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Why are so many ex-footballers taking to our screens?

November 9, 2016 in News & Features

Since leaving Manchester United in the summer, Ryan Giggs has become the latest high profile ex-player to step into a TV studio and chance his arm at punditry.

The Welshman’s transition from Old Trafford’s left wing, to the ITV sofa, (via the dugout), is a path trodden by many in recent years. Tune in to football coverage, be it on TV, radio or the internet, and you’ll struggle to not find the opinions of a former player.

So why exactly are so many ex-pros finding their second careers within the media?

Peter Lovenkrands played at the highest level for clubs such as Rangers, Schalke and Newcastle United, and also represented Denmark in two major tournaments.

As is the case for many an ex-sportsperson, replacing the buzz of competition proved difficult following his retirement.

Struggle

Yet, while nothing can ever replicate the feeling of 90 minutes on a football pitch, for Lovenkrands, media work provides the perfect way to remain closely involved in the sport.

“I don’t think you’ll see many more now going from punditry to coaching”

“For me, it’s the closest thing to playing. When I stopped playing, [punditry] was the thing that helped me get over missing it,” said Lovenkrands, who co-commentates on German Bundesliga games.

He explained: “There’s a thing in the football world, people who don’t have anything to go into after playing kind of struggle, and some people get depression, even.

“It’s something that a lot of players find hard. I even find it hard still sometimes when I’m sitting in commentary, you think ‘I want to be out there, I want to be playing’.

“But by sitting watching and talking about it, that’s the closest thing to getting the atmosphere in the stadium and being [out] there. I really enjoy it and that’s what helps me get over  retirement.”

Enhanced

Lovenkrands working as a summariser. Pic @lovenkrands11

Giggs may believe that coaching or management is the closest thing to playing.

After the disappointment of being overlooked for the United hotseat, some might argue that his regular appearances on our TV screens serve only to keep him ‘relevant’ in the eyes of fans and club owners alike, reminding us of his suitability for a role in management.

In his excellent book, Living On The Volcano, Michael Calvin discusses the way in which Tony Pulis left his post at Crystal Palace, only to find himself the new manager of West Brom, thanks to a little help from the media.

Wrote Calvin: “He maintained his profile as a media pundit, refused to enlarge on the circumstances which led to him leaving Palace by ‘mutual consent’, and watched the stakes rise. He would join West Bromwich Albion almost as soon as his gardening leave ended.”

Gary Neville, of course, is a fine example of an excellent pundit who enhanced opinions of his highly thought-of coaching ability, by educating (rather than patrionising) us on screen.

“I think these days you’re one or the other; you’re either a pundit, or you’re a coach”

Neville provides no catchphrases, no clichés and certainly none of the ‘faux-intelligence’ displayed by many of his peers on alternative channels.

However after three tournaments with England as part of Roy Hodgson’s backroom staff and a short-lived spell as Valencia manager, Neville himself feels it will be difficult for him to step from commentary box into the dugout once again.

But what about everybody else? Jamie Carragher once joked on Sky’s Monday Night Football that “no pundit on TV will ever get a job again, he’s [Neville] ruined it for us all”.

Praise

Lovenkrands, who now works for Rangers TV, makes the point that the demands and differences between working ‘on-pitch’ and working ‘on-screen’, may make it difficult for others to follow in Neville’s footsteps.

“I think these days you’re one or the other; you’re either a pundit, or you’re a coach,” said the 36 year old.

“He [Neville] was kind of the first one to go from being a proper Sky pundit, to go and take the Valencia job. Even though he was a pundit, he had the England job, but that’s not full-time.

“I praise him for taking the chance and trying to go and do his thing. I love him as a pundit, I think he’s fantastic. Him and Jamie Redknapp are two of my favourites.

“But I don’t think you’ll see many more now going from punditry to coaching.”

Caution

Neville’s success as a pundit can be attributed to his obvious desire for hard work, his undoubted knowledge for the world of football from training ground to boardroom and, quite simply, his knack for talking honestly and passionately on air.

Lovenkrands takes on Chris Sutton during an Old Firm Game

Lovenkrands takes on Chris Sutton during an Old Firm game

Other pundits choose to go down a different route, offering controversy and sparking vicious debate amongst viewers, listeners and people within the football industry alike.

Neither approach is wrong or right; success for Neville could look different to success for Robbie Savage. Either way, they are both successful.

For Lovenkrands, controversy should come with a hint of caution.

“I’ve spoken about that with people before and a lot of people say you can go two ways. One is knowledge, knowing so many things. And then there’s the controversial side of it,” said the Dane, who still holds a close affinity with the fans of many of his former clubs.

“Chris Sutton, for example, has been quite controversial with a lot of things, especially up here in Scotland. He’s had a lot of criticism because of the controversial way he’s been talking about the game.

“But for me that becomes a little bit like the X Factor and Simon Cowell, where somebody’s being negative. The same as Strictly Come Dancing where one of the judges will be negative, it creates a lot of interest for people watching it because they’re thinking ‘what’s he going to say next?’.

