Europe's new mission to serve Britain

Sports broadcasting will wear a fresh face tomorrow morning. Andrew Longmore presents Mark Robson...
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THE WELL-TRAVELLED face of Mark Robson will greet viewers of the new British Eurosport service tomorrow morning, marking a great leap forward in the age of digital sports coverage and a small step up in the career of its chief presenter. Robson has not thought up his opening lines, but he has already been subjected to the more "off the wall" style of presentation the dedicated British arm of the pan-European network wants.

A recent trip to the Australian Open tennis championships saw the Northern Irishman at a mock dinner with Anna Kournikova, dressed as Batman. The tight rein of Sky, his previous employers, has been swapped for what he terms a "length of bungee rope". None of the roles seemed too far out of character.

Robson, you suspect, could not truly play the straight man if he tried. No one who shared the same classroom as the former Ryder Cup golfer David Feherty, one of sport's true wits, could have survived for long without a quick tongue. The pair remain good friends and have arrived in roughly the same jobs down very different routes; Feherty as an expert summariser on US network television and Robson via spells with the BBC, Ulster TV and Sky at British Eurosport's virtual reality new studios at Langley in Buckinghamshire. "The only difference," says the 38-year-old, "is that he's being paid a million dollars and I'm getting about a million lire."

Not so long ago, the notion of fronting the eclectic mix of Eurosport programming would have had Robson searching for the Complete Book of Tractor Pulling and Bog Snorkelling for Beginners. Now, when he says the variety of sports attracted him from the Sky Sports newsroom, it is not just hyperbole. Slowly, but surely, Eurosport have compiled a hefty portfolio of main-line attractions, including tennis, the rugby World Cup, the Champions' League, the major cyling tours and a healthy dose of motor sport. Tennis not being one of his frontline sports, Robson was glad to have a hotline back to his brother, a professional tennis coach, in Bangor. But sport has always been part of his life.

He played in the back row for the Church of Ireland Young Men's Society and was a sharp enough snooker player to be picked out at an exhibition for a three-frame contest against Alex Higgins. He was 16, and hit five shots. The Hurricane cleared the table each time, but a recent hustling of Eurosport's press officer on the pool table suggested that not all the cues will now be to camera.

His own style on air is relaxed and amiable. Off camera, he is good company; he sees no reason why he should change on air. "If you see me lying back on the sofa, looking as I've not got a care in the world, then I'm in trouble. But one thing I've learned from watching Des Lynam is that when things aren't going particularly well, you have to develop the knack of relaxing even more. Lynam has a PhD in that. I enjoy the camera. I just hope I don't get the television version of the yips."

It is unlikely. Robson has been born with a native gift of speech, but has experienced enough of life to see through the superficiality of the lens. He once commentated on a football match in Northern Ireland under threat of death from a loyalist organisation. It happened to be a particularly exposed commentary position and he was flanked by two bodyguards. A seven- year battle against ME, from which he has only recently emerged, proved an altogether more potent threat. At his lowest ebb, Robson, a strapping, squat fellow, more designed to the front than the back row of the rugby scrum, managed to carry the bin the 30 yards down his drive, but was unable to summon the strength to return. He worked when he could, though his head throbbed for a year and a half and his limbs felt like lead; otherwise he slept.

"It was a scary time because you never know when you're going to come out of it," he says. "My central nervous system just went into hibernation. I became dyslexic, so I couldn't read an autocue and my brain was just like wet cotton wool." Only when, at the insistence of a friend, he survived a skiing holiday did he begin to see a way out of a very dark tunnel.

At British Eurosport, Robson will help present five daily sports centres and commentate, as he did for ITV in South Africa, on the rugby World Cup. "It's a new service, tailored for the British audience, rather than a new channel. If Henman and Rusedski are playing doubles somewhere we can show them rather than the Dutch No 2 or whatever. For me, it's a risk coming from Sky but I like to take risks, and the potential is amazing."