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The Curious Case of Graeme Le Saux

Wednesday 18th January 2017
Coming to terms with one's inner tribalist when the Manchester United/Liverpool clash brings to boil the rage over a match commentator's perceived bias.

Passion and objectivity are like two brothers, big and little respectively, growing up together. Passion mercilessly torments his sibling whenever the mood suits. Objectivity is the tattletale. My objectivity, for example, desperately needs to point out the inherent sexism in not making this metaphor gender neutral. My emotional response, as is typical, is to stick out my tongue.

You'll notice I've confessed to being ruled by my heart rather than my head. Aren't we all? It's human nature. For that matter, it goes beyond humanity. Even Vulcans must learn to control their emotions. My only salvation is possessing sufficient self-awareness to now and then check myself. Maintaining an open mind is difficult when your gut is at the wheel, pedal to the medal in the fast lane, eager to draw conclusions. Evidence the strong dislike I'd recently developed for Graeme le Saux even before I knew his name.
If you didn't know, Le Saux is a retired left back. His career stretched from 1989-2005. At club level, he played for Chelsea twice, as well as Southampton and Blackburn. Thirty-six caps for England are also on his CV. Like every footballer not named Zlatan Ibrahimović, Le Saux's thirty-something body forced a career change upon him. And, like many who can't conceive a career outside football but are ill-suited to coaching, he embarked on a second profession as a match commentator. These days, he partners with Arlo White on NBCSN's Premier League broadcasts.

It was by going honestly about his new job that Le Saux drew my ire. His anonymous (at the time), pretentious (to my ear), nasal drone seemed to always find fault with this Manchester United player or that. In the Manchester United/Liverpool North West Derby on the weekend, for instance, Wayne Rooney was sitting on two hundred forty-nine United goals when two-fifty would eclipse Sir Bobby Charlton for the club's all-time record. Seeking the record, and to level terms, he drove into the eighteen-yard box from Simone Mignolet's left, sending a low fizzer just beyond the far post. Le Saux quickly trotted out the cynical cliché "he should have scored." Likewise, a teammate's shot hit directly at the Liverpool keeper "could have been better." At the other end, when 'Pool players' efforts produced similar results to United's, cliché came out, too. Only, now it was in the sympathetic "he was unlucky" vein.

Le Saux also seemed eager to diminish United's attacking efforts by finding its players to be offside whenever possible. On Ibra's eventual equalizer, service provider Antonio Valencia was offside, no argument. United have also admittedly been offside on a handful of goals this season without being called. I'll even go so far as to say the trend is beginning to look like José Mourinho's riposte to Fergie Time. Yet, legitimate offsides haven't seemed enough for Le Saux. On an attack just before Zlatan's goal, he wondered whether Rooney had transgressed. He confirmed his opinion while watching the replay, despite James Milner being plainly visible at the top of the screen, apparently marking the linesman while playing the transplanted Scouser onside. In United's end, Adam Lallana managed to "just stay onside" despite his right leg extending beyond the shading NBCSN uses to demarcate legal progress.

Again, you'll notice I've just admitted to being a United supporter. If anyone has a problem with that, you know my response. Being objective doesn't mean living without passion. It means accepting others have different feelings and beliefs than your own. It's live and let live. Yet, when one of those others seems to be subtly attacking your club, match after match, while occupying a supposedly neutral role, well, your gut tells objectivity to stop being a back-seat driver. It's got this, thank you very much. As a result, I had quickly developed a healthy dislike for this as yet unknown announcer, whoever he was.
The final straw came for me in added time. Roberto Firmino took possession just inside United's half with room to run. The counterattack on, Ander Herrera, speaking of cliché, committed the obligatory professional foul. His grip on the Brazilian's shirt was sufficiently blatant on its own but was further emphasized by the neon yellow third kit the Merseysiders have chosen as suitable for going out in public in 2016-17. Herrera's effort to rein in Firmino could have been worse. Think Yosemite Sam. On the other hand, it was enough to earn a two-handed shove in the chest from his frustrated opponent. Manchester United supporter or not, there is no denying the Basque has a penchant for rash tackles, simulation, and whinging to the official whenever he is caught. It was no surprise, then, to see his hands go to his face as he tumbled over backwards.
Unimpressed, Michael Oliver arrived to dispense deserved yellow cards to both players. Only, Le Saux attempted to argue Firmino's booking "wasn't his fault." Nor was he couching his opinion in the objective context of I don't blame him for losing his cool, but he's lucky the referee didn't buy into Herrera's pantomime and send him off. Rather, it was expressed in the ridiculously untrue any professional footballer would do the same; his booking was undeserved.

