things to do with my time: I’ve just bought Tony Hawk’s Underground 2.
Good football pundits fall into two categories: strong personalities and sharp analysis. An example of the former would be Ian Wright, whilst the latter might be represented by Gordon Strachan. There are even those who can straddle both categories like a punditry colossus, like Martin O’Neill (let’s hope he can find time to do a few shifts at the Beeb during his current sabbatical).
In personality terms, Lawrenson is a thin grey spectre of light misery. He’s unremittingly uncharitable: I’ve never really forgiven him for writing off Villa’s 1998/9 title challenge quite so easily (I never really believed we’d stick it out either, but it was as if he didn’t even consider it possible). This is hardly a contrast to Alan ‘you’ll never win anything with kids’ Hansen, who is more than dour enough for both of them and much more astute (it remains a joy to watch him pull apart a poor defensive performance).
Lawrenson is also rarely willing to acknowledge the possibility of a surprise result and his effectiveness as a pundit is seriously undermined by this apparent lack of imagination. His weekly ‘Premiership Predictions’ on BBCi rarely contain any notable insight, and his recent projection of what the table will look like next May stated that the three promoted clubs will go back down.
On past form this is highly unlikely, as only once in the history of the Premiership have all three promoted clubs gone down. But Lawrenson’s is still the safest, most facile prediction, because there’s a good chance he’ll get two out of three. Any bloke down the pub can do that. The difficult bit is working out which of the three might keep their heads above water, and that’s what we look to a professional pundit to do.
He’s been doing this for years. Remember when he backed Bolton for the drop and agreed to shave off his moustache if they made it? He submitted to this with ill grace at the time, apparently unwilling to lose his signature look (which was akin to an ageing desk sergeant in a provincial police station who has been passed over for promotion more than a couple of times). That the moustache hasn’t come back (presumably everybody told him he looked better without it) and Bolton are still up there are testament to his powers of judgement.
One shouldn’t really complain when ITV fills its pundit seats with the bland likes of Andy Townsend. But the rest of the BBC’s line-up is so strong – Gary Lineker’s soft touch, Wright’s cheerleading, Garth Crooks’ bold obtuseness – that there seems little call for somebody else to state the obvious in a bored, impatient voice. You might as well bring back Bob Wilson... Oh. You have.