Twitter users have invented a new way to mess with Richard Keys, which is good, isn't it? Because, when you think about it, Richard Keys is everything that's bad about modern football punditry – the guy you find at the party at 11PM with one hand in the underwear drawer and another holding a glass of wine, calmly turning to you, detached and aroused, his heartbeat not rising one bit, going, "Oh," he's going, "Oh, I was looking for the bathroom." He not even subtly puts the underwear in his pocket and moves on. "Rooney," he says, "Rooney's had a good season." Pats you on the head.
A curious thing, the relationship between fan and pundit. Because fans hate pundits. At best, a fan will tolerate a pundit. When Gary Neville learned how to use that touchscreen thing to pause and rewind match highlights to show narrow offside calls within the space of one season, we stood and called for him to be knighted. Because what are the options, otherwise? Jamie Carragher constantly wearing the air of a man in police custody for starting a pagga at Aintree racecourse? Danny Murphy looking like he's spent more nights sleeping on sofas in the past three years than he has done sleeping in beds? Phil Neville? No crime on earth deserves a sentence of listening to Phil Neville commentate for 90 minutes.
Richard Keys is different, though – of that strange, logistical breed of men in grey suits who halt ex-footballers in their platitude tracks – "He done well, there," they say, "He's not done well, there"; "He give everything"; "He give slightly less than everything"; "That, for me, is a goal"; "That, for me, is not a goal"; "Tranmere"; "Hundred thousand"; "That's the thing with these foreign lads: they dive" – to turn and tell you what is coming up after the break. With Andy Gray, he formed an unholy axis of banter that was only put to a stop when audio leaked of the two of them debating linesman Sian Massey's ability to make an offside call with her sensitive woman's eyes, where they were promptly dropped and exiled to Al Jazeera, later talkSPORT, later a sort of swimming, ambient mediocrity.
Mostly, though, Keys is now the hairy human embodiment of fans' contempt for the men tasked with commenting on their game. Where Andy Gray, charged with the same crimes, issued the same punishment, has a tiny sparkle of likeability about him – the vibe of a toddler in the body of an uncle who moved to Spain to play golf, transplanted into a studio and given the dream job of watching football and saying things about it – Keys is smug and sharp and wretched, looking for all the world like that kid at school who always told the teachers on you, only rolled in glue and then along the floor of a barbershop. At the core of Richard Keys, a single truth: there is something cathartically hateable about him.
And no better is that demonstrated than with the trend #BringAndyBack, the grass roots movement to Bring Andy Gray back. In short: fans are jokingly campaigning to #BringAndyBack to our screens, carefully omitting all mention of Keys, all in the full knowledge that Gray is the sun to Keys' moon – one cannot function without the other, one smooth appalling feedback loop, like Siamese twins playing "smell my finger" with one another – and that such an oversight must, at some base level, rile Richard up. There are photos that straight up just write over Richard Keys' head. Others where the head of a nominated replacement-Keys, Ed Chamberlain, is photoshopped into a picture with Gray on Keys' body. There are questions posed to a clueless Keys about his thoughts on the matter. It's one of those meme internet things, you know. Look, a selection:
Can we conclude anything from this? We can. Namely this: football fans need bad pundits to thrive. They need to hate as much as they need to love. What is there to say to a pundit that you like? There is nothing but the void. Keys serves as a black hole of banter: incapable of producing any remotely decent banter himself, but producing enough magnetic force to draw it out of others towards him. Football is a game of high flashes of emotion – hate is called on one play, love on another; goals cancel out shanked passes, leadership cancels out spoken racism – and that goes off the pitch as much as on. Telling Keys he is irrelevant on Twitter is the armchair fan equivalent of scoring a tap-in in front of the Kop, before wheeling away, pleased as fucking punch with yourself, to celebrate in front of the scowling Scouse home support.
Is this the true definition of "banter"? Because think: banter – that whispery, gossamer concept – has seeped into every last facet of the game. It's Vinnie Jones spraying Ralgex in a youth player's boxer shorts; it's an entire stand chanting "YOUR PLAYER AND/OR MANAGER IS A PAEDOPHILE AND/OR THEY ARE PAEDOPHILES WITH EACH OTHER, MAKING THEM BOTH GAY AND A PAEDOPHILE"; it's a slow-motion replay of Phil Jones, his face a gurning roadkill suicide heart attack. From dressing room to sofa, football is replete with exceptionally, exceptionally terrible jokes. Of them, Keys – with his "smash it", with his "hanging out the back of it", with his It Was Just Banter – Keys is totemic, a sewage pump: vomiting out shit banter, the target of his own.– – –
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Not to overplay things, but this feels like a tipping point. Does football deserve decent TV punditry? Surely, on one channel, yes. Please, yes. A prayer to whatever powerful and unknowable forces spin a Nike Ordem towards the inside of the post, that powers an 80,000-strong crowd in one breathless Mexican wave, that compels Alan Pardew to headbutt David Meyler – please, can we have some analysis that isn't just Jamie Redknapp saying "literally" on some infinite glitch-in-the-matrix type loop? A Football Italia/Football Ramble-style mash-up? Something where the pundits don't wear jumpers with the shirt collars pointing out and where Robbie Savage is vehemently not allowed? An inverted Soccer AM?
Go into any pub in the country while a football game is on and you will find one dude at the bar – he is wearing a leather jacket, this dude, that is older than you are, a leather jacket over a simple club colours scarf – one dude at the bar who is literally more watchable and informed than your average football pundit. He knows the statistics of every holding midfielder currently playing in the Russian league and what they'll do for Arsenal's season next year. He remembers every goal scored over the past 15 years with eerie play-by-play accuracy. He thinks Raheem Sterling is either "shit" or "a shit". He is more fun and watchable that Richard Keys. Get him in, if necessary. Fill a studio with all the weird alternate versions of him. Because otherwise this is what the future of punditry is: Richard Keys, forming a megaphone with his monstrous hairy hands, his tiny anus of a mouth hissing "BANTER", hissing "IT WAS JUST BANTER", while Phil Neville just looks on emotionlessly, not knowing how to make instant coffee, itching in his chair and saying how offside that was.