Where was Ian Wright for the October qualifiers? Simon Tyers begins the search

During the BBC post-mortem on England’s defeat in Northern Ireland, a shot of all the pundits supposedly listening to Alan Hansen’s words of wisdom briefly caught Ian Wright slamming the table with his open palm. This was telling, not only for demonstrating what we already knew about Wright having proper passion for his football but also that it showed in a funny way that a panel of tactically minded experts is no place for what is pejoratively known as a passionate outburst. After all, we can all feel aggrieved at an embarrassment without having someone to do it for us.

Wright was missing from October’s crucial qualifying double, possibly because he’s busy with his latest cheap early Saturday evening foray, What Kids Really Think. The format is as old as prime-time filler itself, being the kind of people show in which children talk naively about an aspect of adult life and the audience react like hyenas, although the special ingredients to this programme appear to be an element of supposed psychology and that Wright has an almost painful lack of rapport with the children.

This month Gary Lineker was invited on to contribute to a discussion about money, not that he could add a lot apart from that no, he didn’t get paid that much when he was professional, and yes, he would like the money they’re on now, making sure he flashed a suitably cheesy grin of the type usually seen when Hansen makes any comment about Spurs doing well. The resultant Q&A was also hampered by being in front of a group of kids too young to remember Lineker’s career and only dimly aware of Wright’s, Ian impatiently stepping in front of questions about Gary’s worth to answer for himself. It’s not clear what the kids in the audience would learn from this, although you would hope it would be no more than any prospective series producer.

With Ian absent, England v Austria was left to Hansen and Alan Shearer, who is improving as a pundit but, like Lee Dixon, is so monotone you begin to wonder if someone else wrote the opinions for him. And what opinions they both had to offer. Before the game Hansen went on at length about how England would only be adjudged as playing well if they won 4-0; his reaction afterwards was almost as if they’d lost 4-0, attempting to apportion blame to every area of the set-up so as not to appear biased. A lot of it was reserved for Peter Crouch, as having spent the build-up interpreting his role in Liverpool passages of play that went nowhere as a positive for England, now actual touches off to team-mates were displayed as evidence of what he wasn’t supposed to be doing. Gary got so caught up in the malaise he heard “fans booing there at Eriksson” even though the catcalls had started while the manager was still halfway down the pitch. Truth be told, many viewers might well have been wondering whether Eriksson was entirely on top of the situation as early as the pre-match chat with Garth, in which Sven declared “Crouch gives us... up in the air”, glancing skywards during the pause.

Four days later, Poland were put to the sword by a performance that went so well that Gary ended up bringing his concerns for the level of performance in friendlies into the post-match conversation in an attempt to help find an immediate chink in the armour, having taken particular delight in Hansen’s emphasis on “playing high up the pitch – a new footballing expression!”, which explains why he never became a manager.

For a more rounded idea of how the sudden about-turn in the public view of England’s fortunes affected those who are paid to interpret the game, we had to wait till Jimmy Hill’s Sunday Supplement, in which Shaun Custis waded into the debate by spewing out formations like a malfunctioning tactics robot from a cartoon series. Henry Winter was spotted seemingly openly laughing at this, although given that he had just recommended Emile Heskey be recalled as “he only has to look half-interested for the remainder of the season to get in the squad”, a quote which writes its own comeback, he had nothing to be smug about. If only Wrighty could level off at half-interested.

From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month

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