Desperate for a piece of the pre-season action

VIEW FROM THE ARMCHAIR
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THERE ARE two kinds of football fans (for the purposes of this discussion, anyway). There are those who will watch all their own team's matches and catch most of the other big games on the TV, but who find the prospect of, say, Huddersfield v Portsmouth on Sky about as attractive as an early bath with Vinnie Jones (apologies to those for whom this is a pleasant prospect).

Then there are those who'll watch anything. Even pre-season friendlies. There's probably a good piece to be written about the new breed of armchair fan, who can watch football on the telly virtually round the clock these days. The type who would have happily let several hours go by of what, after all, is a strictly limited life span, watching Channel 5 and Eurosport this week.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the purpose of pre-season friendlies, but it's a bit much putting them on the box. Am I alone in finding it astounding that a terrestrial non-specialist station, Channel 5, should screen games from a warm-up tournament in the Netherlands in prime time? I'm not saying it shouldn't happen - nobody needs to watch, after all, and I suspect few did - but it smacks of a desperation to grab a piece, any piece, of the action.

Derelict of duty as usual, I couldn't take more than about half an hour of flipping between channels on Tuesday. On C5 it was a case of Spot The Fan at Arnhem, where Chelsea were losing desultorily to Atletico Madrid. The occasional shout echoed round the ground, making it sound like the public swimming baths, but it was left to the ever-reliable Dennis Wise to liven up a petulant but deadly dull affair towards the end with a characteristic spot of stamping that earned him a red card.

There was a more lively atmosphere over on Eurosport for Manchester United's visit to Brann Bergen, where there was even some chanting (it being Scandinavia, they were presumably all United fans). You could tell it was pre-season by the fact that Jordi Cruyff was playing, but this was the kind of match where there's a bit more at stake, with the hosts anxious to impress their loftier guests, and it felt a little more like the real thing - but only a little more. Andy Cole, a man with something to prove, made it 4-0 with a three-touch goal (instep-thigh-instep-back of the net) worthy of Dennis Bergkamp. (When I said this to the Arsenal fan I was watching with, she was very nearly on the phone to her mates to organise a spot of bother for me).

Sky usually unveil a lavish new advertisement to kick off the season, but this year's is distinctly underwhelming. "You love football. We love football," it says, superfluously, over shots of people like Sister Josepha, a Toon-supporting nun, and professional Owl Roy Hattersley plus his dog Buster - then, to top it all off, the appalling Mick Hucknall, sitting in a dressing room smiling coyly at the camera while on the soundtrack he mangles the old Hollies number, "The Air That I Breathe" (which was rubbish to begin with). Why that song, plaintive yet plodding? What are Sky trying to say to us? Why put out an ad in which every shot is a cliche, full of that spurious romanticism and those overfiltered skies? What it says is, "We've got most of the football you're going to watch this season, so frankly we don't have to try that hard." Depressingly, they're right.

Like most sports that didn't involve the proverbial 22 men kicking a ball, athletics dropped off the scale of public interest this summer and, though Channel 4 are trying to keep things going, it took Roger Black's involuntary farewell last Sunday for the sport to impinge on the national consciousness. Even with the European Championships approaching, it was difficult to get too worked up about the Stockholm Grand Prix on Wednesday (C4 and Eurosport).

Part of athletics' diminishing appeal in this country is the paucity of British world-beaters, of course, and it was left to Jonathan Edwards and Steve Backley to remind us of the old days when we used to win things ("Backley won the javelin with Mick Hill in fourth place," said the commentator, Stuart Storey, a phrase you've heard so often it's difficult not to conclude that that is, in fact, his real name: "Mick Hillinfourthplace".

The organisers were doing their best to entertain, though. As each man for the 100m final was announced, the riff from Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" played on the PA. Distressingly, though, the music just before the gun was the harmonica intro to Supertramp's "Crime of the Century", and I'm ashamed to say I recognised it instantly.

Like the athletics, there's a fag-end feel to the cricket as well, borne out by the swathes of empty seats at Headingley at the start of the fifth Test. It was a day of classic England - from 181 for 3 to 200 for 8 in five easy stages. There was smoke coming from the scorers' pens, said David Gower as the eighth man down, Ian Salisbury, scurried off in self- disgust. Still, by yesterday lunchtime the other lot were a few down too, so we're not the only rubbish cricket team around.

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