Liverpool's first-half goal had come from a James Milner penalty. Given when Paul Pogba lost his man on a set-piece, the Frenchman, in his hurry to recover, handled the ball. In the second half, another set piece misadventure prompted Le Saux to note United's €105 million man did not know how to defend dead ball situations. He professionally explained Pogba tended to focus too long on either the ball or his man. United's coaching staff, he believed, ought to take the player aside to teach him "head on a swivel" means alternating one's focus rapidly to keep a near-simultaneous eye on both. This, I thought, was a constructive criticism, commentary a good analyst provides. Until his reaction to Firmino's yellow, I had been thinking I might have been wrong about Le Saux. Now, I was again set to go all Yosemite Sam on his ass.

In the moment, I was still blind to this affront to my sensibilities' identity. Ergo, I resolved to unmask him at match's end. Luckily, NBCSN's studio host had referred to the main commentator as Arlo, a name which stuck in my cluttered head. A simple google search for Arlo's NBCSN partner finally revealed my nemesis. Elementary, my dear Watson.

Forcing down all thoughts of boulders falling from the sky, unmarked packages containing exploding cigars, or other immature but emotionally satisfying weapons delivery systems, I concentrated on motive. I wanted to know why Le Saux might have it in for my club. This knowledge would be the kryptonite which would forever give me power over him, the needle I could stick in the voodoo doll my mind had conjured.
There was, however, fallout from his bohemian nature. Until recently, footballers were almost exclusively proletariat. The only difference between them and regular working stiffs was their on-pitch talent allowed them to put aside growing up and finding a proper job. Like your basic factory worker or tradesman, going down to the pub was, before social media began embarrassing them, the default thing to do for a footballer after clocking out. Not Le Saux. He was educated, read books, and (gasp!) thought about things. When he went on summer holiday with a teammate rather than a girlfriend, rumor began to circulate he was gay.* If you've paid attention to Brexit or the US Presidential election, you know sufficiently repeated rumor begins to be viewed as fact. Le Saux, who was married and straight, nevertheless found himself enduring slurs and taunts.

Once, as he prepared to deliver a set-piece against Liverpool from a wide area, Robbie Fowler set up as a one-man wall. Turning his back to Le Saux, the Anfield legend bent over, then wiggled his ass invitingly. Le Saux complained. The match official saw nothing offensive in Fowler's gesture but booked Le Saux for time wasting.
Later, when the two players came together again with the referee otherwise occupied, Le Saux would get his.

Having been raised in Canada's ice hockey culture, I completely understand the philosophy behind players policing themselves, righting wrongs officials ignore or sometimes before they can intervene. My gut reaction towards Le Saux's revenge was, therefore, good on him. Yet, it also shed some light on his support for Firmino. Le Saux wasn't expressing a dislike for United, rather for dirty play in general. Having myself criticized Ander Herrera's antics for not falling within what I consider United's ethos, my anger toward Le Saux began to lose its edge.
Le Saux's second run at Chelsea coincided with the 9/11 attacks. In their wake, the Blues were scheduled to play a UEFA Cup match against Hapoel Tel Aviv. Although UEFA mandated the fixture go forward, Chelsea gave its senior players the option to stay home. Six players took the club up on its offer. Yet, only Le Saux would be singled out by José Mourinho in a presser, fourteen years later, when the club again were set to play in Israel. Middle East tensions were still high. When are they not? Naturally, the Portuguese was asked whether any players were reluctant to make the trip. He answered no, all were eager, then needlessly added he didn't "have a Graeme le Saux in his squad."

Again, Mourinho hadn't been manager when Le Saux was at Chelsea in the noughties. That had been Claudio Ranieri. What reason did the Special One have to single him out over two other refuseniks he had managed, Eidur Gudjohnsson and William Gallas? Here was motive for Le Saux to despise United. He was transferring his anger with the manager onto the club. In trying to confirm this theory, I thought back to last season when Louis van Gaal had been United boss. I couldn't remember harboring my dislike for Le Saux until this campaign.

I did remember Le Saux's insightful analysis of Paul Pogba's set-piece woes, however. When he suggested a coach intervene, Arlo White had replied they should try to get Mourinho over to their broadcast position, behind the technical area, so Le Saux could advise him. Le Saux had laughed off the inside joke as unlikely. My uninformed ass had missed it. Damn. Good one, Arlo.
I had also missed their pitchside pre-match analysis, with Danny Higginbotham joining them. As the trio chatted, Wayne Rooney intervened with a timely header to prevent a wayward ball from striking Le Saux, a la Harry Redknapp.
Le Saux had been grateful for the rescue, offering United's captain an open, non-begrudging smile. Why then did his in-match remarks always seem to carry a grudge? It didn't make sense. Was it possible, as with my emotional response to his criticisms, he hadn't yet realized he was doing it? Was it an implicit bias? Rather than exploding cigars and falling boulders, should I be thinking about muskets? Jim Jefferies is right. They do give you time to calm down.

In the end, I guess I have to admit it. Graeme le Saux isn't a bad guy.

*--The blog linked to the text "rumor began to circulate he was gay" is a word-for-word transcription of a Sunday Times article written by Graeme Le Saux."
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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