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Screen Test: How ITV Introduced Us To The World Cup Panel

The original World Cup panel was full of stars
The original World Cup panel was full of stars

These days we take football punditry very much for granted but prior to1970 the only place you’d find a group of like-minded individuals sitting around, chatting about the game and analysing every contentious decision was in the local pub or working man’s club – that was until ITV brought us the World Cup panel.

Having lifted the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley four years earlier expectations were high going into that summer’s tournament as England looked to defend their title in Mexico but unlike today where broadcasters take a cast of hundreds to the tournament, the party was, in the words of the England squad’s tournament song that year - back home.

In something of a broadcasting brainwave head of ITV Sport Jon Bromley decided that rather than decamp to the other side of the world, the channel’s leading commentator Brian Moore and Big Match host Jimmy Hill would stay in London and preside over a collection of loud mouthed and equally loudly dressed individuals who would examine every kick from over 5,000 miles away.

The group consisted of Wolves striker Derek Dougan, Manchester United and Scotland midfielder Pat Crerrand and Arsenal defender Bob McNabb, all men who weren’t afraid to speak their mind, and along with the cigar puffing Manchester City assistant manager, Malcolm Allison, gelled in a way that nobody could have foreseen.

The result was pure theatre as four of the game’s larger than life characters analysed, debated, disagreed and often argued on a nightly basis in front of an audience who simply lapped-up the chemistry which was as much controversial as it was cordial.

Each man played his role brilliantly. The “Doug” was the good-cop, bad-cop character, often winding up his fellow panelists and then sitting back to admire the fireworks which followed, while Crerrand’s punditry skills were similar to those which made him such a good player; he was fiery, aggressive and energetic.

McNabb had been an England squad player until just before the tournament so was able to offer an insight which was as educational as it was accurate while the star of the show was, without doubt, Malcolm Allison, who had the look of a James Bond villain about him with his smart suits and Cuban cigars while offering the tactical know-how of the top class coach that he was.

All the time Moore and Hill presided over affairs like two school teachers struggling to contain a group of over-excited kids on the last day of term. “Jimmy tried to control it, but Malcolm would take the piss out of him unmercifully,” Bob McNabb later revealed in David Tossell’s book In Sunshine or in Shadow. “Actually, we all ended up taking the piss out each other.”

To enhance the camaraderie the requirements were simple; each of the four was required to take up residence in a West London hotel for the duration of the tournament with an unlimited supply of alcohol to keep them refreshed in what could be seen as a precursor to Big Brother some three decades later.

“Malcolm was the only guy that I have ever worked with who could drink an excess of champagne and not slur his words,” confirmed McNabb.

Even England’s stunning exit to West Germany in the quarter-finals couldn’t dampen the fab four’s passion for what they were watching, each discarding their Union Jack ties in a combination of genuine frustration and television drama which only helped to endear them to their audience.

The formula was such a success that it was repeated four years later with the addition of the outspoken Brian Clough, who was about to take the reins at Leeds United and equally loquacious Jack Charlton, as ITV’s experiment went on to change the way we all watch major tournaments forever as the round-the-table panel format became the norm.

But as the years passed and the guests became higher-profile, better paid and more media savvy, the controversy was replaced with calculated caution. "For the first time during the coverage of sport on television we had passionate, controversial, confrontational discussion. It was sometimes outrageous, even bigoted.” the late Brian Moore told The Telegraph.

And while the thought of a slightly tipsy Alan Shearer tearing strips off a cigar toking Gordon Strachan while Roy Keane looks on in bewildered amusement might seem like TV gold it’s perhaps worth noting that not everybody saw the funny side of this Irishman, Englishman and Scotsman routine almost 50 years ago.

“When Malcolm Allison suggested that the Russians and Romanians were all peasants, the protests practically jammed the switchboard,” Moore would later reveal; meaning we can only guess just how, if something similar were to be introduced to a social media obsessed generation today, it would be received.

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