Remember when these lads used to talk with their feet?: A big week for live football but not necessarily for the English language. Jim White marks the pundits whom Phil Shaw remembers as heroes

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
What do we want from our football pundits? Breathtaking verbal volleys, defence-splitting insights or just the sound of brilliant old players who once took our breath away? Whichever, it does not explain how sound schoolmasterly Bob Wilson, erstwhile Arsenal custodian, became the first big-money television transfer when he moved from BBC to ITV for pounds 100,000 in the close season (whatever that used to be). Perhaps he just made a well-timed leap towards the top-right hand corner.

Despite the big money, Wilson's style has not changed much since he was a goalkeeper: he remains solid and dependable, not a flair player. Full-backs are generally an interest-free zone, too, so Jimmy Armfield is perfectly cast to provide the dour solidity to counterpoint Alan Green's loveably excited Radio Five commentary. Oddly for a roundhead, Armfield was the man who recommended Terry Venables, head cavalier, to the Football Association as England manager.

Captain of the pundits is Alan Hansen - smooth, unflustered and (unusually for a former footballer) intelligent. His analysis is as sharp and perceptive as his defensive play used to be, all the better for his fearless lack of concern for the feelings of old colleagues: last season, the shaky Liverpool defence used to quake every time he sharpened his tongue. In the Eighties he worked closely with Mark Lawrenson, but the latter's appearances on television have been limited by his Ian-Botham-style, long-at-the-back hairstyle. Surprisingly for a man of his stature, Lawrenson has an Alan Ball larynx and a relentless chirpiness - he has made his mark on Radio 5.

Don Howe, on the other hand, never chirps: his flat Midlands delivery is entirely consistent with the flat middle-of-the-road analysis he delivers. In the last World Cup he took the art of stating the obvious to a new plane ('And Klinsmann's come in and he's scored.')

ITV followed up its capture of Bob Wilson with the signing of Terry Venables, the only man with a wardrobe to threaten Des Lynam's and he has won the nation's heart with the appealing habit of disagreeing with Jimmy Hill on every issue. Similarly, Trevor Brooking provides the perfect foil for Alan Hansen, by being bland, uninspired and equivocal. Brooking is rumoured to have copyrighted the word 'perhaps'. Ray Wilkins also has a favourite word - his 'exceptional' seems to have become the norm.

A breath of irreverent fresh air when he first arrived on the scene, Jimmy Greaves has gone all serious since his elevation to the role of pontificator-in-chief on ITV's Sport In Question. His comments about everyone making too much fuss about racism in football suggest he would be better returning to the gags. His knack of always seemingly relaxed has eluded Denis Law, whose facial expressions imply that, like an Indian mystic, he finds sitting on a seat filled with up-turned tacks an aid to concentration. Repeating the question is his mantra.

The pundit with most hours to fill is Andy Gray. His Boot Room show on Sky, in which he hunkers down on a box of four-by-two with a former player and moves chess pieces around for an hour, is a tactics anorak's dream. He wears the kind of startled expression and upturned hair-style that suggests he follows Denis Law's approach to seating arrangements.

Leading by the chin, Jimmy Hill takes viewers up cul-de-sacs where few are interested in following. Styling himself the man who dared to speak the truth, he performed the unlikely feat of getting the entire nation on Alex Ferguson's side of an argument. Among the young signings, Chris Waddle shows promise, with an eye for the wry that has not been seen since Jimmy Greaves went serious. Greavesie's old mate, Ian St John, switches uneasily these days between the chairman's and the pundit's seats, and never gets comfortable in either. And Ron Atkinson? 'Very much so' says it all, apparently.

Back row (left to right)

JIMMY HILL (Forward) One history of Fulham, for whom he signed in 1952, recalls Hill as a 'wholehearted and enthusiastic rather than skilful forward'. His real talents were revealed when, as the Jimmy Knapp of the players' union, he secured the abolition of the maximum wage. Now he is back at Fulham, as chairman.

ANDY GRAY (Forward) In football parlance, Gray regularly ran through a brick wall for the team (Aston Villa, Everton etc), and had the dodgy knees to prove it. His penchant was sticking his head where studs were flying, yet he still ended up with more teeth than Scotland rival Joe Jordan. Move to fledgling BSkyB required less bottle than his previous transfer, in the late Eighties, from Glasgow Rangers to Cheltenham Town.

MARK LAWRENSON (Centre-half) Not as educated as Hansen, his Anfield oppo, but an equally cultured player. Lancashire-born and bred, Lawrenson qualified for the Republic of Ireland through his father and therefore blazed a trail for Jack Charlton's spies in Somerset House. Credibility soared after he lost the Oxford United manager's job for daring to challenge interference by Robert Maxwell.

