`If Keown does the job, then, er, I, er, no. No, no he won't'

SIDELINES
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The Independent Online
Back in the studio at half-time during ITV's coverage of Arsenal's Cup-Winners' Cup triumph over Auxerre on Thursday, Ron Atkinson was asked to sum up what he had seen so far. "Messy, not a good game to watch, suits Arsenal," he said.

So pleased was the Coventry manager with this construction that he repeated it three times over the next 45 minutes. Each time he did so, you could sense the producer groaning at the other end of his ear-piece. Here was ITV presenting its flagship live football game and there was one of its pundits brazenly informing any channel-surfers who had by accident tuned in that they'd be better off flicking back to Animal Hospital Week.

Even so, Atkinson was being evangelical about selling the game compared to his fellow panelist, Jack Charlton. Clearly short of a Shredded Wheat or two, Charlton had already grumpily dismissed the evening's viewing before it had started: "I've got no confidence in this game for Arsenal," he said. "If Keown does the job, then, er, I, er, no. No, no he won't."

This is the dilemma ITV Sport finds itself in. An unholy conspiracy of Sky and the BBC have creamed away all the best bits of the domestic game, leaving ITV with the skimmed milk. Their portfolio, as the season reaches its ratings-enhancing climax, now consists of the Coca-Cola Cup (only one more game to go), regional coverage of the Endsleigh League (a significantly less watched programme than Harry Secombe's Highway was when it was axed) and the European Champions' League (in which, despite gerrymandering the draw on their behalf, Manchester United let the company down for the second year running). Even Chelsea, progressing handsomely in the European Cup- Runners-Up Cup, as it will be re-named should they win it, have gone with the BBC.

Given the competitive nature of ITV franchises, there are voices within commercial television wondering whether football is worth it: a lot cheaper to screen Die Hard than Derby against Hull, and more likely to gain viewers. Much depends at ITV Sport headquarters on Arsenal. Which is not a comfortable predicament for anyone.

It is no surprise, then, that ITV appear not to be enjoying their football at the moment: jittery, panicky, unconvincingly, a bit like Ray Parlour on the ball. After what was agreed by everyone apart from Matthew Lorenzo's mum to be a disastrous World Cup for them last year, the company decided what was missing from their coverage was gravitas. Odd that they bought from the BBC - for fees which were the television equivalent of the one which landed Andy Cole - Bob Wilson and Terry Venables. While Des Lynam smoothes and comforts and radiates calm, extracting from his guests an easy, cheery amiability, Wilson was always a stumbling, tense presence in the BBC studio, capable of communicating nerves to a mogadon addict. Now on ITV he says things like "Auxerre is in Burgundy, home of chablis and some vintage football talent," over shots of vineyards and Eric Cantona, and doesn't even have the good grace to look embarrassed about it when the camera pans in on him.

Venables, meanwhile, removed from Lynam's gentle studio-side manner has lost all grip on vocabulary. "When the chips are down, you roll your sleeves up," was how he assessed Arsenal's approach to the game. And when a Frenchman tested David Seaman's hairspray from 30 yards, he was moved to say: "An absolutely tremendous shot that."

"As you say, an absolutely tremendous shot, that, Terry," said Brian Moore as the slo-mo image of the long-range punt ran. "Yes, absolutely tremendous," added Tel, helpfully.

Even Moore himself, once the most reliable of commentators, seems to be suffering from the jitters inherent in relying on Arsenal. His habit of finding one tactical slant and sticking to it whatever the circumstance has become more than irritating: his text for Thursday was the danger of Martins, a thesis he plugged long after the player had ceased to have any effective part in the proceedings. And, though his own fortunes may hang on the Gunners' further progress, his suggestion that Wright's goal would have had the whole of north London cheering would not have endeared him round White Hart Lane way (not that Terry Venables noticed the gaffe).

Indeed the manner in which television stations now negotiate European coverage deals direct with the clubs has led to the intriguing possibility, should Arsenal and Chelsea progress through their respective semi-finals, of a BBC/ITV head-to-head in the final. In the blue corner, Des, Barry, Gary and Alan. In the red, Bob, Tel, Ron and Brian. Given the choice of back-up squad, in that case, you would rather be Glenn Hoddle.

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