Controversial

“I feel like you have to be careful when you’re going down that road because I don’t like being hated. I like to be positive, but of course you have to be honest if certain things don’t happen right.

“A lot of people don’t care about being controversial and that seems to have helped them in getting more jobs because people want to hear what they have to say, even if they maybe don’t like what they’re saying.

“My view on it is you can be negative and controversial, but try to put a positive spin on it and not upset too many people.”

The reality is that football is a sport in which no matter how positive one may be, someone will always be upset.

Like anyone, footballers can be sensitive to the comments of others; they are human beings after all.

Criticism

John Terry has been the captain of his club and country, played in major games in front of some of the most hostile supporters, and faced public disgrace over his racist comments to a fellow professional.

Yet for Terry, receiving criticism from Robbie Savage over his form last season was not something he planned on taking lightly.

He responded by comparing his own successful career to Savage’s, and insinuating that criticism offered by a less successful player was not welcome.

“You try not to be too controversial and there’s a limit, I feel. You can be critical, but about football and not being personal at all”

Lovenkrands however believes that criticism is to be expected as a footballer, as long as opinions never become personal.

Having played with Joey Barton at Newcastle, the Liverpudlian’s current situation with Rangers could potentially have put Lovenkrands in a tricky situation.

“Sometimes it’s something you need to think twice about. But if you want to be in that kind of business you have to just say what you feel because you get paid to be honest and talk about what you see,” said Lovenkrands, who finished his playing career in the Championship with Birmingham City.

“If I feel like there’s certain things that have happened that I feel are negative, I have to say it and I have to just deal with it. To be fair, most people in the football world would understand.

“You try not to be too controversial and there’s a limit, I feel. You can be critical, but about football and not being personal at all.

“I think that’s the fine line I’m finding as a commentator.”

Lovenkrands (right) prior to co-commentating on a Champions League match. Pic @lovenkrands11.

Allegiances

Carragher and Neville hold the prestige of being one-club defenders who gave everything for Liverpool and Manchester United respectively.

Whilst their rivalry on the pitch has turned to admiration in the studio, the passion they have for their old clubs still remains.

Yet a major strength of both, is that through their media work you would struggle to work out their allegiances.

Being fair and balanced is a must for any journalist, however, were the ex-defenders to work for their club’s own TV channel, would their approach be encouraged to change?

Shedding some light on the subject of bias, Lovenkrands said: “The Rangers commentary that I do, it’s for Rangers TV, so I don’t need to be biased in any way.

“I really enjoy that because I’m a Rangers fan as well so when they score I can celebrate and be part of it in that way. That’s really exciting.

“But when I do the German football, or sometimes when I’ve done Premier League games, or Scottish football for radio, then of course you have to make sure you commentate on both teams and be professional about it.

“I like that as well, that I have to be that aware.”

So to revisit the original question as to why football coverage is now saturated with former pros, each individual will have their reasons. Some will say the salary appeals, whilst the job security far outweighs that in management or coaching.

Others may see it as a profile booster, a public job interview every time the ‘ON AIR’ light is switched on. For those who have no interest in coaching, media work provides a no-pressure involvement with the game.

But for Lovenkrands, his reasons are far simpler. “I just love football,” summed up the former striker.

“I get carried away when I commentate so when a goal happens, no matter what team it’s for, in the Bundesliga for example, I get carried away and start celebrating.

“That’s the way it should be. It should be coming across for people to listen to that you’re excited about your job and what you’re doing.”

Millar contemplates life after the final whistle

October 24, 2016 in Interviews

Chris Millar was the golden boy once but, as he enters the latter stages of his professional career, he is becoming more like the olden boy.

At the age of 33, the St Johnstone midfielder is no longer a man in a hurry, content to play a waiting game and win back his place in the Saints’ first team.

The man nicknamed ‘Midge’, is undoubtedly one of the most colourful and passionate figures in Scottish football.

In a career spanning 13 years, which began training alongside the likes of Henrik Larsson at Celtic and is now approaching its end, Millar has never been too far away from the headlines.

Whether it was winning St Johnstone their first-ever Scottish Cup in 2014, experiencing European football in the Europa League or contemplating a move to Australia, his career has been eventful.

However off the pitch, the Glasgow-born player is forging as impressive career for himself as a sports journalist.

“Ultimately, my hope is to host something, a bit like Gary Lineker. Whether that happens or not time will tell, but like anything it’s about opportunity and working hard to create that”

After working for broadcasters including BT Sport, Millar is optimistic about the future and once he decides to hang up his boots.

The former Greenock Morton player is setting his sights high in a career in broadcasting.

“I think there is definitely a realisation that life after football has to be planned for,” admits Millar.

“Not every player earns the money that will keep them ticking for the rest of their days, especially in Scotland.

“Many players are aware of it and are making plans once their career is over, and the PFA are doing a great job in highlighting this issue.”

