Shebby Singh: remembering a football pundit who lived and breathed the beautiful game

As a football pundit, Serbegeth 'Shebby' Singh was ESPN Star Sport's first Asian pundit. With his bold and insightful views on football, he gained a following in almost 30 territories across Asia. Photo: The Star/Filepic

The outpouring of emotion and the stream of tributes that greeted the passing of Shebby Singh this week tell you just how much the man meant to football fans and TV audiences across Asia and beyond.

In the cruellest twist of fate, a man who had more life and vitality than virtually anyone I have ever known, was taken from us far too soon. With his passing, his family has lost a father who took constant, glowing pride in his son and daughter, his country has lost a former international footballer and a world-renowned analyst of the beautiful game. Those of us who worked with Shebby, first at ESPN STAR Sports then during the Fox Sports era, have lost a dear friend.

Shebby could never be just a colleague. He was always more than that to anyone whose path he crossed at our studios and offices. That was obvious from the first time we spoke, over the phone, in the early 2000s when ESPN STAR was about to acquire the rights to show Premier League football around Asia and Shebby rang me to offer his services. Introducing himself as Serbegeth (“but everyone calls me Shebby”), he modestly mentioned he had played a bit (actually, 60-plus times for Malaysia) and that he had done some punditry.

But he couldn’t wait to tell me he was also an avid student of the game’s tactics and nuances, having played under his mentor Dr Jozef Venglos, a globe-trotting Slovakian who worked with Australia, the Czech Republic, Aston Villa and Celtic among other sides, including Shebby’s Kuala Lumpur City and the Malaysian national team. I told my producer we simply had to meet with this guy whose voice bubbled with enthusiasm and who was apparently already carving out a name for himself on TV in Malaysia.

Audiences in almost 30 territories across Asia soon got to know ESS’s first Asian pundit, as Shebby took his place on Matchday Live studio panels, sitting at perfect ease alongside the likes of visiting legends such as Ian Rush and Bryan Robson. Yet Shebby really came into his own when he was given a bit of time to get his teeth into a topic, to develop a theory or argue a point on a chat show. And that chat show was called Football Focus.

The man who shaped ESS’s Premier League coverage was an executive producer called Andy Tait. Some three years into our Premier League coverage, Andy had the inspired idea of turning Football Focus into a panel show, a forum for viewer feedback, a debating ground featuring four distinctly-different pundits who were all given a license to argue a point as convincingly as they could for as long as they needed.

We had a wide array of punditry talent to call upon for Football Focus but the quartet of experts I most commonly hosted were former Liverpool and England star Steve McMahon, Shebby, Singapore-based English ex-pro Paul Masefield and a former semi-pro player and full-time economics lecturer called Jamie Reeves. All were fabulous pundits in their own right but when put together, or set against one another in the Football Focus studio, these four contrasting voices and characters produced some of the best televised football debate I have ever seen. You could perhaps consider the show to have been a forerunner to today’s ubiquitous football podcasts.

Viewers around Asia, as well as sponsors, couldn’t get enough of it. Our electronic mailbox bulged, certain debates (perhaps most famously the one when Shebby insisted to an apoplectic Macca that Steven Gerrard’s best position was right-back) are still mentioned to this day. We even took the show on the road, recording it on stage in front of audiences in various cities around Asia. And whether we were in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Hong Kong, it was clear that many in the audience had come to see and hear the man with the opinions, the catchphrases, the mannerisms, the Shebbyisms. I’ll let Andy Tait pick up on this point now. He had this to say when I spoke to him earlier this week:

“‘Shebby Singh’, there's a name that conjures up many emotions! I don't think I've ever met a man who has been so successful at dividing opinions. He should have been the face of Marmite.

"To me Shebby was the most important member of the team of pundits that worked for ESPN STAR Sport’ football coverage as he was our link to the legions of football crazy fans in the region. He was "their" voice and he never let them down. It's fair to say he was a man of strong opinions on football and how it should be played and never shy of expressing them, however strange and outlandish they might have sounded at times.

"He would also take every opportunity to expand his knowledge of the game, whether it be by having deep discussions on tactics with Sir Bobby Robson or forcing his opinion on 'overlapping centre-halves' on Sam Allardyce.

"In short, he was a complete one-off and I mourn his departure but will remember him for being a true gentleman and a friend. The football world is down to 10 men today. See you at the Far Post Shebby.”

Shebby certainly practised what he preached. One of the fun spin-offs of that era was our “office” football team called the ESPN All-Stars. We would play a game whenever we had a visiting legend in town and we could call up our regular pundits along with various other colleagues and friends then arrange a friendly game against a local club. During one of these games, when I had the privilege of playing alongside my childhood hero Bryan Robson in midfield, our centre-half Shebby went screaming up-field past us for the umpteenth time, desperate to get involved, a bundle of energy. Bryan turned to me and dryly observed, “well, that’s a first for me – never thought I’d see an overlapping centre-half.”

But that was just Shebby doing Shebby things. The man also had time for anyone and everyone who loved football: he would stop and talk with anyone in the office or the street who wanted to discuss the game; he would put his boots on and play a game with virtually anyone who asked, no matter how low our standard of play; despite being a teetotaller, he would join us for nights out and inevitably would end up being the life and soul of the party.

If you were booked to work on a show and you knew that Shebby was going to be one of the pundits, you would travel to the studios knowing you were in for a memorable shift. Here’s one of his former Football Focus teammates, Jamie Reeves, with a few words:

Like everyone else I was deeply shocked to hear that Shebby had passed away; we worked together for so many years. Some of his views were very perceptive, some were very knowledgeable and some were plain whacko, but he was unfailingly good company both on and off screen. An evening with Shebby was never going to be dull and I will miss him dearly.”

We all will, Jamie. For years, people around the world have asked me about Shebby. Very often, these have been leading questions from people with preconceived ideas - sometimes negative - about the man on the telly. I always say, whether you agreed with Shebby’s theories or not, one thing you could never accuse him of is lacking the courage of his own convictions.

In a business where much is said for effect, Shebby was authentic: he formulated and argued his case with passion, persistence and charisma. For me and for millions of TV viewers, that was enough to make him a hugely-important part of the football narrative. His reputation and visibility even landed him a role as a global football advisor to the company who owned former Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers. Forget the club’s problems at that time and subsequently – just think a bit about what Shebby must have achieved as a TV pundit to even be considered for a role like that!

As thousands have said this week when paying tribute to Shebby Singh, the world has lost a one-off, a maverick and a TV icon.

For those of us who were privileged to call him a colleague, teammate and friend, it is heart-breaking to realise he has gone. I would give anything to be able to look across a desk at Shebby one more time, to ask a question, watch him pause a for a moment with the studio lights flashing off his glasses, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, before replying, “Well, John...”

May you rest in eternal peace, Shebby.

TV host/football presenter John Dykes worked with Shebby Singh for 20 years on ESPN STAR Sports and Fox Sports. He now hosts 'The John Dykes Show', available on Disney+ Hotstar in Malaysia.

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