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In the second of their World Cup TV coverage previews, John Nicholson and Alan Tyers look at ITV's punditry team of Gordon Strachan, Ian Wright, Patrick Vieira, Gus Poyet, Lee Dixon, Fabio Cannavaro, Glenn Hoddle, Martin O'Neill and Andros Townsend, as well as their usual anchors and whatnot but sadly no Roy Keane...
England's friendlies have already given us a taste of what to expect in the style stakes. At one end is Wrighty, sporting modern creations that look as if they have been deliberately badly tailored from fabrics designed by NASA for repelling alien bacteria. At the other, there's Glenn Hoddle, looking like a games teacher who has taken off his off at some out-of-hours school event.
Fabio Cannavaro will no doubt dress in that immaculate, understated yet expensive manner that evades so many Englishmen but which seems second-nature to many Italians. Apart from that, it'll be a style-free zone of plain shirts and neat hair, exemplified by presenter Adrian Chiles who remains a man on whose broad back even the most well-fitting suit is destined to look like cheap rags.
It had long been our contention that Chiles was a gifted broadcaster with the knack for making the viewer feel as if he or she were part of the conversation, and that ITV's commercial-break infested coverage was hamstringing him. Oddly, his two attempts to cover weather-spoiled football matches - October 2012's Poland match and the recent Honduras fiasco - have revealed him to be less comfortable with more air.
He rather charmingly made it very clear to viewers on both occasions that A LIVE BROADCAST NIGHTMARE WAS UNFOLDING, and we remember with especial fondness his plea to Gabriel Clarke to furnish him with unknown unknowns about the construction of the Polish stadium roof. Clarke pleaded ignorance; Chiles replied: "Just speculate wildly, and take your time." LOL, as old people who like to think they're being young say.
Chiles somehow manages to give the sense that this multi-million-pound, multi-media, sponsor-dripping TV behemoth is held together with bits of string and sticky tape. And if you had to work alongside Ian Wright, then so might you. We enjoy the lo-fi vibe Chiles gives off, along with his ability to look like a West Midlands scruff bag in an expensive suit. There is always the sense coming from ITV in these head-to-head tournament battles with the BBC that it is the underdog, vulgar younger brother, which is as it should be.
In-ger-lund. The BBC, with what remains of its Reithian sensibilities still just about flickering, attempts to give more of a global flavour, educating the casual fan about the (very surface) of football in other countries and so on. Not so the commercial rival, which knows which side its bread is buttered on. And that butter, as Alan Patridge might have it, is the England football team. Why else would they hire Wrighty?
Tactical genius or tactics truck?
The man for whom this section is named gets so much grief and abuse online that we just can't bring ourselves to add to the pile. Analysis is ITV's weakest suit, although we are big fans of Lee Dixon, who has really come into his own since getting out from under the shadow of the Alans. Gordon Strachan is better as a quirky, spiky argumentalist than as an analyst, while we have never found Glenn Hoddle especially insightful, even though Glenn quite clearly thinks he's fascinating. We have always enjoyed Martin O'Neill's punditry work at tournaments and found him an intelligent voice and sharp reader of the game.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The loss of Keano, who has rolled back the years by walking out of a World Cup squad just before the tournament kicks off, is a major blow. Having considered this for a long time, we reckon that Keano became self-aware around late 2013 and has since been playing up to the scary Irishman persona, and may actually not be as on-the-brink-of-ultraviolence as he sounds when discussing a lazy midfielder.
Anyhow, his withering contempt will be missed. His relationship with Chiles, with Adrian playing us, the viewer, i.e. the slightly scared civilian, was thoroughly enjoyable and absolutely irreplaceable. It's hard to dispute that ITV have been mortally wounded by Keane's withdrawal, an absence that will only enhance his reputation, of course.
The Foreigners signed by ITV are quite interesting but don't get the pulse racing. We're looking forward to Gus Poyet, who has a vaguely tragi-comic air, although Patrick Vieira has so far offered not much beyond having a nice voice and looking superior. Cannavaro is, to us anyway, a bit of an unknown quantity, but will at least look nice. All foreign bottoms will be thoroughly kissed by Chiles, that much seems certain, as does his somewhat tedious fretting over everything England. Andros Townsend can surely be no more wooden than Theo 'Theo' Walcott, and if nothing else is a bit of an unusual selection.
Bantersaurus Rex/Leg Squeezer Geezers
In Ian Wright, they have one of the most shaving foam down the trousers, suit crotch-cutting, pegs in shoes, football football men imaginable, and really only the presence of Reidy could up the leg-squeezer quotient more. This means there will plenty of exhortation for England to "have a go", but little idea as to how to how this go should be had. Chiles has lost one of his major go-to josh routines with the disappearance of Roy, although Wee Gordon and MON are both chaps with a sense of humour and enough detachment from England to say beastly things if they are needed to be said.
Poyet seems an out-and-out eccentric. Indeed, Gus puts us in mind of a wooden ventriloquist doll with staring, rotating but unseeing eyes. Let's just hope nobody does a funny poo somewhere they should not be doing a poo.
Andros Townsend seems like a bright enough lad, but your serving footballer is often a dedicated mangler of English purely due to lack of on-air experience. He's also inhibited by wanting to play for England in the future and thus not wanting to queer his pitch with his contemporaries. And also by not actually being a first-pick footballer.
His namesake Andy, of course, bends the knee to no man in his recycling of the same old same old. Expect to hear all the biggest hits from the man who brought you "that's better", a phrase repeated so often you'd think it was a Buddhist mantra chanted in order to lose one's ego and commune more easily with the godhead. Expect Clive to indulge in the usual amount of references to samba football, Dutch masters, Italian jobs, Gallic flair and German efficiency.
Why do they get gigs?
A question legitimate bordering on the rhetorical for some of these. The answer is, well, someone has got to do it, haven't they? The fact remains that a lot of people who watch the World Cup matches don't watch a lot of football and will find Ian Wright speaks a lot of sense. ITV does not aim at the cerebral. It aims squarely at what it fondly imagines is the mainstream but which in reality is actually only one section of the mainstream. Still, you know: UKIP got four million votes. The public really are a bunch of See You Next Tuesdays.
We rate Dixon, we're looking forward to seeing O'Neill, and feel Strachan is a quality performer and has never felt more at ease in his own skin. We're interested to see how Fabio and Andros work out, but remain to be impressed by the others. Overall though: an ITV World Cup without Roy? Not for me, Clive.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
See extracts from Alan's new(ish) book 'Tutenkhamen's Tracksuit: The History of Sport in 100ish Objects' here.
Check out John's new series of crime novels about life, death, sex and UEFA Cup football, here.