Football / World Cup on TV: Barry's big break as John is homeward bound

Click to follow
The Independent Online
He must have been gutted, but was he going to show it? Was he hell. This is John Motson we're talking about. Until Wednesday afternoon he was cruising comfortably towards a place in the World Cup final, only to be knocked out just ahead of the semis by his colleague, the plucky underdog Barry Davies. That evening though, there was no time for tears. There was work to do.

'Four weeks ago,' trumpeted Motson, sublimely untroubled as Italy and Bulgaria took the pitch, 'football went to look for America. But along the way, it may well have rediscovered itself.' The shape; the rhetorical crafting; the oblique and unnecessary allusion to Simon and Garfunkel; the slight worrying feeling that the sentence doesn't actually mean anything . . . this was 100 per cent, 24-carat, fibre-enriched Motson. And so it went on for the next 90 minutes, with Motty working his way deftly, cover to cover, through his own style book - abruptly literal as Italy surged ahead ('Look at that]'), poetically ornate as Bulgaria threatened to draw level ('I think they'll have to keep the Frascati in the ice bucket a little longer'), joyously single-minded as the game reached its peak ('There's no drop in the temperature - either on the thermometer, or in the football sense').

It was one last push before he returned to his hotel room, tidied his programmes, packed his sheepskin and disappeared into the American night. Think only this as you watch tonight's final: it is for Barry Davies a bridge over troubled water; for Motty there is only the sound of silence.

You have to say, the boy Davies deserves his break - a run- out at the top level after all those years dawdling in the reserves. Back when Motson and Davies were both understudies to David Coleman, many would have tipped Davies to ascend, as Motson eventually did, to take over at the top, and it's a mystery that Davies has seen so little of the ball since. Perhaps his virtues (fluidity, nicely gauged involvement, general gaffe-resistance) don't take on cult status quite so readily as Motson's 'I've got a Rothmans Football Yearbook and I'm going to use it' act. But there's no reason why the load shouldn't be spread more evenly between them, and if this World Cup has ushered in a new era of, as it were, ground-sharing, that's no bad thing.

What else has this last marvelous month of broadcasts established? Certainly the use of the verb 'to card', as in 'he should have been carded straight away for that ridiculous tackle', a coinage which may well have wide circulation next season. Also, we've learnt that the positioning of sensitive microphones close to players during the singing of the national anthems is to be avoided on aesthetic grounds unless you happen to enjoy the low moaning of anxious cattle. Additionally, we can be fairly sure that Denis Law is not about to get his own prime-time network series, nor Garth Crooks, whose roving reports for the BBC were all rove and no report.

Other than the odd Crooks moment, it has been impossible to fault the BBC's coverage, which has owed much to the inspired decision to stay in England and work from there. The various pundits who have gathered with Bob Wilson and Desmond Lynam each night couldn't help but look a bit like us - people who had got themselves in front of the telly to watch football. Whereas in ITV's windowless lock-up in Dallas, everyone seemed to be auditioning for a gameshow, the main prize on which was to be allowed out into the sunshine.

As a result of this isolation, ITV misread the fervency of British support for the Republic of Ireland, whose every move was slavishly relayed to us before, after and midway through other games. Sure, we were rooting for them, but perhaps not to the point where we needed to scoot over to the hotel every time Tony Cascarino changed his bathing trunks.

Contrary to the appealing standard of the football, the most frequently used sentence of the tour has been, by my reckoning, 'he'll be disappointed with that', used by any panellist or commentator after the replay of any failed attempt on goal. Which perhaps only illustrates the generally niggly nature of panels. And the most overplayed conversational topic has been whether America would take soccer to its heart. At best a side issue, this matter has been discussed on both channels as if the conversion of the States was the tournament's core initiative. Odd how defensive and colonial football fans can get about their sport. The Barcelona Olympics went off superbly and I don't remember anyone worrying about whether the Spaniards would be going pole vault crazy in its aftermath.

Still, in the language of Jimmy Hill, it's been a victory for football. There was no drop in the temperature, in the football sense. I can think of no greater testament to the wonderful quality of what we've seen than that you would sit up until 2.30am to watch it in the company of Don Howe. It's astonishing - worrying, even - but I'm missing him already.