Dumb and dumbing down no longer (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

August 11, 2023   6 mins

The studio has the classic beige look of the late Sixties arts programme. To the left, unctuous in a pink shirt and grey double-breasted suit, sits Eric Idle, playing Brian, the presenter, his tone pitched midway between Barry Davies and Brian Sewell with a hint of Brian Moore. To the right, deeply uncomfortable in a navy blazer is John Cleese, playing “the archthinker… the midfield cognoscento”, Jimmy Buzzard.

They are there to discuss how Jarrow United had, the previous night, with “an almost Proustian display of modern existentialist football” beaten Bologna, “annihilating by midfield moral argument the now surely obsolescent catenaccio defensive philosophy of Signor Alberto Fanfrino”. As Brian speaks of a performance “thrusting and bursting with aggressive Kantian positivism”, Jimmy looks increasingly anxious, says “Good evening, Brian” as an answer to three questions, and tries unsuccessfully to talk about his new boutique. He eventually resorts to grunting: “I hit the ball first time and there it was in the back of the net.”

This Monty Python sketch was first broadcast in 1969; the clash between football’s supposedly neanderthal practitioners and its hyper-intellectualised theorists has been current for more than 50 years. Even then there were counter-examples, perhaps most notably Jack Charlton and Danny Blanchflower, but the Buzzard stereotype was widely accepted. The contrast to an interview given this week by the 37-year-old Burnley manager Vincent Kompany, whose team kick off the Premier League today, is striking. It’s not just that Kompany is comfortable in five languages, has an MBA and speaks eloquently and with nuance about race, but that the world he represents is so removed from Buzzard. Today, the footballers have become intellectuals too.

The idea that a player, say, lining up a volley is performing extraordinarily complex calculations at astonishing speed is not new. “I don’t deny the differences in style and substance between athletic and conventional scholarly performance,” the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, “but we surely err in regarding sports as a domain of brutish intuition… The greatest athletes cannot succeed by bodily gifts alone.” But what Kompany is talking about is less instinctive. His Burnley players spend an average of an hour a day going through video analysis and working on tactics. “In football,” he said, “we’ve allowed our players to be lazy, in a way. The culture in football was always to just focus on the football and we shouldn’t be too long in the classroom. The culture is changing — you can’t get away with this anymore.”

And you can see this shift every weekend. Almost every top side these days “presses”, a high-risk tactic that looks to recover possession high up the pitch. To work, it has to be performed at great intensity and with precision across the team. If a single player gets the timing or positioning wrong, a huge space can be left in the defensive structure for the opponent to exploit. There is a need for preparation, coordination and concentration, and, given the fluidity of football, the ability to calculate angles and anticipate possibilities almost instantaneously — and that means intelligence.

Nonetheless, the Monty Python sketch is startlingly prescient. Are footballers’ names really so predictable that it should have been possible to pre-empt the existence of the former Wigan midfield cognoscento Jimmy Bullard? And how did they anticipate the existence of a Stadium of Light in the North-East — albeit six miles from Jarrow in Monkwearmouth, once its sister monastery?

It’s the heart of the joke, though, that stretches beyond unnerving coincidence. Monty Python caught very early the incongruity of an intellectual class seizing upon a game whose culture at the time was resolutely unintellectual. This was broadcast two years after Celtic, with wave after wave of thrusting positivity, had defeated the catenaccio defensive philosophy of Inter in the European Cup final, rendering it obsolescent and paving the way for the coming of the Dutch Total Football. For the first time, certainly within a British context, pundits and columnists began to employ words like “philosophy” to describe a manager’s outlook. That intellectualisation reached off the pitch as well, to the literary celebration of fandom in Fever Pitch but also the examination — at times arguably romanticisation — of the hooligan lifestyle by Bill Buford and Martin Amis.

From the early Sixties it had been apparent that English football was moving into a new age, as managers such as Don Revie at Leeds and Bill Shankly at Liverpool adopted increasingly methodical — and to their critics, boring — approaches to winning football matches. The discussion around football slowly became more sophisticated, prompting a backlash at the 1966 World Cup, largely from non-specialist columnists appalled at the apparently foreign idea that the working-class game might be about more than just running and kicking.

