Mark Pougatch (left) locks eyes with Roy Keane (right)

Credit: ITV

Man-marking jobs on Roy Keane once had dangerous consequences, but Mark Pougatch is fighting fire with flattery. The carefully-constructed hard-man image has been creaking on-screen while under grilling from an ITV anchor deftly extracting a lighter side.

Now Keane’s tough guy demeanour can be debunked altogether:  "Off screen, he probably wouldn’t like me to say, but he’s one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet," says Pougatch.

During coverage, Keane, as Des Lynam noted in his column for Telegraph Sport, barely makes eye contact with the presenter during his epic rants, but it is all part of the pair’s burgeoning double act. The former midfielder could always mix it as a player, and now he’s traded Micah Richards for a public school-educated broadcasting heavyweight as his latest comedy foil.

Pougatch describes Keane’s punditry style as "show us your medals", but the Irishman’s joke that he "never" even talked to his wife for more than five minutes could not be further from the truth. Keane is "very, very, very generous with his time" to all around him, Pougatch insists. And, to complete the love-in, he adds that he has "a brilliantly dry sense of humour".

Eighteen months after what appeared to be a tense parting of ways with BBC Five Live, Pougatch has plenty of reason for striking the upbeat tone. ITV has received critical acclaim over an analysis team that also includes Ian Wright, Graeme Souness, Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, and it pulled in the biggest TV audience of the year for England’s goalless draw with Scotland.

Mark Pougatch steers the ship with Roy Keane (C-L), Eni Aluko (C-R) and Ian Wright (R)

Credit: pixel GRG

This year the offering feels more distinct from the BBC’s familiar line-up. Pougatch hopes his pedigree as a journalist rather than a former playing star has helped contribute to a "broad church" approach, although he recognises that a 20million audience would have tuned for the Scotland match whichever free-to-air channel it was on. 

"I think what’s really really important is that we offer quite a broad church," he added. "You have to remember it’s ITV – that is an entertainment channel, and that we have to balance the needs of the football fans who want to have some deeper analysis… but at the same time appeal to everyone. By definition, if you’ve got 20 million people watching, which we did for England-Scotland, and you compare that to how many people watch Sky on a Sunday afternoon or even Match of the Day, it doesn’t take long to work out there are lots of people watching who would never watch football outside of a major championship."

During the big moments, Pougatch does not let it enter his head that the world is watching. Lynam has spoken of the fear of "corpsing" and Pougatch says he remembered feeling nervous ahead of England’s World Cup semi-final in 2018. However, after a life in broadcasting, he says the job generally just "clicks-in". "When it’s appropriate, you need to have fun, some entertainment, balanced up with the pure minutia," he adds. "My job is to make sure I know when those moments are."

The multi-sport broadcaster left Five Live in January 2020. Father-of-three Pougatch, 52, had tweeted then that it had not been his choice to go. The BBC insisted his departure had nothing to do with his age, despite complaints it was unnecessarily sacrificing established talent elsewhere in favour of a relentless drive to attract a younger audience.

Bumper terrestrial TV audiences

However, 18 months on, Pougatch – who says choosing between radio and TV presenting would be like choosing between his children – continues, when not working, to listen to Saturday’s flagship Sports Report. He recalls his time at the helm there with a great deal of pride. "It’s quite obvious there’s no way I’d be doing what I did on ITV without what I did at Five Live, and I will always retain the highest regard for the people with whom I worked," he added. "Many of them are still extremely good friends of mine. I was texting John Murray yesterday about the Germany game."

He says he has been "extremely fortunate" in his career. "I wanted the challenge," he added. "I think I proved I could do it on radio without being immodest and I wanted the challenge to see if I could do it on television. The people at ITV are a brilliant bunch to work for. They are creatives, they are ambitious, they’re talented, and they’re great fun."

At an overwhelmingly enjoyable juncture in his career, Pougatch, who is now officially ITV’s main football presenter, will cast a surly note only for the sports administrators who have said in recent weeks that appetite for live sport is waning amongst younger generations. During the Super League furore, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez was among those to argue that 90-minute matches are now "too long".

"I roll my eyes when I hear sports administrators say the way that people consume sport these days is changing," he added. "What about the 20 million people watching England-Scotland?"