An ode to the six words that left Keane, Wright and Neville cackling like schoolchildren

One of life’s greatest challenges, alongside climbing Mount Everest and maintaining a healthy work-life pattern, is the art of feigning interest in topics that normally act as nature’s insomnia cure.

We’ve all been there. From parties, where you’re cornered away from the main action by somebody determined to chew your ear off about those Just Stop Oil terrorists, to people talking about their Fantasy Football teams with the zeal of a religious convert.

Polite society requires us to maintain composure in those, or much more tedious, moments. Smile and nod. Utter vague statements and mentally scan the room for exit routes.

At least, that’s the British way. But Slaven Bilic doesn’t give a solitary eff about social conventions or niceties.

Familiar to a generation of British football fans for playing spells at West Ham and Everton, and conning Laurent Blanc out of a World Cup final on home soil, Bilic has always been one of football’s more maverick personalities.

Rowing back to the early days as West Ham boss, Bilic recalled how he felt compelled to alter the pre-match playlist before a match at Liverpool.

“Roy Keane said it can’t be Abba [playing] before a game and I agree with that. Before the game, we are all in the dressing room and before they go out Red Red Wine [is playing] from UB40,” Bilic told The Guardian in 2019, placing his hands on his temples in exasperation.

“And I’m like, Red Red Wine? That’s for a romantic dinner – not for Anfield. It is not like a war song. I said ‘sorry lads’ and put on something ‘medium’, like Whiskey in the Jar, the Metallica version. Three-nil. After that, I didn’t interrupt.”

His mixture of candidness and delivery drier than the Sahara desert made Bilic a popular pundit on British television during major international tournaments.

Often holding court like Dumbledore at a Hogwarts feast, the former Croatia manager had household names like Gary Neville and Ian Wright attentively hanging onto his every word.

Even Roy Keane didn’t ooze contempt from every pore when he spoke, although there was a point during the 2018 World Cup where Bilic kept placing his hand on Keane’s arm in the care-free manner of a Tommie crossing No Man’s Land stark b*llock naked.

The dynamic in the ITV studio was apparent as the boys discussed Brazil’s underwhelming 1-1 draw with Switzerland in their opening 2018 group match.

Presenter Mark Pougatch, much like a politician before a vote on cutting the education budget, worked the room to gain a consensus on whether VAR should’ve disallowed Switzerland’s equaliser.

After ascertaining Wright and Neville would’ve chalked the goal out, Pougatch turned to Bilic who, very subtly, emitted the sigh of a man with the entire world’s problems on his shoulder.

“It’s one of them,” the Croat said. “If I was Brazil manager, I would ask for a foul with a reason. If I was Switzerland manager, I would say no foul. So it’s one of them.

Upon being pushed by Pougatch (“You’re sounding very neutral there, Slaven”), the final veneer of Bilic’s politeness snapped like a twig.

Following a big intake of breath laced with frustration at his constrained environment, the immortal reply came: “To be fair, I don’t care.”

Wright and Neville, the latter wearing the kind of shirt Michael Owen would later advertise for Peacocks, broke into compulsive laughter. Wright’s chair had to remain sturdy to constrain the flailing limbs and sheer bounciness of its incumbent.

Sat on Bilic’s right, Keane allowed his professional grump persona to be pierced with a thin-lipped smile. Legend has it that the Irishman shook the hand of Bilic in the green room afterwards, thanking his colleague for allowing him to show happiness in public.

Keane’s wife, after acquiring his digits, later pressed Bilic for his secret. But few could combine the abdication of job requirements with the wise air of the ITV pundit.

“What’s the point in getting angry,” Bilic continued amidst the chaos. “Why should I? I would rather talk about [Philippe] Coutinho’s goal.”

In an age where refereeing decisions dominate football punditry’s discourse, with individual controversies poured over with the studied seriousness of the Ukraine war, Bilic spoke for a vast majority of viewers with his desire to focus on the action.

And, for the price of reminding viewers of football’s innate beauty, Bilic’s one-liner was worth trampling over social convention.

By Michael Lee

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