What was top of every self-respecting Manchester United fan's last Christmas list? A T-shirt emblazoned with the legend: "You can't win anything with kids." As he's never been allowed to forget, Alan Hansen, one of the BBC's football pundits, uttered this deathless phrase early last season when assessing the title hopes of a young Manchester United squad. They went on to win the double.

It is a mark of Hansen's stature that his remarks should be committed to mass-marketed T-shirts. In the seven years since he retired from playing for Liverpool, he has established himself as the best pundit in the business. In a field previously noted only for the number of times a self-proclaimed expert could use combinations of the phrases "obviously," "game of two halves," and "take each game as it comes", Hansen has been a breath of fresh air. He has demonstrated an ability to use language that suggests he was brought up in a television studio rather than in the Anfield boot- room. As on the pitch, so on the telly: he's a natural. Described by one colleague as "hip", he is equally at home on TFI Friday or Sportsnight.

Niall Sloane, the editor of Match of the Day, which Hansen turns out for every Saturday night, waves his rattle appreciatively. "It's very difficult for footballers to come in and be pundits," he observes. "They're reluctant to criticise their fellow professionals. But Alan isn't afraid to make those criticisms. He's intelligent, articulate and has star quality by the barrel-load."

Stuart Cabb, the producer of The Sack Race, Hansen's debut documentary, an authoritative and entertaining ride on the football managerial merry- go-round, praises his tactical know-how. "He demands your attention. A lot of pundits tell you things you've heard a hundred times before. But people in this office who have been fans all their lives sit up and take notice of what Alan says."

Hansen himself is more down-to-earth in assessing his qualities. For a start, the man known for his unflappability admits to major pre-Match of the Day nerves. "It's quite similar to playing football in as much as the tension is beforehand. Between 2.15 and 2.55 on a Saturday afternoon used to be purgatory. I was back and forth from the toilet all the time. It's the same on Match of the Day. You're eager to get on with the thing."

Once he does, Hansen knows he can't flinch from verbal tackles. "You've got to be opinionated," he opines. "The beauty of football is that everyone's got an opinion about it. If you go into a pub after a game and talk to four different people about it, they'll all have different opinions."

He claims his forthrightness has never led to a falling-out with a friend still working in the game. "I've never said anything outrageous. I've tried to be neutral. In fact, you can go the other way and be harder than you might have been on people you know. Since day one, I've said to myself, 'You've got to say it as you see it'. Playing for 14 years at Liverpool helps. It gives you a certain credibility that you try hard not to destroy."

Sloane concurs. "Alan was the best British post-War defender after Bobby Moore, and there aren't many people with more medals. So when he goes on Match of the Day, you've got to accord him respect. You may be the most articulate person in the world, but if you played for Stalybridge Celtic, it won't play that well on national TV."

Hansen is also helped by the fact that the camera loves him - as apparently do a significant number of women with no previously recorded interest in the finer points of Arsenal's offside trap. One tabloid reckoned that: "Men go for Alan Hansen's incisive match analysis. Wives and girlfriends tune in to sigh over his looks." With his piercing blue eyes and rugged good looks - he is far more handsome than the figure he is sometimes cruelly compared to, Captain Scarlet - it is easy to see why his autobiography was entitled Tall, Dark and Hansen.

"He is a sex symbol," sighs Sloane, "although those of us who work with him hate to admit it. One female journalist said she thought she was going to melt on meeting him. He's obviously a good-looking boy."

As if all this wasn't enough to make you sick as a parrot, Hansen is self-deprecating, too and never watches tapes of himself on television: "People say I've got a great voice, but if I watched Match of the Day, I'd never do it again. I cringe when I hear my voice."

Similarly, the "kids" remark has been turned against him for The Sack Race. In the film, Hansen strolls past a TV shop and catches sight of himself on a screen making that comment about Manchester United's youth policy. He winces and wonders: "The media - what do they know?".

"The thing about kids was a line stolen from Bob Paisley [Hansen's first manager at Liverpool]. It used to be a good line," Hansen jokes. "When I said it on Match of the Day, I was proved wrong. You can't get everything right, and it's important that you can laugh at yourself."

He has displayed that quality again in an advert for Littlewoods, which sends up his obsession with defending. Despite a big win on the pools, Hansen is shown moaning about a team's weakness at the back. "It was funny because we shot nine other sequences for that ad," he recalls. "Then the director phoned me up and said, 'We've decided to keep it simple', which meant he wasn't too enamoured of my acting.

"But the ad has really taken off," he continues, sounding bemused by his own success. "People come up to me in restaurants and say, 'terrible defending'. They always have hopeless Scottish accents and get the words wrong, but you've got to play along. So I always reply, 'shocking'."

Sloane acknowledges the chink in Hansen's armour and suggests a remedy. "Even before that advert, we used to joke about him saying 'terrible defending' all the time. We'll have to find him a new catchphrase. 'Wonderful attacking' would be nice."

Alan Hansen presents the 'The Sack Race' at 9.50pm on BBC2 tonight, and appears on 'Match of the Day' at 11pm on BBC1


1955: Born in Alloa, he made 82 appearances for Partick Thistle before being transferred to Liverpool

1977-1989: Played 434 league games for Liverpool, during which time he scored eight goals. He won 17 major medals and played 26 times for Scotland

1990: Forced to retire by chronic knee injury. Never considered going into management when he saw what it did to friends. "With guys like Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness, it doesn't matter if they're playing tiddly- winks, they want to win," Hansen reflects. "They've got to be involved in football. I've never had any regrets. I don't know if I've got the passion. I loved playing, but I can take it or leave it now. I only need football five days a week. These people need it seven days a week - and a bit more."

1991: He "fell into being a pundit. I never planned it. I'd finished playing and was looking for something to do. When I retired in the February, I said to my wife, 'You watch, the phone is never gonna stop ringing.' By September, it had never rung once. I was naive. Luckily, Sky and then the BBC phoned me up." He has two children - Adam and Lucy - but doesn't need to work. He has a good pension and money invested in stocks and shares. "I was never tempted to put my future on anything with four legs," he reveals