Time for football's television pundits to speak the truth

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The Independent Online

One of the most distinctive and widely applauded acts presently available on American television is the trenchant boxing punditry of Teddy Atlas, who first made a name for himself by drawing a gun on Mike Tyson when employed to help tutor the future undisputed heavyweight champion.

One of the most distinctive and widely applauded acts presently available on American television is the trenchant boxing punditry of Teddy Atlas, who first made a name for himself by drawing a gun on Mike Tyson when employed to help tutor the future undisputed heavyweight champion.

A man of independent virtue - he once threatened to abandon Michael Moorer half-way through a world title fight - Atlas brings to his new role the dauntless assessments that made John McEnroe such are freshing television voice during the Wimbledon tennis championships.

In addition to being educated by Atlas's expositions of theory and practice, viewers are provided with blunt appraisals that leave them to question a fighter's competence and extravagant claims put out by managers and promoters. Recently, when witness to the unconvincing efforts of two welterweights, Atlas said: "Hopeless. They should both quit before they get hurt."

It is not known how long Atlas will be able to go on like this, how much of the unvarnished truth American boxing will take, but he is striking a blow for fearless objectivity.

One name leads to another, in this case many. What I have in mind is the onset of the English football season and whether the airwaves will crackle with forthright criticism of technical shortcomings, idleness and mismanagement.

The European Championship (quite ridiculous expectations were held out on radio and television for Kevin Keegan's team) reflected once again the general tendency of professional players and coaches in the employ of television to flinch from remarks that carry the threat ofconfrontation with their own.

I am thinking back to a merciless television verdict delivered by the great quarterback Joe Namath on the New York Jets, for whom he performed miracles of precision as a relief from long nights spent in friendly bars. Made more devastating by the charm Namath brought to the analyst's role and repeated in text on the screen, it advised an immediate reappraisal of policy, a complete overhaul of the coaching staff and a tough line with players whose formindicated inflated reputation.

That we have since seen many changes in sport, not least football's immensely fruitful alliance with television, ought not lessen the importance of Namath's directness or encourage a dedicated refusal fully to acquaint viewers with the truth regardless of the consequences.

Lord knows, there is ground for complaint when pundits abuse the credulity of sports buffs across the land by not calling events as they know them to be and studiously avoid the wrath of the brotherhood.

A personal favourite among remarks passed on television about sport came from an Australian cricketer of renown, the late Jack Fingleton. Listening to his colleagues in the commentary box attempting to explain why a wicket had fallen, Fingleton simply said: "Played a bad shot."

The five-times major winner Johnny Miller has been as splendidly frank since going over to golf commentary at which he excels in the class of Peter Alliss. Watching a player on the US Tour consider a shot, Miller pronounced that two choices were available. "Took the dumb option," Miller said when the ball found a bunker.

Going back to 1967, which is too far back for comfort, the former Tottenham Hotspur and Northern Ireland captain Danny Blanchflower was hired by the television network CBS to comment on matches in the newly formed North American Soccer League.

Blanchflower found himself watching a poor standard of football and said so, quickly running foul of advertisers who, understandably, took a dim view of his negative utterances. "We need you to move the game along," he was told. "Speak well of it."

One extremely humid day in Atlanta it was suggested he predict a rousing second half. "Say that by then in this heat, the players' blood will be boiling," the programme's producer said. On air, Blanchflower declared, "My producer says the game will come alive after half- time, but by then the players will be on their knees. They won't have anything left."

It was the truth and Blanchflower didn't last long. You see: not what they wanted.

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