Days of prats, parties and panel games: Are you watching on the box? Julie Welch traces the history of punditry in the light of the Jimmy Hill-Alex Ferguson row

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The Independent Online
IF YOU were born after 1970 you'll have missed them, but they were called The Panel. ITV wanted an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman for their first ever line-up of football pundits, and in Malcolm Allison, Derek Dougan and Paddy Crerand they got three of the most seminal rabbiters in the game.

Complete with kipper ties and sideburns, they convened in the ITV studio in London during the 1970 Mexico World Cup where they terrified the producer, John Bromley, before a ball had been kicked or a word recorded. 'Malcolm said he fancied Russia to be world champions,' Paddy Crerand recalls, 'and I said, 'That's rubbish, it's Brazil.' John Bromley was flapping like heck, saying, 'Just be calm, lads.' If someone argued with someone on the television in those days it was thought terrible. But the programme went down a bomb. It was something different. People disagreeing with each other on TV.'

It was a golden decade of football punditry. As well as Big Mal, the Doog and Paddy, ITV could field Jack Charlton, Brian Clough, Bob McNab and Bobby Moncur. The BBC fought back with the likes of Joe Mercer, Don Revie and, later, Lawrie McMenemy. Some of their comments stick in the mind even now, like Joe Mercer on Johann Cruyff in West Germany '74: 'The lad Cruft is absolutely out of this world.' There was Clough on that fateful night at Wembley in '73, when Poland put England out of the World Cup: 'Don't go pointing the finger at Sir Alfred Ramsey. I'm Alf Ramsey, you're Alf Ramsey, we're all Alf Ramsey tonight.' Cloughie's words were given resonance by his trenchantly expressed criticism of the aforementioned supremo. There was Big Mal on Martin Peters: 'He's 10 years ahead of his time so that means we've all got to wait 10 years for him to come good.'

Crerand remembers in Mexico saying Pele was God. 'Because in that World Cup he was like something from another planet.' The most memorable comment was probably uttered during the England-West Germany quarter-final, when up popped Allison in a Union Jack tie from Carnaby Street to say that Alan Mullery wasn't fit to play for England because he had cost them the German equaliser. Mullery didn't like it one bit, and later confronted Allison on TV. 'It was arguing but it was fun,' Crerand says. 'I think maybe TV to a degree has gone back to the days when they're worried about upsetting someone.'

Or not, perhaps. Take last week's tiff over Eric Cantona between Jimmy Hill and Alex Ferguson. 'Despicable', Hill opined over Cantona's cavortings against Norwich. 'If there is a prat going about in this world, he is the prat,' retorted Ferguson. With the Sun asking its readers to judge ('You're the prat, Fergie'), the profession of football punditry has been thrust back into the arena of urgent national debate.

'I sometimes think if your pundits are not upsetting people you're not doing your job properly,' says Andy Melvin, the producer behind Sky's football output. 'If I were to count up in my career every time a manager fell out with me, I wouldn't sleep nights. Jimmy Hill's treading a very difficult line and I sympathise. Alex Ferguson I would regard as a friend but over the years we've fallen out badly. At the end of the season you kiss and make up. It's a passionate game.'

They do not come more verbally passionate than Andy Gray, Sky's pundit. 'It depends on how upset people are,' Gray says. 'Maybe some might never speak to me again. On the other hand, I did a thing about a penalty incident involving QPR recently and the following week Gerry Francis and the lads dropped me a lovely little letter enclosing a pair of glasses. I wore them the next week.'

Over to Alan Hansen, who as Hill's co-toiler in the comfy chairs at the BBC has earned enormous respect for his views in the three years since he left the game. 'When I played I never liked pundits or commentators,' he admits. 'No one likes criticism, but you've got to accept it. When I took the job, I was told, 'Say it as you see it.' '

You can't help feeling, though, that the pundit's status will never again be as high as it was in those early years, when the Doog and Big Mal could stroll into a Curzon Street restaurant and be greeted by Michael Caine. 'He said, 'What are you doing here? I'm just going home to watch you,' ' Allison says. 'He didn't realise we had recorded the show that afternoon.' Harold Wilson (it was so long ago we had a Labour Government) invited a bunch of panellists to lunch at the House of Commons. 'It was amazing - there was me, Jack Charlton, Cloughie and the Doog, who you could never get a word in edgeways with,' Allison says. 'Harold Wilson appeared and sat down and we were frightened to death of him. We sat there like dummies, couldn't say a thing.'

No one had an agent in those days, but a pal of Crerand's rang up all the sports clothing companies and got them a supply of jerseys for the programmes. That wasn't quite enough. 'When Brazil played Italy in the 1970 final we decided to wear dicky bows,' Crerand says. 'We only had the top half of the outfits so we did the programme without trousers on, but no one could see us below the waist anyway.'

So what does today's pundit need to do to earn a prime ministerial invitation? 'It's no good everybody trying to be nice to each other,' Crerand says. 'The people outside aren't stupid. They enjoy the crack. They go to the pub with their pals and argue about different little things and I think they like to have guys with opinions. They like Alan Hansen because he tells it like it is.'

The queue to join Gray and Hansen is a long one. 'We often get players phoning in to say they wouldn't mind being on one of our shows,' Melvin says. 'We get a few bad ones. We can chat to them after training and they're brilliant at soundbites but even though they can run out before thousands at Wembley they walk into the studio and suddenly clam up.'

It's a long way from 1970, when after the final the panel got a call from the Brazilian ambassador. 'He asked us to come to a party at the embassy, and believe it or not, we went,' Crerand says. 'It was a madhouse. Every Brazilian in London banging on tin cans and going potty because they'd won the World Cup. Och, I miss those days.'

(Photograph and tabel omitted)