Sport on TV: Big Ron minds his language but still produces French farce

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The Independent Football

You'd think being damaged goods, Ron Atkinson would put himself out a bit. Worm his way back into the public's affections. No more Mr Racist Guy. Display warmth, compassion and vulnerability. Reveal the inner softie.

His big comeback series, Excuse My French (BBC2, Tuesday), was the perfect opportunity: tussle with the lingo for a month then do a post-match pundit slot on French radio. Battle the odds while harming the locals. Sorry, charming the locals.

Instead it's been Big Ron as Little Englander, old curmudgeon par excellence. He's given his teacher a gratuitously bumpy ride and, after three weeks, he still could only manage to sound like he was speaking in tongues (none of them French). With a few days to go before the PSG game on which he was due to pass jugement, he was floundering, unable to put together an actual sentence. He still didn't know the words for the positions, even.

The series' makers have been amusing themselves and us with wicked subtitles translated literally from the French, and this was him taking a training session at the local club.

"Seven these players with here, please. Seven, seven, seven, seven, seven. Eight passes, one goal, OK? So, press, press, press." "Press" being the same in French and English made the last bit easier.

He did a dry run with a local cable station at half-time during a Valenciennes game. It was teeth-grinding stuff, especially when the interviewer strayed off-pitch and asked him about his recent experiences.

"Aventure," he said. "Trois, quatre semaines, en France. Le premier, er, dernier..." I had to fast-forward.

All of which made it even more remarkable that the real thing didn't go too badly: "Dhorassoo - oh, extraordinaire. Il passé court, il passé longue, bon dribbler, oh!"

The radio man was easily pleased. "He has the eye of a football connoisseur," he said, "so even if he doesn't use the exact term you know what he wants to say" - an uncannily accurate summation of Atkinson's career. He made peace, of sorts, with his long-suffering professeur. "You are like the French teachers' answer to Brian Clough," he told her, which sounded double-edged to me.

The comedian Marcus Brigstocke, by the way, was brilliant in his 10-minute stand-up slot, and was offered a 30-minute gig, while Esther Rantzen was asked out by Jack Lang, the celebrated smoothie who may be the next president of France, after she'd interviewed him on telly. Compared to them, Atkinson was just embarrassing.

Is Big Ron back? Pas pour moi.

The closest he ever came to winning the league title was with Aston Villa in 1993, the year Manchester United ended 26 years of hurt, and Football Years (Sky 3, Thursday) looked back at the inaugural Premiership season: the Arsenal mural where they hurriedly painted in a few black faces; the panic over the new back-pass rule; Gazza's message to the people of Norway; the greatest transfer deal in history (merci beaucoup, Howard Wilkinson); the nine-minute injury time; and the end of Clough.

And there was something else that I had completely forgotten, the hilarious sight of United, already champions, taking the pitch for their final game against Blackburn with stinking hangovers following a major session at Steve Bruce's.

"I woke up about quarter past seven," Bruce said, "and I could hear glasses clinking in the kitchen. 'Surely they're not still up drinking,' I thought." He went downstairs. It was Bryan Robson washing the dishes and cleaning up. Now he's washed up at West Brom.

Still, better than being washed up in TV wilderness like Big Ron.

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