Football: Commercial break in a new Des res

Andrew Longmore wonders how legendary Lynam will cope with the very different demands

DES LYNAM might have joined the defection to the other side, but it would still be a surprise if, by season's end, there was any significant blip in the rock solid five million viewing figures for Match of the Day. A presenter is always at the mercy of the programme he presents and the channel he represents, as Lynam acknowledged. Lynam will be missed more on those big set-piece occasions which he orchestrated with a mere flick of the eyebrow. Match of the Day has a life of its own. It remains as simple, warm and comfortable as an old Abercrombie overcoat.

Last night, Gary Lineker gallantly soldiered on to a new season in company with the regulars, Trevor Brooking and Alan Hansen. There was much talk of the championship contenders, the usual suspects, and a varied programme which featured all the teams promoted and Chelsea, many people's idea of the millennium champions. Des probably would have picked them, too, unless he wanted to continue his disastrous flirtation with Liverpool from last season. Though you half expected the cuddly moustache to pop up at any minute to deliver a "well, that wasn't up to much, was it, Trevor?" condemnation of some wretched match, the waters began to close over the Lynam decade. The great quality about Lynam was not his relaxed manner nor his infectious chuckle but his instinct for telling the viewers the truth, a virtue that Lineker, his most likely permanent successor on the programme, has clearly inherited.

There were some fancy new graphics and an appealing fan's eye view opening sequence, but, otherwise, as one insider put it, it was "business as usual", the tried and trusted mix of games, goals and analysis. "People don't turn on to see Des, they turn on to see the action." With Lynam due to be away on holiday and then at the World Athletics Championships in Seville, Lineker had been scheduled to present the first six shows of the season anyway. The one irony is that Lynam's long crusade to have a regular slot for Match of the Day has finally reached fruition. This season, for nine Saturdays out of ten, according to a BBC spokesman, the programme will be scheduled to start at 10.30pm.

Once the dust had settled on the week's biggest transfer story, the BBC might not have been quite as devastated as many would have us believe. The unusually messy timing of the departure, less than a week before the start of a new season and in the wake of Greg Dyke's recent appointment as Director General, provoked as much shock inside the BBC as the fact of it. The reality was that Lynam had been threatening to leave for some time, if not in so many words, then in between the lines of his criticism of BBC policy - or apparent lack of it - towards sport. Brian Barwick, his old friend who switched from head of production at the BBC to become head of ITV Sport, would certainly have needed no excuse to pick up the telephone. But Lynam was not the sort of person to walk out on a contract, however lucrative the counter-offer.

Boredom and disillusion, as much as the money or the draining of the BBC sports portfolio, prompted the decision. His trademark style of presentation, laid back at the best of times, had almost reached the horizontal in the latter stages of his 30-year career at the BBC. At times, Des and a cup of cocoa seemed the perfect cure for insomnia.

There is a school of thought that the BBC has enjoyed the best of Lynam, who is now 56, and that ITV have paid over the odds for his services. Alan Hansen, a pundit of real insight, remains the most critical figure at Match of the Day. Nor are the BBC short of talented presenters to fill Des's shoes. Now that cuddling Mrs Pitman is no longer part of the job, Clare Balding could quite comfortably take on the anchor role for the coverage of the Grand National. She has the versatility and the right accent. Lineker, a familiar understudy on Match of the Day, will surely ease into the chair first occupied by Kenneth Wolstenholme back in 1964, and Barry Davies, who was briefly seconded to the role of presenter in the early Seventies, is experienced enough to do the job again, if required. Sue Barker will host the World Athletics Championships, a potential audition for next year's Olympic Games. John Inver-dale, who has some of Lynam's smoothness, is another obvious candidate. Unless panic has set in, the search for a new Des might already be over.

The more intriguing question is how Lynam will cope with the different demands of commercial television. Lynam would not have been allowed to cut such a leisurely figure if he had been trained in the harsher world of the ratings war. Will those smooth edges need a little coarsening? Will those eyebrows tilt just a fraction at the first producer's cry of "Lift it, Des, lift it"? Barwick was keeping a deliberately low profile last week in the wake of his coup, but the fit with Lynam might not be quite as comfortable as he might imagine.

"If in doubt, be enthusiastic" has long been the mantra of sports broadcasting at ITV where all games tend to hover on the verge of greatness. Lynam has never been seduced into that sort of blarney. It might just be that he will miss the Beeb more than the Beeb misses him.

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