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Cigars and showmen: the summer that changed English football punditry | Football

Over half a century later, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it was like to see colour TV for the first time. “When I first caught sight of myself,” recalled Jimmy Hill, “I was quite alarmed. The colours in those days were very garish. I looked like I had terribly high blood pressure. But the ‘wow’ factor of colour was amazing. We wanted our coverage in 1970 to have a carnival feel to it.”

ITV’s opening credits had the feel of a fiesta, with whistles and bands incorporated into the theme tune. Footage showed coloured balloons being released, bands marching and monstrous crowds in the giant Azteca Stadium. For the privileged few, a kaleidoscope of colours poured into their living room from their screens. Whether it was Brazil’s golden shirts dazzling, the baize-green pitches blazing or England’s white shirts shining, Mexico 70 provided a sensory overload.

Throw in the omnipresent midday heat haze and the fact the satellite link caused the commentators’ words to hiss constantly, and viewers knew that they were watching football from a long, long way away. From another planet, almost. In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, the then president, Richard Nixon, expressed hope that, by 2050, the USA might have “sent a man to Mars”, and Rupert Murdoch, who’d recently purchased the News of the World, predicted that the proliferation of satellites in space would revolutionise TV by the end of the 20th century.

Jimmy Hill in one of his custom-made silk neckerchiefs
Jimmy Hill in one of his custom-made silk neckerchiefs. Photograph: LWT

In the London Weekend Television studio, the commercial upstarts got their presentation spot on. The wall behind the panel had Aztec-style writing on it and the pale-orange backdrop gave the appearance of a Mexican sunset. The panellists’ clothes were also eye-catching. Stylists told them to avoid wearing the same colour T-shirts. Bob McNab favoured an orange number, Pat Crerand red and Malcolm Allison Manchester City sky blue.

Brian Moore usually wore a suit – often with a yellow shirt – and then there was Hill, looking dapper in his custom-made silk neckerchiefs. For showpiece matches and England games they were clad in floral kipper ties, bright shirts and loud jackets. “Malcolm Allison – puffing on his Cuban cigar – looked like a million dollars,” recalled a smiling Moore, when I interviewed him in 1998, “which was the image he wished to convey, of course.”

Moore had quickly overcome his annoyance that he wouldn’t be travelling to Mexico to commentate. Exuding almost zen-like calm, which enabled him to keep order in the studio, he refereed conversations between the preening peacock panellists before, during the half-time break and after matches. The “banter” was as vivid and colourful as the clothing. This might have had something to do with the large amounts of alcohol consumed (mainly by Allison) for the duration of the tournament.

The panellists stayed at the Hendon Hall hotel near Wembley Stadium, where England’s 1966 World Cup winners had been holed up four years earlier. Its well-stocked wine cellar was the envy of oenophiles everywhere. Thanks to Allison’s love of holding court there, he racked up a hefty bar bill. ITV happily paid up because, as Hill said: “The network was so thrilled with the impact the panel had made.”

The opening titles of ITV’s Mexico 70 coverage
The opening titles of ITV’s Mexico 70 coverage. Photograph: LWT

With its disparate range of nicknamed characters – “Mal”, “Paddy”, “Doog” and “Nabbers” – the vibe was that of a slimmed-down dressing room. Allison – all Cockney bravado – was the talismanic leader of the pack, with Crerand snapping like a terrier if the others disagreed with him.

Derek Dougan was frequently the butt of Crerand’s and Allison’s jokes and McNab often appeared to struggle to get a word in edgeways. Hill dipped in and out of proceedings as the mild-mannered, pipe-smoking Moore extracted nuggets of sense from what could have been an ill-disciplined rabble. “It helped that it was commercial TV,” Moore told me, “because it meant that time was of the essence before we had to cut to adverts. Otherwise, it would have been a free-for-all.” Moore paused for a moment, closed his eyes, inhaled through his nose and smiled: “The studio reeked of early 70s male ego. There was cigar smoke, the blended scents of Mal’s and Derek’s exotic aftershaves and the whiff of spirits from Mal. Intoxicating.”

Each member of the panel was paid £500. Apart from the lack of swearing, and the absence of fisticuffs, the way they behaved showed the public how footballers actually interacted. Sarcastic and cutting, the panel’s alpha males jostled to be top dogs. Allison could be massively patronising. On one occasion, he blew cigar smoke in Dougan’s face, saying, “Doog, you’re wearing your Sunday best, but you’re stealing all my best lines, baby.” The criticism (particularly of Dougan) could be caustic and swingeing. Towards the end of the tournament, the others rounded on him when he claimed that Brazil forward Jairzinho (who scored in every match) was his player of the tournament. “For God’s sake,” barked an apoplectic Allison. “Have you never heard of this bloke Pelé?” Crerand later explained that he believed the success of the panel was down to the fact that “the public identified with it all, because they realised that this was how they and their pals all spoke down the pub on a Saturday night”.

On occasion, the panellists stirred up controversy. Allison referred to the Soviet and Romanian players as “peasants”, which saw the ITV switchboard jammed with complaints. As Hill recalled: “Mal would say things like that to get a reaction, but after a few glasses of champagne, the outlandish seems normal.” The panellists also touched upon issues which would soon dominate the media agenda. Hill took issue with Alf Ramsey’s substitution of Bobby Charlton against West Germany in the quarter-final with England 2–1 up, after which the opposition went on to win 3–2 after extra time. Crerand insisted that the English game had regressed tactically since Ramsey’s men won the World Cup in 1966. But the tone was never mutinous.

Francis Lee tries to get between Karl-Heinz Schnellinger and Berti Vogts during England’s 3-2 quarter-final defeat to West Germany
Francis Lee tries to get between Karl-Heinz Schnellinger and Berti Vogts during England’s 3-2 quarter-final defeat to West Germany. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

The reaction from the public demonstrated the impact the panellists had on the national consciousness, and ITV was bombarded with correspondence from viewers. “Many were letters from women describing their love for Malcolm Allison, who was football’s James Bond,” explained Moore. “Others expressed outrage that poor Bob McNab was being ‘picked on’ by the others.” When the quartet went shopping in London during a day off, they were mobbed. Four years before, when Roger Hunt, Nobby Stiles and Bobby Charlton headed back north after England won the World Cup and stopped at a service station, no one bothered them. Whenever Ramsey travelled on the tube on England business, he was left alone. But now, after the 1970 World Cup, four young(ish) chaps talking about football on television had become national celebrities.

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It would be about 30 years before the reality TV era, but ITV realised the more combative the studio atmosphere, and the more outlandish the comments, the bigger the audience figures became. The success of the 1970 World Cup panel was a watershed moment, throwing open windows of opportunity for those in the game with the gift of the gab and a penchant for the outlandish. The dawning of a brash and combative era in English football punditry had arrived.

This is an edited extract from Get It On – How the ’70s Rocked Football by Jon Spurling, published by Biteback (£20). To buy a copy for £17.40 go to guardianbookshop.com

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