Gary Lineker and the BBC pundits are playing a dangerous game with England

BBC football pundits for Euro 2024, pictured in the studio
Lineker, Ferdinand, Lampard and Richards seemed remarkably impressed by a half of football in which England did not muster a shot on target

The BBC half-time analysis of England’s match with Switzerland prompted only one reasonable reaction: what game had Gary Lineker and company been watching?

Rio Ferdinand said the first half “had been a huge improvement. This is what we anticipated seeing from England.” Micah Richards said: “England are doing a really good job. It is delightful to see Phil Foden in a position where he can have an impact.” Lineker said: “He is one of the best No 10s, if not the best No 10, in world football.”

England had yet to muster a shot on target but the viewer was being told they were playing superbly, a symphony of creativity and verve conducted by the Stockport Iniesta? It did not add up and there are only two conclusions you can draw.

One, that the experts are seeing something different to what Joe Public is picking up. Personally, I am always happy to entertain this as an explanation: it is obviously the case that these guys know heaps more about playing international football than the viewer, no doubt they have an appreciation of its nuances that the vast majority of us never will.

To that point, Lineker said: “People at home might be saying we haven’t created that many chances, no shots on target, but it is significantly better.” Okay, if you say so. No kicking it in the goal, no kicking it at the goal, but by Jove, it looks like Gareth Southgate has finally cracked it. But then you have to convince the layperson, show and tell them why, and there cannot have been many who were talked into this view.

Frank Lampard, by way of insight, said that midfield colleagues Kobbie Mainoo and Foden were not getting in each other’s way as much as previous configurations. “Good players know to work off good players,” said Lampard. “So ‘Phil, you’re dropping deep, OK, I’ll go.’” Sure. Does the fact that an entire generation of England failures were attributable in part to Lampard and his midfield contemporaries being unable to do literally this very thing make him uniquely qualified? I will leave that one to the experts.

Plus, it is a football match on the telly. It is vastly popular because it is simple to follow and understand and have opinions and feelings about. It’s not really a field of human endeavour where you can gesture at your vast database of arcane, hard-won knowledge and expect people to say, ‘Okay, wise one, we defer to you.’ Were Ferdinand and Lampard, say, explaining particle physics or the 20th Century history of Albanian politics, then sure.

Until such time as Rio is giving it to us straight about the Large Hadron Collider, you have to say that the second, more likely, explanation is as follows: Gary and pals realised that they had overdone it with their recent criticism of the players and had made a deliberate decision to fluff England up a bit.

Whether this was a suggestion from the BBC bosses or something generated by the Lineker content production empire is hard to say. But it absolutely felt like an overcorrection and, judging from talking to people about the game and reading what people are saying on the internet, most simply did not buy into the idea that England were suddenly vastly improved. The person in the street doesn’t know as much about football as the Match of the Day guys but people can absolutely tell when they are being had on, and there was a calculated, rather cynical, feeling to this 180-degree turn.

Pivoting erratically from massively overhyping the players and then calling for them to be publicly flogged used to be the preserve of the newspapers. Stay in your lane, Gary. While it is fine to hold biased, so-called journalists in contempt for building ‘em up only to knock ‘em down, the reason these guys are getting paid handsomely to talk about football on TV is that they have – or should have – the authority that comes from having played, some empathy for the travails of the current players, and the judgement to know when to criticise fairly and praise proportionately.

Alan Shearer said after the group games: “England were terrible and we have to say that. If England were brilliant, we’d say they were brilliant – that’s the way it is.” But it isn’t, is it? It seems like these England heroes of yore are dipping into the reaction-generating swamp for headlines, and you cannot do that and stay fragrantly above it all, pointing at your medals, good faith and authority.