TELEVISION / A comfortable victory before a ball is kicked

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The Independent Culture
I'M BEGINNING to flag already, if truth be told, and they haven't even kicked off yet. We're being softened up with drama: Stephen Bill's Fair Game on Saturday, Born Kicking on Monday night and, last night, Arthur Smith and Chris England's An Evening with Gary Lineker (ITV). The latter opened with Kenneth Wolstenholme's celebrated remark on the occasion of England's 1966 victory - 'They think it's all over - well, it is now'. I only know this because it had also concluded Fair Game three days earlier, at which point I went and checked who'd said it and when.

You may gather from this that I can offer no personal account of my passionate childhood adherence to a local team (or national, for that matter), no rapturous passages about the sodality of the terraces, no Proustian memories of Luton's magical 2-1 away win against Leicester in 1963, when Spaghetti scored off the crossbar. The recent tidal wave of lads' interest in football has swept me out to sea, without a conversational paddle. Which means that in all these dramas about men's passion for the game I'm with the girls, asking for yet another explanation of the offside rule: worse than that, I'm with the idiots who don't even have a genital excuse for not knowing it in the first place.

In An Evening With Gary Lineker this meant Ian, the sort of painful dork who takes pickled onions with him on holiday and makes laboured jokes about people's names ('Shall I 'gitta' beer Beergitta?'). He is rightly the object of the play's derision, as treacherous as he is boring, but when extra time is announced and he lets slip an involuntary moan ('Oh God - do they mean there's more?'), my heart went out to him.

Fortunately for my self-esteem there were no other men in the play you would actually want to identify with - unless it was Lineker himself, 'the Queen Mother of football', who appeared at the end in a ball of light to make dreams come true. The play itself was a slightly ramshackle affair - half stand-up routine, half drama based on a holiday taken during the 1990 World Cup. But it won you over with an easy charm of manner, the equivalent of grace on stage. 'That's the trouble with Ian - there's never any room in his bag,' spat Monica, during a marital row. 'I hope you realise that doesn't mean anything,' replied her husband, after a well-timed pause, rescuing the duff line with a bit of calculated candour.

And the play itself had room in its bag for quite a lot - a clever overlap between emotional confidences from Monica (Caroline Quentin) and the 'woorrs' and 'oohs' from the boys in front of the telly; some nice explorations of infidelity in commercial and emotional forms; an acute take on the weird physics of sexual attraction - Martin Clunes, nobody's idea of a pin-up, showed how attractive arrogant wit can be, and Clive Owen added an astringent little whiff of vicarious adultery. 'Get in there]' he yells at the screen, but his eyes flick sideways towards his friend, moving in on 'the lovely Brigitta' and hoping to score for both of them. Even Brigitta was a good gag, a German with a sense of humour so dry that you couldn't always be sure whether she was joking or not.

Like Fair Game, though, An Evening with Gary Lineker might find itself accused of bringing the game into disrepute. Football isn't an ennobling thing here but an irritant drug, an addiction that makes them fidget and itch, that paralyses relationships and distorts values ('It's a shit-hole,' yells Bill when he discovers that their palatial suite has no television).

Only Gary, haloed in light and proving, at the very end, that his farts do smell of perfume, reminds you of the high that leads to these lows.