Chris Millar on duty as a journalist

Despite the criticism that former players get once they land a role in the media, Millar insists that he wants to try and change the views of professional footballers.

“I think at times some players think there is an agenda within the media to sell units,” he says.

“As a former player, I do not have an agenda to push. I just want to report the events as honestly as I can and try to open up the game more to the public.

“My main aim is to show the public about what goes on at football clubs with players, managers, etc.

“I enjoy most aspects of journalism like writing, broadcasting both radio and TV. I have done work in all three and I have held down a slot as a pundit on radio and I work for a national paper.

“Ultimately, my hope is to host something, a bit like Gary Lineker. Whether that happens or not time will tell, but like anything it’s about opportunity and working hard to create that.”

University life

For many players, their first port after retirement is to become a coach or manager. After initially contemplating this, Millar chose to broaden his horizons – and he says completing a degree at Staffordshire University was one of the best decisions he ever made.

“I have always wanted to stay involved in the game,” he says. “It’s all I have known since I was a 17-year-old at Celtic so it is important for me to stay involved.

“As a pro, I think you can relate more to players as you’ve been through many of the things they go through so it gives you an insight that not many journalists have”

“When I saw that I could do a sports broadcasting degree whilst still playing, it got me thinking, so it really came from there.

“Many players want to go into coaching so there is only going to be so many jobs going around. I enjoy using my brain and learning new skills so for me it is interesting to use a different skills-set.

“As a pro, I think you can relate more to players as you’ve been through many of the things they go through so it gives you an insight that not many journalists have.”

Most individuals would struggle to manage their professional and academic lives, but Millar has balanced both and he says even though it was difficult, it was worth it in the end.

“It was tough, don’t get me wrong,” admits the Scot.

“Juggling footy, two kids and a degree takes time and effort. However, in the end it paid off as I gained a first class degree. By using my brain again, I enjoyed learning a whole new skill set.

“The funny thing is that I played some of my best football whilst studying. It gave my mind something else to focus on – it’s good to have a release from that.”

The return of the Old Firm 

With the return of Rangers to Scotland’s top division, the competition in the league has gained an intensity that it had been missing in recent years.

Despite the likes of Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers being touted as the ‘big boys’, Millar’s St Johnstone have continued to progress under manager Tommy Wright, a journey Millar says will continue.

“We’ve been up there the last few seasons and as a club we now see ourselves as a top four side, so we will continue to improve and progress as a team.”

“The return of Rangers has been huge for Scottish football,” he says.

“They bring a bigger spotlight to the league and obviously you have the Old Firm derby back which is a huge game. As a player, you want to play in front of big crowds and I have honestly missed playing at Ibrox.

“We [St Johnstone] have started well but ultimately I do not think we can win the league. However, I do not see any reason to why we cannot challenge for the other top four spots.

“We’ve been up there the last few seasons and we now see ourselves as a top four side, so we will continue to improve and progress.”

Scotland’s World Cup adventure 

Scotland and RB Leipzig’s Oliver Burke

Looking at the national team, Scotland’s qualification campaign for the Russia 2018 World Cup has not been going well, and in November manager Gordon Strachan faces a huge test – against England, at Wembley.

“Results have not been good enough ultimately,” says Millar.”I compare ourselves to teams of the other home nations and when I look at them, man for man we have as much if not more talent than them yet they have just been to the Euros and we have not. That is not good enough,” he says.

“The last two results in the qualifiers were poor and it means we must now go onto beat England. If we lose that then for me, Strachan must go.”

As Millar points out, Scotland have a number of star players and one of the most highly-regarded is former Nottingham Forest and current RB Leipzig player Oliver Burke.

His goal for Leipzig against FC Koln made the 19-year-old Scotland international the first Scot to score in the Bundesliga since Brian O’Neil for VFL Wolfsburg in November 1999.

“He has all the physical attributes needed in modern football,” insists Millar. “He is athletic, quick and he can score.

“He is still very young and he has a long way to go but I think going to Germany will enhance his learning. More players should try to play abroad as I think it can only enhance your development as a player.”

Not calling it quits yet

Despite his age and planning for the longer term, Millar insists he is not yet done with playing football.

“I have been at the club for nine years and had some amazing memories and success with St Johnstone”

“I have an ambition to play as long as I can as I love the game and feel I still have plenty to offer,” says the midfielder.

“I had issues with injuries last season but that is behind me. There is still life in my legs yet and I do not feel that I am off the pace. When I do feel that, then that is the time to stop.

“I am fit now and have been for most of the season so far, so I am ready to play when called upon. I know when I get back in the team, I will play well and then get my chance again.

“I have been at the club for nine years and had some amazing memories and success with St Johnstone. I have achieved things that I wanted in my career like playing in Europe, winning trophies and playing at the highest level in Scotland.

“It is a fantastic community-based club with loyal fans who have made me feel like one of them. It will always have a place in my heart.”

Chris Millar is on Twitter @MidgeyMiller

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