When Adrian Chiles walks into the studio dressing room, Manish Bhasin is wearing a three-piece Thom Sweeney suit in a striking windowpane check, artfully layered over a luxurious, charcoal roll-neck sweater. Three sides of the room are lined with racks of suits and shirts, with pair upon pair of designer shoes arranged beneath. The fourth wall is taken over by a huge mirror above a table set with hairbrushes and makeup.
Zero chance, though, of anything diverting ITV’s football frontman and the presenter of the BBC Football League Show from their favourite subject. “All right, mate,” Chiles kicks off. “What happened to so-and-so last night then, eh?” Bhasin shakes his head: “Tell me about it. Strange decision, though, playing such-and-such instead of…” etc.
Here’s something I learned about football pundits from spending a day in their company: put two or more of them in a room together, and they talk about football, even if there’s 100 grand’s worth of clothes nearby. (The exception to this is if one of the men is David Ginola, in which case the rule is: if David Ginola is in the room, you talk about David Ginola.)
And yet here they all are – Chiles, Bhasin, Ginola and his BT Sport colleague Jake Humphrey – game for modelling the new season’s menswear. This shoot would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. The evolution of the football pundit – from a man who talks about football and does not engage with fashion at all, to a man who talks about football while working a bit of a look – reflects the evolution of the British male in general. Football is the national game, and while the players and managers operate on a different plane, the pundits have always represented the bloke next door. An ITV source recently said, in praise of Chiles: “He often voices what a lot of punters at home are thinking.”
This deliberate ordinariness is reflected in their on-screen clothes. As stylist (and Liverpool fan) Elgar Johnson puts it, the classic pundit look is “a dad going for a Sunday roast with the family. This isn’t a bad thing. I like the fact that there is nothing too fancy going on.” But with the World Cup looming, and competition between broadcasters intensified by BT Sport having seized Champions League coverage from Sky from next year, looking the part matters more and more. “Things have changed,” says Humphrey. “A lot of the ex-pros who have moved into punditry in recent years take it for granted that looking stylish is important. There was a time when to be concerned with what you wore just wasn’t done, but the bar has been raised. Every time I sit next to David Ginola, I feel intensely jealous, because he is the most incredible clotheshorse and always looks gorgeous.”
The moment I raise the subject of fashion with Chiles, he protests his innocence: “I know nothing. Literally nothing. I haven’t got a clue.” Which isn’t quite true, because he’s wearing a very nice blue suit, but when I ask where it’s from, he looks blank and has to check the label (it’s Austin Reed). Bhasin, on the other hand, is wearing an unstructured, unlined but shapely blazer of a type that only a confident shopper would alight upon and, opening with, “I quite like my fashion”, sits down for a good chat about silhouette and shirt detailing and collar width.
Humphrey is more straightforwardly clean-cut, model-handsome in his Moncler jacket, which he bought at the Matches boutique in Richmond, close to his home, although he blokeishly lays the blame on his wife for their frequent visits.
Ginola, meanwhile, is in a league of his own, albeit not quite in the way he thinks. His look – leather jacket, jeans, enormous watch, habit of taking his sunglasses off with a flourish and holding your gaze a little too long – is Euro-suave meets comedy French charmer, but he has undeniable star quality.
All – except Ginola, who I think we’ve established is a special case – are in agreement that fashion is not exactly at the heart of the culture of punditry. Bhasin tells me that “the closest we’ll come to talking about it at work is on a Saturday night before the show. I’ll ask, ‘What are you guys wearing in terms of shirt colour?’ so we don’t clash. Then we leave it at that.” Chiles says that if he had any confidence, he would “try to brighten things up with a different-coloured shirt or tie, but any time I try, I get it hopelessly wrong. From the moment I walk out of my house, the driver will say, ‘What on Earth are you wearing?’, then I get to work and I get the piss taken out of me mercilessly, and then I’ll get a load of emails afterwards saying, ‘What the fuck were you wearing?’ So you know what? I just stick to a straightforward shirt and tie.”
Television viewers have strong opinions. “If I wear anything other than a white shirt and a dark jacket, I will get hundreds and hundreds of comments on social media,” Humphrey agrees. “Not all of them positive.”
And then there is Ginola. “Does fashion come into the conversation? Yes. It comes into the conversation when I walk into the room. The other guys, they want to see what I am wearing. They will say, ‘I love your jacket, I love your shirt, that suits you…’ This kind of thing.”
