Football: Cup Final: Blankety Blank show a turn-off

Stan Hey gets a Grandstand view of what wasn't happening at Wembley
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The Independent Online
ALL AROUND our sun-drenched country yesterday, thousands of weddings took place, apart, that is, from the inevitable few where grooms or brides arrived at the church only to find that their intended loved ones had gone off with somebody else.

The emotions these poor abandoned creatures felt would have been shared by all those at BBC Sport, who had to face up to the fact that their companion for over 60 years, a glittering eye-catcher called the FA Cup final, was no longer theirs but had legged it with a wedged-up geezer by the name of ITV.

But rather than cancel the wedding breakfast, BBC's Grandstand, which had been dating the dame in question since 1958, decided to clench its teeth and proceed as though the former love of their life had not existed.

Indeed, the words "cup" and "final" had plainly been erased from host Steve Rider's script. This may be consistent with the psychology of the jilted but for Grandstand, the trauma of separation also appeared to transform the programme into the equivalent of Miss Havisham, Dickens' embittered old spinster who never got to cut her wedding cake.

We have been told, for instance, that Alan Shearer was to broadcast one of those celebrity tributes to "75 Years of the BBC" immediately before the start of Grandstand but on my set, it looked more like the Scottish shipyard welder-turned- comedian Billy Connolly than the millionaire son of a Geordie sheet metal- worker.

You immediately suspected that orders had come from high places to blank Shearer from the screens because the top brass had belatedly realised that he had something to do with the "F-word", which they weren't prepared to have on air. The censorship was so severe that even Football Focus had been mysteriously renamed Cricket Focus, as though viewers wouldn't know that the biggest event in the domestic sporting calendar was taking place.

As kick-off time came and went, the words "football", "Newcastle", "Wembley" or "Arsenal" had still not passed Rider's pursed lips and the golf commentators at the Benson and Hedges International had obviously been briefed not to use the word "cup" whenever anybody was putting. What seemed more sinister was that Frankie Dettori, the jockey and Arsenal fan, didn't manage to win in any of the three televised races from Newbury, but did drive home Hard Lines in the untelevised first, thus sparing the presenter Clare Balding the job of sticking an Elastoplast across his gob.

Conclusive proof of Auntie's spite came as Marc Overmars' goal was denied even a score-flash over the pictures of the golf. How much better it might have been had the Beeb gone on to the attack against their terrestrial rivals. "Right," Rider could have said, "ITV have got the Cup final to themselves today but you know what the programme will be like - cheesy, celebrity-obsessed, technically incompetent and full of BBC deserters like Bob Wilson, Ruud Gullit, Clive Tyldsley and Skinner and Baddiel."

This wouldn't have been far from the truth considering that ITV failed to get the sound for an on-pitch interview with Kenny Dalglish and tried desperately to work up a complete non- story about the Newcastle coach breaking down - the team bus, not Dalglish - into a crisis.

The big story of the day, however, could not be spun in any favourable way because it goes to the heart of the problem - that a great BBC Sports Department, nurtured over decades, has been betrayed by its bean-counting masters who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.