Foot in mouth disease

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THERE was a way of covering sport, which has long since gone out of fashion, that did not aim to probe behind the spectacle or project deep thoughts about even the smallest issues.

If in many respects flawed, it was happily practised by reporters and commentators with no inclination to put themselves forward as authorities who carried in their baggage a superior knowledge of technique and strategy. I do not know when this changed but it seems the fashion today is to bombard the public with information that probably even bamboozles the performers and frequently conceals important truths.

For example, going back to when Liverpool first qualified for the European Cup, it was put to Bill Shankly on television that the experience would raise unfamiliar problems. 'Sweepers, man- to-man marking, blind-side running,' the interviewer stated, proud of his expertise. 'Sweepers]' Shankly snorted. 'Jesus Christ, you come on here filling people's heads with things they know nothing about, just confusing them.' End of interview.

Last week, on the death of the former Tottenham manager, Arthur Rowe, whose policies will always be associated with stylish simplicity, it was recalled that he had made a number of profound comments about football. One was that football is a simple game made difficult by the players, a thought that can be applied to a lot of what we hear on television. A simple game complicated by compulsive analysis.

To be rich in knowledge and able to share it is a great asset on the air. It can be agreeably instructive, filling in gaps in the action, heightening the entertainment. Richie Benaud does this excellently. Peter Alliss adds considerably to an understanding of golf and in boxing no fault can be found with Jim Watt.

Unfortunately, and it has to be said, typically, television in the main takes things too far. Viewers today are well instructed in strategy and tactics but not in an appreciation of quality. Once, from the evidence of their own eyes, they knew the difference between good and bad players; now they cannot be sure. Recently, in a hotel room, I saw a Premiership match. It did not involve two of the better teams, but in the context of a major competition it was awful. This did not deter the former Scottish internationalist, Andy Gray, who enthusiastically went into every clumsy detail, blithely ignoring the unavoidable fact that there were players out there who aren't worth what they are getting. No one can reasonably expect television companies to undersell their product, but neither can sport afford to ignore the long-term effects of what is often entirely subjective reporting.

Last week, on Match of the Day, the BBC showed highlights from a number of FA Cup first- round ties. A lot of the action appeared crudely sub-standard, but in fairness there wasn't enough of it to form an accurate conclusion. The next morning I spoke to the manager of a club in the Premiership who, taking advantage of a blank Saturday, had gone along to one of the BBC's selected games. 'It was disturbing,' he said. 'Down there I was seeing proof that drastic changes will have to occur if there is to be an improvement. I found myself watching professionals who would not have got into a decent non- League team 20 years ago.'

In its glib celebration of mediocrity, television has a lot to answer for. It has the power to contaminate.

When employed by one of the United States networks, the great quarterback, Joe Namath, was asked to comment on ills afflicting his old club, the New York Jets. Typically, Namath did not hold back. He stated that the administration, the coach and half the players should go. 'They are all to blame for this mess,' he said.

That sounded like good reporting. So does a comment attributed to one of those sportswriters from long ago, the late John McAdam. Casting a beady eye over a miserable game, he wrote: 'It was much ado about nil-nil.'