Brian Viner: BBC's hotshot spurns 'God' by showing true colours

Byford rejects Le Tissier in favour of Lorimer as he shows his aptitude for dealing with the big issues

Last week, this column suggested light-heartedly that Mark Byford, the acting Director-General of the BBC and favourite to land the job full-time, had a character flaw glaring enough to disqualify him from the responsibility of steering the Corporation towards its uncertain future. Namely, that he supports two Premiership clubs - Leeds United and Southampton.

This, I ventured, was football's equivalent of bigamy. A man cannot be faithful to two wives. Ditto football clubs. And serial infidelity in football, as in marriage, makes you wonder whether you can trust a chap to run a pools syndicate, let alone the BBC.

Anyway, early on Wednesday evening, as I sat nursing a pint of Butty Bach bitter in a Herefordshire pub, my mobile phone rang. It was Mark Byford. He had read my column and was eager to explain to me how he came to support two clubs.

His call was not a complete surprise, as he had already left a couple of messages for me. He realised, he said, that I must think him a trifle nutty for pursuing me in a week when he had other, arguably more important matters to attend to, but he was determined at least to try and set the record straight.

His heart belonged to Leeds, but he had lived for years in Hampshire and had season tickets at Southampton. It was a bone of terrible contention in his family. At Elland Road once, he sat with the visiting Saints fans, visible from the main stand to his father, a Leeds supporter for 70-odd years. "Talk about bloody Judas," he conceded. "My dad and my brother kept looking at me in disgust."

None the less, when I put the analogy of the bigamist to him, he explained: "I have two wives, but they know about each other and the second one knows that when I see the first wife, she's the one I'm faithful to." I then raised the dilemma I had posed in my column. If he had to choose, Peter Lorimer or Matt Le Tissier?

The BBC's acting Director-General fell silent. I like to think that the controllers of BBC1 and BBC2 were being made to wait outside his office while he wrestled with this almost unanswerable question. "Hotshot or God?" he muttered. I fancy that I then heard a heavy file being placed in front of him, and him saying: "Stuff the Hutton Report, I've got something far more pressing to consider."

Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, it was clear that for the next few moments, the BBC's most senior executive had not Hutton or even the Corporation on his mind but the 45 minutes in which Lorimer and Le Tissier were undeniably capable of unleashing volleys of mass destruction.

"Hotshot or God?" he repeated, in an agonised way. I drained my pint, bought another, and got halfway through a game of bar billiards before, with a heavy sigh, he finally declared: "In the interests of long-term family unity, Hotshot."

Needless to say, I now believe with all my heart that Byford is the right man to run the BBC, and retract absolutely my reservations of a week ago. Not because he favours Lorimer over Le Tissier, but because he thought it worth his while - on the eve of a proposed mass walk-out by BBC staff in protest at his predecessor Greg Dyke's effective dismissal - to wrestle with the matter. He is demonstrably a man with his priorities sorted; indeed, he told me that he and Dyke, a dedicated Manchester United fan, spent far more time discussing the significance of Eric Cantona than they ever did the significance of EastEnders.

The redemption of Mark Byford, however, does not alter the fact that no man should have two football loves, not unless they are at least 50 League places, and preferably several actual Leagues, apart.

Someone once told me that she didn't think marital infidelity counted if it occurred in a different time zone from wherever one's spouse was. I'm not sure about that, but it applies in football terms. You can play away, as it were, if your sweethearts are unlikely ever to meet. And judging from the other responses I got to last week's column, many of you are in firm agreement.

Which brings me to the e-mail I received from a Mark Power. I had written that a man of irreproachable integrity and with a spotless record in public service, the ardent Evertonian Derek Hatton, ought to lead an inquiry into Byford's divided loyalties.

Mark wrote: "While we're pursuing this, let's not forget there has always been some ambiguity about Alastair Campbell's allegiance: Man U or Burnley? I appreciate that there's something of a chasm these days, but in 1970 (a formative year for those of us of a certain age), both clubs were in the First Division. Would this fall within the scope of the Hatton Inquiry?"

I think it would. And I now look forward to receiving an explanatory call on this vital matter. I'm sure Alastair Campbell's got my number.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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