It has been a World Cup of firsts – both on and off the field. Television networks worldwide are broadcasting the tournament with a virtual reality option, Germany are relying on artificial computerised intelligence for real-time statistics to be passed down to Joachim Low, the Video Assistant Referee is in full swing.
However, perhaps more than any other international tournament, the performances of those in the television studios have come under unprecedented scrutiny. The excellent Alex Scott and Eni Aluko – briefly patronised by Patrice Evra, have predictably shone, while the ever-improving Alan Shearer has been praised for a mature take on football’s seemingly disregarded concussion problem.
On commentary, Vicki Sparks made television history and Ally McCoist has reminded viewers of his enduring qualities.
Yet, it is the host’s role in all this that often gets overlooked. Gary Lineker, selected by Fifa to host the draw back in December, is seemingly ageless, appearing better at 57 than many of those on the pitch. He does, as always, an outstanding job; he is, perhaps, international sport’s most recognised and respected anchor. Of course, a Golden Boot is certainly a useful hand to have at one’s disposal.
And it is this that makes the job of his ITV counterpart so very impressive. Mark Pougatch is a presenter’s presenter – the consummate professional: present but at the same time, absent; calm but authoritative; by no means a former England captain, but infinitely valued by those whose views he invites.
He has written a book, presented on radio, worked in cricket and has hosted Six Nations coverage. Quite simply, he says, such versatility is essential in an industry that is constantly in flux – growing, but also shrinking.
“I think it’s probably wise and logical to be the master of many trades at the start of your career,” he explains. “There will also be the need for specialists but for those setting out I wouldn’t be closing off any avenues early on.
“I was approached to write a book and I thoroughly enjoyed the process and discipline of it. If you’re a journalist, you should always feel you have a book in you and I’ve definitely got more to come.”
The desire to add to his portfolio as an author is as much an understanding of the need to remain professionally active as it is a personal ambition. He is quick to admit that sports journalism is not what it once was – not negatively, but in the relative struggles of print publications as the world becomes smarter.
“Journalism has never been more critical than now as it’s always been the remit of the press to hold important people to account,” he says. “With newspapers not as widely read as before, broadcast and online journalism fills that vacuum to some extent.
“When I spoke to a group of 16-year-olds at my daughter’s school, most didn’t read a physical paper and a lot didn’t have parents who do. Books have survived the digital age; I think newspapers will do too – albeit in a slimmed down state, both the number of them and possibly the size of them.”
Despite his faith in the survival of the press, Pougatch does harbour one worry. The commercialisation of professional sport has seen the role of in-house media and communications officers take on a role that, at times, has verged on professional censorship.
“This is a bit of a concern,” he says. “You’ve seen a few examples of clubs wanting to use their in-house media teams at the expense of the traditional media. To be fair, the vast majority still understand the need to service the traditional outlets, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some clubs try to control to their own ends.”
Yet, with the World Cup in full flow, Pougatch reflects on his own role as the face of England’s international coverage. It is a role that brings great pressure – he replaced Adrian Chiles, who became a figure of mockery amidst the perceived apathy towards the national side.
As this young side threatens to excite an increasingly intrigued nation, Pougatch refutes past aspersions that the market for international football doesn’t exist.
“The England thing is really interesting as people say often say, ‘England are crap: I don’t watch.’ England vs Slovakia got about 7.5 million viewers; England vs Iceland 17.5 million,” he says, looking back on the side’s disastrous Euro 2016 campaign.
“If that’s apathy and disinterest, let’s have more of it! The figures show that everyone may moan but then they watch.”