“They talk down to us as if football was a new television panel game which the natives are seeing for the first time,” wrote J.L. Manning in the Mail. “You know the clever-clever fellows I refer to. There are those who say, arrogantly of course, some people thought it was dull, but we in the game were fascinated by the tactics. It’s a great pity football crowds are not better educated. They would enjoy it so much more… Educated? About football? To understand football requires the intellectuality of the gnat… I am willing to bet that a team which plays this rubbish will not survive the quarter-finals.” Alf Ramsey’s side, of course, playing a modern innovative form of football that was almost brutalist in its disdain for frippery, not merely survived the quarter-finals but won a major trophy for the only time in England’s history.

Even at the time, Manning was a self-consciously reactionary figure, and while his successors certainly exist, they tend to be isolated these days. What the fractured media landscape has done is to allow people to discuss football as they want to discuss it, from sweary rants about the biases of referees to intricately detailed tactical analyses and all parts in between, which itself has led to a paradoxical phenomenon.

This is an age in which thinking generally is in retreat. We’ve had quite enough of experts. Tribalism and superficiality reigns supreme and performative anger is celebrated. The BBC, seemingly terrified of being perceived as exclusionary, manages to include almost nobody. See, for example, the recent documentary series Earth, in which Chris Packham wanders around a series of beautiful locations introducing repetitive CGI before, hidden away at the end, the scientists come in with a great slew of ideas and information. Or see Between the Covers, the BBC’s sole books show, so anxious about being condemned as elitist that it seems to spend half its time talking about how difficult reading is.

Football here is the unlikely exception. There’s certainly plenty of partisan nonsense and vacuous pontification about, but it’s not a sphere in which expertise is commonly mocked. Long gone is the chummy golf-club atmosphere that used to pervade studios, reaching its nadir at the 2010 World Cup when pundits admitted to never having watched the sides they were covering and Alan Hansen mocked Lee Dixon as a swot for being able to name Slovakia’s key player, Marek Hamšik.

In part, this is to do with football’s position as a driver of satellite subscriptions. There was an early recognition by Sky that if viewers were paying significant sums each month to watch football, they were likely to be interested enough by it to want in-depth analysis. What Andy Gray began, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have carried on, so that Monday Night Football now offers an unapologetically high-end discussion of the weekend just gone, with argument backed up by video analysis and data. And as Neville, Carragher and their guests often don’t agree, it’s one of the very few spheres of modern British life to feature actual debate, fuelled by evidence.

A little over a decade ago, Match of the Day was defending the banality of its coverage by insisting it had to appeal to the casual Saturday-night viewer as well as the devoted fan, but it has upped its game significantly in response. And it’s not just television: from newspapers to blogs, podcasts to magazines, the best modern football coverage is self-aware, wry, allusive, inventive and founded on an assumed canon of knowledge — the great games, players and managers of the past. Perhaps, as Janan Ganesh has argued, football, seemingly so unimportant, offers a “safe space” in which people can “take their brain for a ramble”. The irony is that, as football increasingly becomes a tool of foreign policy and as its global popularity spreads to levels unprecedented for any cultural mode, it has probably never been a less safe space for aesthetic free-play.

Or perhaps it’s just that when people write about a subject they love for readers who also love it, when culture wars are merely a distant rumble, what results is a discourse that assumes a lot of knowledge and prizes fresh and recondite information. This doesn’t mean that all or even many players are reading feverishly, doing degrees or especially comfortable in front of a camera. But the unintelligent player simply no longer exists at the highest level. And while the pretensions of some football coverage are certainly worth calling out, the Python sketch simply wouldn’t work today — if only because that sort of serious in-depth programming is no longer the preserve of the arts, but of football.

Jonathan Wilson is a columnist for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated, the editor of the Blizzard and author of Angels With Dirty Faces: A Footballing History of Argentina.