On Saturday Hearts overcame a stubborn Dunfermline side by a solitary goal to nil. In…
Celtic have made the trip to Lithuania for tonight’s Europa League qualifier against FK Suduva, where Brendan Rodgers’ side will look to atone for their poor showing in the Champions League qualifiers by reaching the group stages of Europe’s secondary competition. Across Scotland, fans will be tuning into the BBC’s Sportsound as one man makes his debut; only this time, he won’t be on the pitch.
On Wednesday, BBC producer Douglas McNeil revealed on Twitter that Hearts forward Steven Naismith will be taking his first tentative steps into punditry this season and will appear as a regular guest on the radio show. It’s been a well-travelled route in recent years for players looking to break into the media, with the likes of Kris Commons and Scott McDonald already signed up to Sportsound, while Michael Stewart and Steven Thompson co-present Sportscene on a weekly basis.
Hiring ex-footballers as pundits has been the status quo for decades now. Their experience – particularly against players that are featuring in the match that they’re analysing – can offer a level of insight that those who have never played simply cannot match. Ex-players, having spent the last 15-20 years of their life immersed in the beautiful game, have a greater eye for tactical nuances and can pay tribute to a player’s character or personality, having played with or against them in the not-too-distant past. The more recently retired, the better, too: football can change rapidly in a short space of time, so bringing in pundits that are up to date with the latest developments is beneficial to everyone involved.
Which brings us to Naismith. A few eyebrows were raised when the 31-year-old’s involvement in Sportsound was announced, as it’s still relatively unusual for a footballer who’s currently still playing to commit his time and energy into what is essentially a second job. Kilmarnock’s Kris Boyd is another who is fairly involved in the Scottish football media but, as we’ll see, his case is more typical than Naismith’s.
It all comes down to age. Many players-turned-pundits start working in the media in the twilight of their careers as they begin to plan ahead for a new career once they hang up their boots. Steven Thompson, for instance, began his pundit role while still on the books at St Mirren as a player. But this was during the last year or two of his playing career, when training isn’t as intense and senior players’ workloads is lightened. It’s a similar story with Boyd too. OK, the ex-Rangers striker still plays week in, week out at Rugby Park but it’s fair to say that the 35-year-old’s fitness regimen probably isn’t the most demanding of schedules.
This is why Naismith’s decision stands out. At 31 years of age, the former Everton striker still has a few seasons of Premiership football to look forward to in all likelihood and though his abilities may be slightly on the wane, Naismith still has plenty to offer. The fact that the forward has chosen to devote a significant amount of his time at such a crucial juncture in his playing career is unusual. Players in their mid or late thirties are regularly fixtures on our screens and on the radio, but players in their early thirties are usually more focused on prolonging their careers on the pitch. It’s difficult to imagine Hearts manager Craig Levein being too pleased with Naismith’s decision.
There’s a question of priorities, then, but also there’s the matter of professional courtesy. Pundits, by the very nature of their job, must be opinionated. Audiences like to hear definitive, critical answers from them – whether it be over the legitimacy of a disallowed goal, a team’s tactical approach to a fixture or simply an individual player’s recent performances, pundits are expected to have an opinion, be able to justify it and apply criticism when the situation calls for it. And this is where the lines become a little blurred.
Naismith is now in a position where he’ll be expected to provide contentious or controversial opinions on opponents that he may well be lining up against at the weekend, which could prove problematic. On the pitch, Naismith’s media involvement will make him the target of opposition players and fans alike as they seek justice or revenge for a perceived slight against them. In an age where so many players are urged to do their talking on the pitch, any criticism of a team’s players plays into the hands of managers, who now have the perfect motivation for their side.
Naismith has always been an interesting individual both on and off the pitch and if his intelligence on the park is any indicator, he should be an insightful pundit. But while he might well prove to offer an interesting interpretation of a match, there’s no doubt that this comes at an odd time for the former Kilmarnock striker. Naismith’s club football will always be the priority but now the 31-year-old will have to balance that with his new media duties. Others have done this successfully in the past, but few have done it at his relatively young age and it will be interesting to see how Naismith copes with the additional demands placed on him.