Profile: The thinking man's pundit: Alan Hansen

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The Independent Online
ANFIELD has spawned more than its fair share of footballing brains, though none, perhaps, on a par with Alan Hansen's. Is it just a foolish notion, or might all be well at Liverpool if he were in charge? Of course it's a foolish notion. Kevin Keegan may have waved a magic wand at Newcastle, but they need more than that in the Boot Room. You can't be blamed for asking, though, because Hansen's job at the BBC requires him to have answers, and they all seem to be profoundly sensible. However much it pains him to pick holes in a club where he spent 15 years and won 17 major medals, his current employers insist that he talk about Liverpool, indeed first employed him for that reason only.

'The thing is,' he says, 'I have been critical of Liverpool this season and last season but it's only honest opinion and I think that a lot of people at Liverpool would agree with it. I'm not criticising them just for the sake of criticising them, because at the end of the day I want Liverpool to win anything in sight. If I didn't have an enormous amount of affinity for them it wouldn't be the club's fault. I think there'd be something wrong with me. But I've got a job to do: the BBC employ me to give my opinion and I give it.' For Liverpool fans it must be saddening, even galling, to see him sitting comfortably in his BBC chair, delivering his suave diagnosis on the side's current ills. It would be naive to suppose that Graeme Souness is not aware of the problem, but, as was clear from his sharp exit from the press conference at Villa Park last Saturday, he is not prepared to talk about them. Not so Hansen. 'They look like conceding goals all the time now,' he said recently. No mortician was ever more to the point.

In 434 League games for Liverpool between 1977 and 1989 Alan Hansen scored eight goals and prevented no one knows how many more. He was the bedrock on which Liverpool's endless series of triumphs were founded. Whenever key players left Anfield for the continent or the golf course it was the media's standard practice to wonder if they could ever be replaced. They always were; after Souness, McMahon; after Rush, Aldridge; after Dalglish, Beardsley. But when a chronic knee injury forced Hansen to retire, that left in the famously impregnable defence a gap through which everyone from Crystal Palace to Chesterfield have been pouring ever since. Is it mere coincidence that Liverpool last won the championship on the day Hansen played his last game?

When Dalglish's job fell vacant Alan Hansen was touted as a replacement, but he let it be known that he wasn't interested. 'It just isn't Alan,' says his old partner at the back, Mark Lawrenson. 'Too much hassle is something that he could do without. After training he was quite happy just to go home and be the ideal family man. When he saw Kenny in rages sometimes if we'd played badly he'd turn round and say, 'Not for me, this.' Kenny's one of his closest friends and he saw exactly what it does to you. Alan's definitely one of those who likes to sleep comfortably in his bed at night.'

Towards the end the nights were not so comfortable. 'I might not have looked as though I felt the pressure,' Hansen says, 'but I felt big pressure. The last season I played at Liverpool and we won the championship I was struggling to sleep at night. Aston Villa were the challengers and I'm thinking, 'Well if they get three points here and we. . . '. It was affecting me.' In that farewell year, which he describes as 'beyond my wildest dreams - I played just out of this world', he caught up on the lost sleep in the afternoons. Somehow you can't see Dalglish or Souness following his lead, any more than you can see Hansen following theirs into management.

Coaching his own team, be it a non-vintage Liverpool or a local school XI, would not have suited him for another reason, one which perhaps explains why other distinguished players of his type who do try their hand at management meet with less than conspicuous success. 'What he'd have difficulty in doing,' says Lawrenson, who perhaps found himself in the same boat at Oxford United, 'is having to tell players consistently day in day out exactly what is expected of them in certain situations. When you've been such a good player that's the most difficult thing. I just don't think he would have any interest at all.'

His future, though he didn't yet know it, was in broadcasting, and long may it remain there. In a season and a bit on national television he has become one of the most incisive football pundits the BBC or any other channel has ever hired. Not difficult, you might say, but it makes a change. In a sport peopled by men to whom words do not come easily Hansen was always likely to rise fast and far.

As a player he scrupulously avoided the press's attention. 'I was always very very low profile, simply because I felt that if you're splashed all over the papers it puts more pressure on you. There's enough pressure on you trying to play 90 minutes at Anfield without you being in the papers saying this, that and the next thing.' 'It wasn't as though he was grooming himself for a career in the media at all,' says Lawrenson. 'He would never really go 100 miles down the road and do things, but if somebody shoved a microphone under his nose at Anfield he would speak, and speak very well.'

