Player to Pundit: What is your opinion?


Expert Opinion vs Motor Mouth

We certainly have a thirst for footballing opinions and fans love a hot debate. The debate can be on the terraces, in the pub or watching a pundit or three go head to head. With ever-increasing media coverage, it is always good to have an expert on the panel and what better expert than a player. We love an insider opinion especially when it clashes with those of the establishment. It had been the voices of the establishment that we heard until the 1970 World Cup. It took one former player who loved the game to penetrate the media and revolutionise our televisual experience.

Of course, I am talking about Jimmy Hill. At the time he was Head of Sport at London Weekend Television and he suggested that the studio would be filled with former players. It was the original car crash TV. Viewers were treated to lively discussions and passionate opinions. These were the opinions of those in the know, those who had been out in the field. With Scotland and Manchester United’s Paddy Crerand,  Northern Ireland and Wolves’ Derek Dougan, Arsenal’s Bob McNab and everyone’s favourite wildcard Malcolm Allison it was going to be lively.

This lineup was a stark contrast to the BBC’s crew. With Don Revie and Joe Mercer sunning themselves at the Copacabana for the BBC they were every bit the voice of the defending champions. They were going to tow the BBC line. The Radio Times had a picture of Bobby Moore on the cover. The BBC were definitely taking the spirit of ’66 and keeping the gravitas high. ITV, with its model in a football kit on the cover of the TV Times, was talking the football of the fans. A lineup of former players spearheaded by the colourful and controversial Malcolm Alison was going to have sparks flying. Jimmy Hill was never going to be afraid of challenging the football establishment and with Brian Moore also asking questions to the panel of players -we were in for a treat.

ITV Win The War

The ratings suggested that this was popular. This World Cup was the only time that ITV beat the BBC in the battle for ratings. There was passion, opinions, laughter and tears which are all things that you would never see on the BBC. It was full of controversy and poor McNab had to be given a bell to ring as he found it hard to get a word in. Malcolm Allison was the motormouth who stole the show. His opinions generated a response, sometimes offend like when he said the Russian and Romanian teams were comprised of peasants. That certainly jammed the switchboard. Today he would have broken the internet.

What many fans enjoy is a good bit of banter but when England were knocked out of the World Cup that year we were devastated. In the ITV studio, that anger and disappointment were seen as the panel of pundits threw their Union Jack ties to the ground in disgust. Harsh criticism came from Malcolm Allison. He blamed the players for simply being not good enough, especially Alan Mullery who had actually scored during England’s defeat at the hands of West Germany. Mullery was given the opportunity to face Allison on the studio on his return to England.

Mullery V Big Mal

It was his opinions he was asked to express and Mullery didn’t really like it. He accused Allison of being inflexible in his opinions as he defended his own performance. Allison was not going to be impressed by Mullery’s Cap collection. It didn’t matter that Mullery had represented England 31 times because Allison rated players with acceleration and Mullery was never going to be quick. The ensuing banter was refereed by Jimmy Hill. Allison conceded that Mullery had improved as a player and didn’t seem bothered that he was being slated. As always, Jimmy kept it focused on the game. He turned a personal spat into an analysis of player performance and in the end, they shook hands. Jimmy Hill had created TV magic. We don’t always listen because pundits have superior knowledge-we listen because they have divergent opinions and it’s as exciting as going down the pub to watch a match and argue.

It’s All Over For The Old Order

Being exciting on the pitch doesn’t always make you exciting in the TV studio but the idea of a player pundit was born. It wasn’t until 1992 when Alan Hansen contacted the networks that we see the regular use of retired players as pundits. He was skilled enough as an analyst and it was a delight to hear regional accents on the BBC. He may have overused phrases like “mediocre” and “diabolical” when remarking on defenders’ mistakes but like so many, he will be remembered for one phrase-“ you can’t win anything with kids”. Yet we know that the Class of ‘92 won everything. Hansen acknowledges that the phrase made him and he uses it himself and enjoys the banter it creates.

Fun In The Studio

Match of the Day usually has two pundits to feed off each other. Mark Lawrenson was the other main pundit who joined Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen to debate the moves, goals and controversies of the day’s play. Lawrenson coined some “Colemanballs”. I particularly love, “To be a great game, one of the teams has to score first.” However, it isn’t for his wise insightful analysis we best remember Mark Lawrenson. It is for his moustache we remember him. It is for those rash comments we love pundits. Lawrenson said if Bolton Wanderers would remain in the Premier League at the end of the 2001/2 season, he would shave that trademark. Thanks to Big Sam, Lawrenson’s top lip has been hair free ever since.

He may have had his moustache shaved by some top barber but what we love is on-screen action. Gary Lineker hosted some of the finest evenings of post-match analysis. The player turned pundit had to be smart, erudite and not have a face for radio. The highlight of his career has to be presenting Match of the Day in his underwear. When the Foxes lifted the Premier League title Lineker kept his word and he presented the show in just his boxer shorts much to the amusement of pundits Ian Wright and Alan Shearer.

This has heralded a new era in TV punditry. More former players are called up to the studio to give their opinion and create that on-screen pub feel. We all love a good debate right and TV has responded to the needs of the audience. There is definitely a more passionate feel to the punditry that we see today. Jimmy Hill’s experimental lineup was definitely the way to go. For all of us who love watching this game, there are ever-expanding ways of discussing its intricacies and we will always love a big mouth.