CHRIS WADDLE (Substitute) A member of football's wayward gallery, Waddle's lavish but allegedly fitful artistry made him 'God' to Tottenham and Shefield Wednesday supporters but a luxury to Graham Taylor's England. At Marseille, the former sausage factory worker was 'The King of Swaying Hips'. Here, his two-in-one hairstyle, spiky on top and rats' tails at the back, guarantees his place in folklore.

Middle row (left to right)

RON ATKINSON (Manager) A heavyweight half-back known as 'Tank', the Liverpool-born adopted Brummie lived up to his billing by skippering Oxford through three promotions from the Southern League to the Second Division between 1961 and 1968. Phil 'Bilko' Silvers once said that the actor cast as Doberman believed he was 'Cary Grant playing a short fat guy'; similarly, Big Ron remains a fierce competitor in five-a-side games and awaits his country's call.

RAY WILKINS (Midfield) Strange but true: the dour, dome-headed one was once the flamboyantly hirsute, teenage genius of Chelsea. In those days he mysteriously answered to the nickname 'Butch', but that changed when he went to Manchester United in 1979. Noting Wilkins's tendency to pass sideways, Ron Atkinson dubbed him 'The Crab'. He is now 38 years old, but his playing career shows no sign of going into reverse.

ALAN HANSEN (Centre-half) Maybe if Hansen had been Scottish football's stereotypical whisky-swigging, fight-picking womaniser, he would have won more than a risible 26 caps. Instead the Dorian Gray of defending was clean living, had boyish good looks and four A-levels. One of them was Latin, making the Liverpool captain well suited to be a confidant of the incomprehensible Kenny Dalglish.

BOB WILSON (Goalkeeper) Difficult now to conceive of the schoolmasterly Wilson doing anything more daring than wear an Alan Partridge-style sweater. Yet the goalkeeper of Arsenal's double-winning team of 1970/71 (who also, despite his apparent Englishness, played for Scotland) was renowned for headlong plunges at the feet of forwards. This caused trademark shoulder bruises in a riot of colours he would never countenance in a tie.

JIMMY ARMFIELD (full-back) Another whose performances were more adventurous than his punditry; the Blackpool and England stalwart did for overlapping full-back play in the Sixties what Harold Wilson did for raincoats. In a later incarnation, as one of Don Revie's successors (1974 to 1978) at Leeds United, his players quipped of the pipe-puffing, church organist: 'The manager's indecision is final.'

JIMMY GREAVES (Forward) Before he became the lovable buffoon to Ian St John's straight man, Greavesie was the prolific little inside-forward with the gaunt face and troubled eyes whom Alf Ramsey left out of England's World Cup triumph. Subtle and sharp, incisive and instinctive, he let his feats do the talking, finding a fluency in the box it would be hard to emulate on it.

Bottom row (left to right)

DON HOWE (Full-back) The blond full-back from the Black Country was an unwitting participant in the first Match of the Day 30 years ago. Reports reveal that Howe, nearing the end as an Arsenal regular but even then the epitome of the solid if unspectacular performer, was given a traumatic time by the Liverpool left-winger, Peter Thompson, which may account for his cautious microphone style today.

DENIS LAW (Forward) Like Greaves, the 'King' of Old Trafford was conspicuously uninvolved in 1966: he played golf rather than watch the old enemy win. Hung up his jockstrap after his audaciously back-heeled goal for Manchester City in 1974 which relegated his beloved United, where Best, Law and Charlton in their pomp had been the Emerson, Lake and Palmer of British football.

TERRY VENABLES (Midfield) Such a wide boy in his early days (he was one of several Chelsea jack-the-lads disciplined by Tommy Docherty after a nightclub sortie in Blackpool) that he should have been a winger. In fact, Venables bossed midfield, becoming a bit of a tactician - which hastened Docherty's decision to sell him to Spurs. But this stood him in good stead, after he gave up playing in the mid-Seventies, for the media work and courtroom capers to come.

TREVOR BROOKING (Midfield) Brian Clough, in his guise as an acerbic analyst, sneered before the 1980 FA Cup final that the West Ham playmaker 'floats like a butterfly and stings like one too'. True, Brookin' was more adept at creatin' chances than takin' them, as he might say in those adenoidal Essex tones. But he scored the winner that day and Clough, no mean judge, had several stabs at buyin' him.

IAN ST JOHN (Substitute) St John won virtually every honour with Liverpool after Bill Shankly stole him from Motherwell for pounds 37,500 in 1961. Stands just 5ft 7in but was a brave and crafty centre-forward noted for his aerial prowess. Proof, as his old ITV sidekick might have put it, that size isn't everything.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments