A Lament For Chris Sutton, an Angry Pundit Caught By The Machine
Chris Sutton, Britain's most brutal football pundit, is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore.
Stop me if you've read this one four times this morning but the world is in turmoil and people are angry. Political and economic systems are broken, skewed dangerously in favour of too few at the expense of too many. We're looking for answers wherever we can find them. Some of us are looking for answers in all the wrong, orange-coloured, pussy-grabbing, wall-loving places. Some of us are thinking that maybe there are no answers. It's time to end the bullshitting.
If you're wondering why you're reading this on a website that covers sport, here's the answer: Chris Sutton, the football pundit who embodies this febrile age we're living in, eschewing the upbeat nonsense of the television studio for a dour, sometimes brutal form of stripped back truth-telling. He's mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. And like the character that made that line famous, the veteran news anchor played by Peter Finch in the 1976 classic Network, he's doing it while the cameras are rolling, bringing in the viewers with his morose brand of analysis.
Sutton is the man who, among other things, attacked Beyonce for messing up the playing surface at Hampden Park, said Celtic would beat Rangers "blindfold" and that the Ibrox team's centre backs were "horrendous" (here's the Thug Life remix of that one), rubbished Claudio Bravo and his "simple passes" while also managing to use a simple movement of his eyes to convey an almost unfeasible amount of contempt for simpering school prefect Jermaine Jenas, and bitterly kicked into Arsene Wenger for spending no money.
During this exchange with fellow pundit Derek Johnstone, Sutton calls the former Rangers and Scotland player an "embarrassment to the media profession", a "charlatan", "spineless" and a "party political broadcaster" who is nothing more than a "Rangers puppet". Sutton's evisceration lasts for a number of minutes, his voice getting higher and higher as his argument becomes more devastating, a man moaning in the pub but a man with a point. Johnstone has nothing much to say beyond the simple observation that Sutton is not playing by the rules, that he is unpleasant and negative. "I think you're confusing negativity with the truth", Sutton shoots back.
Sutton seems to be an evangelist for the truth, a man who has decided that you can still apply the principles of the golden age of journalism to the work he does for BT Sport. There are times when you'd be forgiven for thinking he's hamming up the misery for the cameras – he was declared bankrupt in 2014 and obviously needs to make a success of his punditry for financial reasons – while making a spectacle of his unrelenting dourness, but like fellow footballing Eeyores Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, it appears to be genuine. He's just this joyless. His punditry is not an act, he says, he's played in big matches and can give his opinion: "I form an argument, I think about what I do", Sutton adds. "At least I can go home and I can look in the mirror and say I'm trying to do my job properly".
This feels refreshing in a media landscape that can be blandly, infuriatingly protective of its own safe assumptions. There's too much old boy familiarity in English football, a sort of Masonic code that keeps all the well-fed famous names from criticising other members of the club. This groupthink has left us with Alan Shearer as one of the BBC's main voices – a better pundit than he used to be, but still the dad at a barbecue, fuming about teams that play out from the back before going on to say that there are too many foreigners in Britain today, that "the country's full".
Not only is this no good as analysis and entertainment, it's a problem for the English national team. It had been clear for a while that Wayne Rooney, a once-great player, shouldn't be starting at international level, but the game's ex-player pundits (journalists were less kind) towed the institutional line: he's an England great, the captain, a must-pick. And so Rooney creaked and wheezed through game after game while less heralded, more dynamic players remained out in the cold.
Sutton, then, is the pundit who is, perhaps, angry at the system above everything else. He exhorts teams to spend more because he knows that they are making more, he meets the anodyne questions lobbed his way with devastating brusqueness because he knows that to dignify them with a load of long-winded crap is simply to give grist to the ever churning mill of sports entertainment, to keep supplying the opium that keeps the masses stupefied. He wants to be iconoclastic. He wants to slay sacred cows. He wants to tell the truth in a world of charlatans and puppets. He wants to drain the swamp of football, to bring real change to our television screens. He wants to have an opinion and be heard.
This is possibly his greatest tragedy. Chris Sutton sees the hollow spectacle of our world for what it is, but in refusing to dance like the other bears, he is simply dancing like the other bears. His dance may be different, but it is a dance nonetheless. It is a dance of weariness, a dance of anger, a dance of miserable, futile common sense. Like Peter Finch's character in Network, Sutton's anger has become a form of entertainment, packaged up into clips and bites so that the masses can delight in his rage.
There is no joy for Chris Sutton, but perhaps that is because there can be no joy for a once-bankrupt man whose balls are positioned firmly and squarely in the vice of corporate media. "We are all prostitutes", sang The Pop Group's Mark Stewart. None of us can escape the claws of the system. Not me, not you, not Chris Sutton.