Hell to pay for offending sport's modern gods

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YOU COULD jump between worlds at the touch of a button at seven o'clock last Monday evening. On BBC1 there was sweet, innocent Sue Barker and company, ready for another jovial half-an-hour on A Question of Sport. Sue will blush at the mere mention of a jock-strap, the worst thing that can happen to any of her guests is that they might fail to recognise a team-mate on the picture board, and the only lines they know anything about are the ones that are scripted for them before the cameras roll.

And then, zap. A quick flick to Sky News, and there was a bare table and four empty chairs, ready to receive Lawrence Dallaglio's execution party. "We're still waiting for the start of the press conference," a newsreader said breathlessly although, for anyone with eyes in their head, this was hardly news. The camera just stayed fixed on the seats, minute after minute. The subtext was obvious. You're about to witness the ruination of a glittering career, live on television. Good, eh?

It wasn't good, of course, either then, as a gang of musty old men mumbled pieties, or the following day, when Dallaglio himself faced a deeply sceptical press corps. Then again, who could blame them? The England captain had apparently damned himself out of his own mouth, and at such length that the Screws reporters probably ordered the last two bottles of bubbly in a vain attempt to send him to sleep.

Every question was a variation of "why?", and every answer, "I don't know". But perhaps Dallaglio should have turned the tables and asked the assembled hacks what they might do - or more importantly, say - if someone offered them half a million quid.

It may be that Dallaglio's "God-I'm-so-stupid" performance was just an act, but if he never plays rugby again, he should certainly consider treading the boards. And if you think for a moment about the role of sponsors in modern-day sport, his side of the story - all umpteen pages of it - is suddenly almost credible.

These days professional athletes seem to regard sponsors in the same way that the ancient Greeks imagined their gods. They are immense-ly powerful, but also capricious. They can make your life blissful, but when they tell you to do something, you do it. Above all, you must never, ever make them angry.

The same philosophy is also favoured by television executives, to judge by the moments after the European Cup final (ITV). Alex Ferguson had spent 25 years in football management, 13 of them at Manchester United, and now, finally, he was about to get his hands on the one trophy he had always coveted above all others. And so he did, for all of six seconds, at which point ITV cut short his euphoria in favour of a commercial break.

Somewhere back at ITV HQ a miserable accountant, miffed that he had no friends to watch the game with, had decided that no amount of historic celebration could stand in the way of the adverts. It was brutal, shameless and unforgivable, something that even Sky would surely not have considered.

Yet, after what had gone before, it was hardly a surprise. How, for instance, does Terry Venables still get away with jollies to the great cities of Europe to offer his wisdom? Have the producers never heard of Portsmouth or Crystal Palace?

And what sort of nerve does Ruud Gullit have to describe Bayern Munich as "crap"? This was a team who had gone one-up early on, allowed the liveliest attacking line in Europe barely a sight of goal for 89 and a half minutes, and twice hit the woodwork in the second half. If that's crap, heaven knows what that makes Newcastle United, but you'd want to put some of it on your roses.

It was too much to hope that Bostock's Cup (ITV), Chris England's comic fantasy about a hopeless football team winning the FA Cup, would come up with some original ideas, but at least the cliches were flung at you so regularly and with such good humour that it didn't seem to matter.

They were all in there somewhere, from the dipso manager and the effete, self-obsessed playmaker - "no, no, not me 'air" - to the psychotic Scotsman brought in to beef up the midfield.

As they meandered towards Wembley, Bostock's story nodded at Spinal Tap and Naked Gun with non-stop sight gags and in-jokes, the best of them being the "famous sloping pitch" at Pontefract. This turned out to be on a one-in-two incline towards one of the goals, with grandstands perched on the touchline like Alpine ski lodges.

If there was a serious theme it seemed to be that the Seventies were a golden age when you judged a player by the size of his flairs in the nightclub after the game, and namby midfielders with afros were real namby midfielders with afros.

This is nonsense, obviously. But you have to give credit to Bostock Stanley for one thing at least. Even when they made it to Wembley, they did not feel the need to sign up a sponsor.

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