Andy Gray, one of the top football co-commentators and pundits in the world, made his appearance this afternoon not on Sky Sports but instead on ESPN. What Gray gives ESPN is instant credibility, which the network desperately needs if it’s to establish itself as an authority on soccer coverage both in the United States and around the world.

ESPN must have paid a hefty fee to convince the world’s number co-commentator to leave his home in the United Kingdom and work the summer at ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Connecticut. For ESPN, it’s a gamble. Paying a high salary for Gray’s expertise is ESPN rolling the dice. With an authority figure like Gray in a pivotal role at ESPN this June, the network will be hoping for increased viewing figures in return as well as satisfied advertisers. The two go hand in hand.

Gray’s knowledge of the game was quickly evident during the opening matches of Euro 2008 today. For the Switzerland against Czech Republic opener, Gray took his seat as a pundit and offered his input regarding the match from Basel. But where Gray truly shown was when he switched seats and became co-commentator for the Turkey against Portugal match.

The difference between Tommy Smyth and Andy Gray is immense. While Smyth seems to contradict himself during controversial moments in matches where we’re seeking his insight, Gray on the other hand is direct and decisive, and tells it like it is. With Gray, he points out things that we, the viewers, don’t see the first time. Plus the Scotsman does it in such a confident and authoritative manner that it’s hard to ignore.

A perfect example of this was the disallowed goal during the first 15 minutes of Portugal against Turkey. Gray spotted the incident and called it as he saw it — offside. If that was Smyth, he would have sounded hesitant, made a call and probably changed his mind when viewing the TV replay.

ESPN’s decision to hire Gray as the expert for this summer’s tournament is a shrewd move. Casual sports fans who may not know Gray as intimately as we do will find themselves absorbed by his analysis of the game. Home teams have the fans as their 12th man. ESPN has Andy Gray.