Neville, Wright, Keane and Bilic: ITV’s World Cup pitch

Date published: Friday 25th May 2018 11:27

In the first of three TV and radio World Cup previews, Johnny is running the rule over the runners and riders for telly and radio World Cup coverage. First under his microscope is the channel his mother thought was only for “common, rough people”. That’ll be ITV, then.


When I was growing up in the 1970s, ITV was genuinely thought to be the channel for the working class and BBC for the aspirational and actual middle class. In football, this was certainly true. BBC was polite and establishment; ITV was much more rock ‘n’ roll. And this was first evidenced at the 1970 World Cup. I can’t say this more profoundly: everything we think of as comprising football TV was birthed in that glorious summer.

ITV revolutionised presentation of the World Cup and more broadly football itself on the TV. In 1970 their panel of pundits was a legendary quartet of Malcolm Allison, Derek Dougan, Pat Crerand and Bob McNab, policed by a silk scarf-wearing Jimmy Hill and Brian Moore.

The pundits were plied with champagne and told to get on with it, late in to the night. Big Mal smoked cigars and all four of them would row with each other in a way which often suggested they had forgotten they were even on TV.

They repeated the trick in 1974 and added Brian Clough’s petrol to the fire. It was compulsive television and they set ITV a very high standard. I think I speak for us all when I say we would still all like to see pundits with a few drinks in them, smoking cigars, jabbing fingers at each other and wearing psychedelic clothing. By comparison, modern day football TV seems a tad corporate and bloodless. They’d do well to plug back into their own heritage.

These days, in football terms at least, ITV is very much in the BBC’s shadow. In 2014 12.09 million people watched the final on the BBC and just 2.86 on ITV. This isn’t because the BBC does a better job than ITV. It really isn’t. But for some reason in Britain, most of us watch big events on the BBC. It’s like we trust them. I don’t know why, but it is true. Four times more people watched the Royal Wedding on the BBC than on ITV. Maybe my mother’s old attitude lives on.


They don’t get a lot of live football to cover so rightfully ITV are throwing all their underwear at the wall in 2018 and are hoping some of it sticks. They’ve snaffled a big gun from Sky in the shape of Gary Neville, which is a bit of a coup. He’ll be doing a lot of the heavy punditry lifting.

When it comes to pundits, their regular worker bees Lee Dixon and Ian Wright will be on board and will be joined by Roy Keane, who we are all hoping will have grown a fierce beard and decides to take this opportunity to declare he despises the commodification of individuality.

Keeping the Manchester United quotient high, Wales manager Ryan Giggs will also be present to invest proceedings with his special hurdy gurdy-like drone. Patrice Evra is also on hand to dispense rough justice to anyone who gets out of line. Henrik Larsson (seven games for United), Martin O’Neill and Slaven Bilic are the others charged with being interesting. They probably will be. We expect Slavan to stand on the desk at some point. And I think we all still hope for another meeting between O’Neill and Robbie Williams. Incredible to think this was 20 years ago already.

There are two further interesting inclusions to their team: Eni Aluko and Mark Clattenburg.

This will be the first World Cup when the two major broadcasters are employing female footballers as pundits. The fact that if either BBC or ITV had not done so it would’ve seemed very odd and would’ve been called out, shows the changing landscape we’re living through. This is 2018. It’s a different country.

Clattenburg, who I bet will be known as Clatts – or at least, that’s what Wrighty will call him – is from one of the bleakest outposts of civilization: the once great steel town of Consett, which is set on the windswept moors of County Durham. So Russia will seem positively balmy and luxurious to him.

I like TV having refs on. I think it adds something unique to the debate. He caused quite a controversy with his comments about reffing the Chelsea v Spurs game at the end of the 2015/16 season, so let’s hope he is armed with more similarly tasty meat. Will Wrighty be able to resist making any hair weave jokes?

With their two regular top notch presenters in Jacqui Oatley and Mark Pougatch driving the bus, we can be certain the shows will be informal but informed and uber professional.

Clive Tyldesley, Sam Matterface, Jon Champion and Joe Speight are the quartet of mic men. Matterface is more famous from talkSPORT but is a quality performer. I used to love Champion on 5 live many years ago and he’ll be very reliable. Speight isn’t a name I recognise but he’s been on ITV for a while now, so that’s clearly my ignorance. But it will be Clive who will be the star of the show. However, it is a tremendous shame that it doesn’t seem as if Andy Townsend will be riding in and around the co-comms sidecar with him, which is surely a tragedy.

Other co-comms announced are Ally McCoist, who is always a lot of fun and one imagines will be enjoying some vodka-based libations just to be polite. Iain Dowie is also there and he will talk at high speed and still only manage to say 50% of what is in his head.

Glenn Hoddle will also be present, possibly in unpleasant trousers.

Out and about and pitchside will be Gabriel Clarke and Seema Jaswal who presumably will be doing colour pieces, reports and interviews. A quick word of respect for Clarke. A long-serving pitchside and tunnel-dwelling microphone-holding-dude for ITV, he is due a Love Letter soon, I think. I’ve always thought he has a pleasing, rather distant look in his eyes, as if he’s having an ongoing internal monologue about something else altogether.


ITV are showing 23 matches from the group stages on ITV and ITV4 and 32 games in total. Most significantly, they kick off the whole televisual shebang with the Russia v Saudi Arabia game, which could be quite lively. Other tasty games include Argentina v Iceland and Brazil playing Costa Rica.

When it comes to England, they’ve got the Belgium game, which could be the best of the group, but it may be something of a dead rubber by then. That does presume England have won the other two games which is a bold assumption. ITV will be hoping they haven’t and that they need a result. They’ve got the third-place play-off game – possibly the most meaningless game at any World Cup. And as usual, they’re sharing the final with the BBC and will get absolutely trounced in the ratings, so I don’t know why they bother really. It’s always been mystifying to me that both show the same game at the same time.


Niall Sloane, ITV Director of Sport, says: “We have put together a terrific team of pundits who will provide their expertise, insight and unique perspective to bring the tournament to life for our viewers. Our coverage, which kicks off with the opening game, will bring you the very best action and analysis from Russia.”


Not sure their trailer is the most spine-tingling affair, to be honest. I’m not a fan of the pseudo-aggressive style of such things: it smacks of a middle-class person’s idea of how some sort of mythical version of the working class talk about football.

One thing they must do is come up with a decent theme tune, because they never, ever do. While every piece of BBC intro music is instantly memorable from 1970 to 2010, every single ITV one, except perhaps the Casio-rich 1986 one, is wholly anonymous to me and I wager to almost everyone else too. They should look back to the 1970 revolution for a proper theme tune.

So that’s ITV’s pitch for our attention. Will we watch? Of course we will. Every. Single. Game. And I intend to watch the final on ITV whilst listening to the radio, just to boost their viewing figures by one.

John Nicholson


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