Ferguson and Keegan form unlikely alliance

Jim White looks at the battle of the pundits to keep us glued to the tube for three weeks
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The Independent Online
There is a poster at present adorning hoardings across the country, featuring Alex Ferguson with his arm around Kevin Keegan above the legend: "United for Euro 96 on ITV". The photograph is a masterclass in the re- toucher's art, the two men were snapped separately at their respective training grounds. In which case Keegan should be congratulated on his performance: he may have been 100 miles away, but he contrives to look distinctly uneasy with his bitter rival's arm draped chummily round his shoulder.

The poster is indicative of the big battle that lies ahead in Euro 96. Not the scrap on the pitch, but the fight for viewers. International football tournaments are great television events, watched communally, with the coverage discussed in offices and pubs across the nation. This is a bigger tournament than any before, however, not just because it is being played here, but also because commercial interests, in the assumption that the country has gone collectively football bonkers, are swamping us with unprecedented levels of footie-associated advertising and merchandise. And should England or Scotland progress to the latter stages of this competition, it will become a great national shared experience as people gather across the country around their sets, or more likely, their local's set. In the unlikely event of either side reaching the final, even the semi-final, moreover, the game will deliver the most sizeable television audience ever registered in this country.

That is some prize for the broadcasters to win. Hence ITV's big name (and, you presume, big money) signings to their team of commentators and analysers. The trouble is big names are not necessarily the best at delivering succinct examination. Keegan, for instance, is a man who regards no statement as too obvious to be made. And Ferguson is totally unproven at this level. How will he behave: will he moan about Swiss players who only seem to raise their game when they play Scotland, or will he use his slots to fire off salvoes in a psychological war of words to put pressure on his old foes, the Match of the Day team?

The BBC in its effort to woo viewers has pulled off a couple of late big signings of its own. Chris Waddle steps up from radio and presumably will be the corporation's specialist in assessing penalty shoot outs, while Ruud Gullit proves the age-old adage that if you want your opinions to be taken seriously when you appear on television, then wear glasses. Advice that works for everyone, incidentally, except Jimmy Hill.

Both teams, too, have added lesser names to underpin their squads with a bit of fluffy diversion. ITV's promise of Peter Brackley and impressionist Mike Osman delivering comic views of Euro 96 is enough to make strong men shudder, the BBC's recruitment of Nick Hancock to do the same looks decidedly less alarming.

But it is the old stagers who will dominate the tournament, and here both teams have their strengths and weaknesses. The BBC boast Lynam and Hansen, but they also have Trevor Brooking. ITV parade Brian Moore and Ron Atkinson, but are anchored by Bob Wilson. In the group stages, games - England against Scotland excepted - will not be simultaneously broadcast, giving the viewer the opportunity to assess the individual squads in action. After their dismal showing in the l994 World Cup, when the hapless Matthew Lorenzo chaired events apparently from the inside of a nuclear bunker in downtown Los Alamos, ITV will need to have spruced up their act to keep us for the big later games. This time, however, they will have a major player on their side: the ad breaks and the rash of glorious, big- budget football commercials which have developed over the last year, mini- movies often significantly more potent than the matches they surround.

In the end, though, even the delights of Coke and Nike, Carling and Reebok, will not be sufficient to stop the nation doing what it always does at times of crisis: when England lose to Italy in the semi-final, most of us will be turn to the BBC. And thus bizarrely, the broadcaster whose voice will have been heard by the largest audience in British history will not be Richard Dimbleby, Jeremy Paxman or Michael Buerk but Mottie informing us that, unbelievably, the linesman on the far side is the only left-handed linesman on the international list.