Everyone agrees that Gary Lineker was the game-changer in raising the style bar among pundits. Dan May, style director of Mr Porter (and Liverpool fan), recalls, “When Lineker started doing Match Of The Day, I remember thinking, ‘He actually looks good.’ He was the first who was vain enough to care how he looked, whereas [with] those old pundits, there was just no vanity there.” Lineker, with his streamlined suits and sharp tailoring, broke out of what Susie Lau, author of the Style Bubble fashion blog (and Arsenal fan), calls “that dad look they had going on”.
The generational reference is significant, because this story is in part about how the notion of the “personal brand” has validated vanity for a generation of young men. Humphrey tells a great story about Cristiano Ronaldo. “I was at the Euros in 2012 and, just before the game, a close-up of him came up on the huge screen in the stadium. And he looks up at it, and” – he mimes Ronaldo sucking in his cheekbones, pouting and patting his hair – “and this is moments before kick-off at a really important match for Portugal, and he’s using that screen as a mirror. In front of 80,000 people. Because even at that moment he’s aware that, if he scores a goal, how he looks will be important for his brand. That’s the way the world is now, and I think we as pundits can’t be left behind.”
A decade ago, the dominant sartorial message from Match Of The Day was of meaty thighs bulging out of shiny suits, a sense of thwarted action. Now the look is decidedly more urbane. “It’s the same with the players themselves,” Bhasin says. “They used to have a boot bag, with boots and shinpads. With my show, we’re all over the country – Tranmere, Stevenage, wherever – and wherever we go, the players get off the coach with their Louis Vuitton washbags and their ridiculously large headphones. These have become must-have accessories, even for the lower-league footballers, because that’s what the top players have.”
“It was David Beckham who first put pressure on the other guys,” Ginola says. “He has great taste, and he likes to dress.”
Humphrey adds: “You can’t ignore the fact that the player who has been the most talked-about figure of his and my and probably any footballing generation is David Beckham. His football was impressive, but what made him stand out was the way he carried himself. When he wore a sarong, when he cut his hair into a mohican, it got people looking at footballers in a totally different way.”
There is a way of dressing that is specific to the modern game. “Footballers,” Chiles says, “are very natty dressers.” Bhasin also works in cricket, which “is very different, because it’s a sport with a public school background, and that shows in the look. For example, there are no corduroys in football.”
As Chiles points out, most footballers “are pretty dainty – even Roy Keane. He’s one of the toughest men alive, and I probably wouldn’t call him dainty to his face, but he’s quite slightly built.” And the modern footballer is also, of course, extremely rich. “These young turks who are just out of the game, they’ve been earning 100 grand a week for the past few years,” Chiles says. “And that’s had an impact on how they dress, as it would. So we’ve now got a new era of footballer’s wardrobe moving into the punditry chair.”
“I’ve got mad love for Jamie Redknapp,” Chiles declares. Everyone has: Redknapp is the poster boy for pundits, named by all as the best dressed. (“The proportions are right: he’s thin, he’s elegant, he cares,” May says.) Lau thinks Alan Hansen looks sharp. (Another style experts feels Hansen’s go-to dark shirts are “a bit of a dad’s party shirt”, but declined to go on record, citing due reverence.) Chiles praises Gareth Southgate (“Poised and neat, can’t imagine him ever looking scruffy”) and Lee Dixon (“Natty. Very much of the pointy-shoe brigade”). Everyone agrees Robbie Savage is a one-off, but really should do up a couple more shirt buttons.
I ask Ginola about other pundits he thinks dress well. He looks slightly wounded at my bringing other men into the conversation. The subject returns to David Ginola.
Football may be a less macho world than it was, but the sartorial topics on which the pundits are most comfortable are still the least frilly parts of fashion: tailoring, made-to-measure, watches. (Chunky watches are a pundit cliche that shows no sign of dying out.) Even though, as May points out, “the movement of a suit is all wrong when you sit, so it’s a hard thing to look good in sat down”, Chiles feels they offer the safest option: “I’ve got terrible posture, and you can’t slouch in a suit, so for me a suit is the answer.”
Chiles swears by Chris Kerr, the Soho tailor who also makes suits for Vic Reeves and Chris Moyles, among others. Ginola and Humphrey both have bespoke shirts made, Humphrey at Pogson Davis of Mayfair (“To this day, the best thing I’ve ever bought, fashion-wise”).
Ginola, meanwhile, becomes almost Cantona-esque on the subject of shoes. “When you build a house, you plant a grass lawn in the front, and that makes the house look better. Shoes have the same effect on your outfit. This is true for men and women.”
“It’s not really that sports journalism has changed,” Humphrey says. “It’s that the world has changed. I don’t know how much time Barack Obama spends with stylists and makeup artists, but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot more than Abraham Lincoln ever did.”