Easy targets, uneasy results of the blame game

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE A shooting party, all of them blind drunk, staggering out on to the moors and blasting away at anything that moves. Next, picture them returning home a few hours later, nursing splitting headaches, having managed to kill nothing more edible than their own retriever. You now have a fair picture of last week's Reputations (BBC2), which tried to give Sir Matt Busby's image the sort of battering usually reserved for cod fillets. Even from his grave, though, Busby proved far too canny for them.

Reputations is a difficult strand to get right. To their credit the producers do not always opt for the obvious targets, and are always prepared - indeed, delighted - to raise hackles. But it is difficult to escape the feeling that if they had thought they could get away with it,they would simply have called the series Bastards and had done with it.

Almost without exception you need to be two things to feature on Reputations: suitably famous, and verifiably dead. Busby, of course, had the added attraction that several members of his supporting cast were famous for the manner of their death. Yet the lasting impression of Busby after 50 minutes of increasingly desperate mud-slinging was the same one you had started out with, that of a visionary, stern and utterly driven man. In short, he was the football manager every fan would want at the tiller of their team.

The charges, such as they were, seemed to be that Busby refused to pay his players the going rate for what he considered to be the privilege of playing for Manchester United, that he did not acknowledge the importance of Jimmy Murphy, his coach and scout, and that players were treated shabbily once their usefulness had come to an end.

In other words, it was pretty standard stuff, then as now (except, obviously, for the bit about salaries). Men who survived Munich in body but not in spirit or talent were sacked or sold off, and evicted from their club houses. Some were on the dole within months. It was hardly something to be proud of, but then the way football treats broken players rarely is. Busby was doing what he was paid to do.

There were, inevitably, some poignant moments, such as when Harry Gregg recalled the crash. "It was just rending and tearing," he said. "I felt like the top of my head had been sliced off, like the top of a boiled egg." Bill Foulkes, meanwhile, another survivor and a United player for almost 20 years, was forced to sell his championship medals at Christie's to help fund his retirement. They were bought by his ex-employers for the Old Trafford museum where they now charge the public to see them - though quite how Busby can be blamed for that was never explained.

For those who are heartily sick of Manchester United there was some (very) light relief in midweek, when the modern-day Reds arrived at Wembley for the FA Cup final to face the footballing powerhouse that is Harchester United, in the denouement of Dream Team (Sky One). Harchester, as their long-suffering fans will be aware, are beset by boardroom feuds and all manner of financial shenanigans, to the extent that they make Crystal Palace look like a rock-steady ship. Their players, meanwhile, spend so much time bed-hopping that it's a wonder they still have the strength to lace up their boots.

But this did not stop them recording a famous 2-1 victory beneath the Twin Towers, with both goals scored by Luis Amor Rodriguez, the dashing Argentinian player-manager. It was in his moment of glory, however, that the Harchester chairman, having discovered that Rodriguez had been doing some serious playmaking with his wife, ordered a hitman secreted beneath the scoreboard to assassinate him. No "vote of confidence" man, he.

But did the bullet find its target? We must wait for the next series, in September, to find out (if it didn't, though, you have to suspect that Rodriguez will be leaving on a free sometime in the summer). And there was one other, rhetorical, question hanging in the Wembley air: if Rupert Murdoch's bid to buy United had been approved, would Harchester still have won?

Another of Sky's better productions, The Simpsons, includes an episode in which Lisa Simpson ditches her boyfriend live on television. Bart, playing her back a tape, helpfully points out that by doing it frame- by-frame, "you can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half.''

The moment came to mind during On The Spot: The12-Yard Club (BBC2), a study of the penalty which included slow-motion close-ups of players who had just missed vital kicks. Gareth Southgate, meanwhile, recalled the rioting which followed his at Euro 96, and the man who wrote to him saying that he was due up in court on public order charges, "and it's your fault."

Roberto Baggio pointed out that "if you have the strength and courage to take the responsibility, whether you score or miss, you already deserve to be admired." Which is true enough - it is just a shame for him that there are 50m Italians who beg to differ.