Nowadays he is plainly at ease with the burden of making public utterances. He popped up in yesterday's Guardian weekend diary, a slot in which the nation's novelists are not uncommonly spotted, while the BBC themselves have made it easy for him. He lives in Southport and on Saturdays he catches the 12.30 shuttle down to Heathrow, where he is picked up and taken to a hotel to change, and then ushered into the congenial atmosphere of the studio. 'It's all good stuff,' he purrs. In return, the BBC get more than just solid match analysis. Unlike the two eccentric old Jimmys, Messrs Hill and Greaves, Hansen is refreshingly easy on the eye (the implicitly immodest title of his autobiography was Tall, Dark and Hansen). He also brings recent footballing experience. 'Up until the last two or three years he's actually physically done it,' Lawrenson says, 'and he's won everything he could possibly win, apart from a European championship medal and a World Cup medal. Once you've been in that position then you automatically command respect.' One assumes that the BBC are making it worth his while.

Not that he needs the money. 'I had a very good pension scheme so I knew I was going to be all right financially. But I had to do something when I stopped. It's very difficult for people coming out of football to know what to do.' He rang up Sky, did a few Italian league games for them and was in turn rung up by the BBC, who invited him to do a two-match trial when Liverpool re-entered Europe last season. 'It just snowballed from there.'

He remembers his commentating debut. 'The first one I ever did was 27 March, Derby v Liverpool, the season I retired.' He had only made his retirement official a month earlier and he repeats the date, 27 March, several times like a mantra. Retrospectively it must mean a lot to him, and not just because Liverpool made it a happy baptism by answering recent criticism and putting seven past Peter Shilton. Rothmans says the game was played on 23 March, but no matter.

Hansen brings to the lost art of punditry many of the skills he deployed on the pitch - he is sharp, elegant, unruffled and, as it were, comfortable in possession. Few footballers could read a game as well as him, and there's no reason why things should have changed just because he now does his reading in suit and tie rather than red shirt and shorts.

'It's still only 22 players and one ball. I know systems, I know if it's a good pass or a bad pass. Really the game is pretty simple. You can get the coaching annual out and bore people to death. I've tried to pick out pieces where the ordinary guy in the street might not be aware of somebody making a good run or somebody making space. I've done one or two pieces where I've said this is what he's good at and this is what he's bad at.'

The most salient example came last week, when Dean Saunders ran rings round his old club and in a couple of clips Hansen succinctly demonstrated why he was never suited to the Liverpool system. There is something in those steel-blue eyes that suggests he doesn't find it any more difficult to be coldly efficient as a pundit, even to the embarrassment of his old club, than he did as a player. 'You've got that completely wrong because I'd prefer not to do Liverpool, for obvious reasons. If I think they're bad I'll say it. I still know a lot of people at Liverpool and I'd rather be doing other teams, but I can't shy away from Liverpool.'

He is just as honest and acute analysing his own fortunes. One of the abiding mysteries of Hansen's otherwise perfect career is that he played so few times for Scotland. Lawrenson says that Hansen 'has been the best centre-back Scotland has produced for years and years and years, bar nobody.' 'I probably was,' says Hansen, 'but I can honestly say I never had any regrets and that's including Scotland. When you start off you'd be happy with one cap. I got 26, so I should be relatively happy. People say I should have had 106. When I was playing my best stuff at Liverpool they used the club partnership, Miller and McLeish. One of the problems in the earlier days was that I played in a system where when the opposition got the ball we pushed up and held the line, whereas the other three I played alongside for Scotland, as soon as the opposition got the ball, they were heading backwards . . . It really wasn't anybody's fault.'

You can hear him saying it now on Match of the Day, a programme for whose excellence he can take much of the credit. Some say that the package of highlights distorts a 90-minute game. Others would argue that it's a distortion of which English football has never been in greater need. With Hansen and Gary Lineker in the studio the programme has never been more handsomely packaged, and with the possible exception of BSkyB, everyone is benefiting, including Hansen himself. 'We've only been doing it for seven weeks,' he says, 'but midweek comes I can't wait for Saturday.' How many retired players, including Dalglish and Souness, can honestly say the same?

(Photograph omitted)