Brian Viner: Handling the fans requires a good sense of humour

For my money, Boardman is the best phone-in presenter on telly or radio
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The Independent Online

Not long ago, I met a man who spends part of the week as a shepherd, and the rest as a bus-driver. As combinations of jobs go, that takes some beating, and Paul Boardman doesn't quite manage it, although he too holds down contrasting joint careers, as football phone-in presenter on You're On Sky Sports and stand-up comedian.

Of course, some would say that there isn't such a contrast, on the basis that football phone-ins are a joke. I know some venerable columnists who regard phone-ins with the same contemptuous hauteur as Marie Antoinette regarded the peasantry. And certainly it can be beyond irritating to hear some bloke who could barely organise a Subbuteo team, ranting about the tactical shortcomings of Sir Bobby Robson.

However, I'm all in favour of phone-ins. The opinions of Joe Blow might not be worth listening to, but he's entitled to express them. Football writers don't have a monopoly on sense, nor do phone-in punters have a monopoly on nonsense. It was Jimmy Hill, after all, who applauded the Romanian team's decision during the 1998 World Cup to peroxide their hair, arguing that it would confuse the opposition. Even Joe Blow might have baulked at that one.

Anyway, for my money Boardman is the best phone-in presenter on telly or radio. On Radio Five Live's Six-O-Six in particular, certain presenters give the impression that their own views are the only ones that truly count.

Boardman, though a former professional footballer himself and a devoted Liverpool fan, stays admirably above the fray.

"And I try to lighten it up," he says, "because it is only a game." He was duly delighted to get a call from a man following a Liverpool-Manchester City game a couple of years ago, who described an incident between Paolo Wanchope and Patrik Berger. "Wanchope fell over Berger, and then Berger pushed Wanchope, then Wanchope pushed Berger ... they really made a meal of it," he said.

I had a highly entertaining lunch with Boardman in London recently, eager to find out a little more about him. The son of the comedian Stan Boardman, he was on Liverpool's books as a teenager and recalls an in-depth conversation with Bob Paisley in which Paisley, with all the loquaciousness for which he was famous, said, "Hiya, son". Boardman's day, week, month and year were made. "I thought, 'Bloody hell. He knows me!' "

It was during Bill Shankly's reign that his dad first took him to Anfield. But they couldn't always get tickets. Boardman has a keen recollection of standing outside the players' entrance before a match against Ipswich, and his dad - a humble pipefitter-welder in those days - cheekily asking the Ipswich manager, a pre-knighthood Bobby Robson, if he could get them in. Robson told them to wait where they were.

"Funnily enough, I sat next to him at a dinner quite recently, and told him the story. His face fell when I got to that bit, and he said: 'I know, I never came back, did I?' But he did. Ten minutes later he came back with two tickets. When I told him that, he seemed genuinely delighted. Great fella."

A centre-forward, Boardman remained on Liverpool's books until he was 16, then went to America and won a soccer scholarship to university. When he returned, aged 22, Liverpool took him back for a month-long trial, which exceeded his wildest fantasy when he played in a practice match against the first team and scored three goals past Bruce Grobbelaar.

When Boardman told me this the irreverent thought occurred that maybe Grobbelaar was practising at diving the wrong way, but I didn't say it out loud - even comedians can have a sense-of-humour failure.

Despite that hat-trick, the coach, Phil Thompson, broke it to him that there was no room for him at Liverpool - not least because there was a useful kid called Robbie Fowler coming through the ranks.

So Boardman signed for Peter Shilton's Plymouth Argyle, and scored on his League debut on November 21, 1992. Unfortunately, he then sustained a groin injury and, in his own wry words, "had more operations than games. One goal, one yellow card, three games and four operations. My best friend was the Plymouth physio. He tried everything. He even touched my leg with one hand while holding a bible in the other. I'm not joking".

At the end of that season, having failed to recover his fitness, he was asked to make a speech at Plymouth's end-of-season dinner. He was so funny that someone there asked him if he would speak at a golf-club do, and a new career was born from the ashes of the old.

He then engaged an agent, who later sent him for a screen test at Sky. So he owes both his careers to a dodgy groin. Which strikes me as a nice story for a Monday morning, and diverts me from my indignation that John Charles, a striker of rather more distinction than Boardman, died without getting the knighthood he richly deserved. Now there's an issue which ought to jam the You're On Sky Sports switchboard - but doubtless won't.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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