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Lounge wizard feels at home in a new Des res

WEDNESDAY evening provided the nation with one of those rare moments of televisual unity; a state occasion when every member of the household, from Uncle Sid to Snappy the dog, stops whatever it is they are doing and gathers around the family TV. Naturally, it takes something special to bring the country to a standstill: Diana's funeral, the World Cup encounter between England and Argentina, the first screening of Basic Instinct or, in this case, the Return of the Moustachioed One.

Des Lynam made his long-awaited comeback to the small screen, as ITV's new football anchorman, presenting Chelsea's Champions' League match against Milan. And there could have been no brighter stage for such an accomplished performer to tread the boards once more: not only was Lynam fronting a live game of considerable importance for a change, he was also presiding over a feast of sexy football. It may have ended goalless, but the standard of entertainment was mesmerising.

Perhaps we should have expected as much from two of the king of "sexy" football's former clubs. It is just a pity that the dreadlocked one failed to get so much as foreplay going at Newcastle. Had he done so, he may well have been sitting in the studio alongside Des. But Ruud's acrimonious departure from Tyneside and British football as a whole meant the Gullit & Lynam Show, which so captivated during the BBC's coverage of Euro 96, was never likely to return.

It was not all doom and gloom at Stamford Bridge, though, as Lynam was reunited with his old chum, Terry Venables. The former England coach took up his usual role in the "pundit's chair", and actually did some analysing. His new-found energy is no doubt linked to Lynam's probing and pertinent style of questioning, but El Tel is also more relaxed when he is going solo. Few know, or indeed talk about, their subject quite as thoroughly, but Venables has recently had a tendency to switch off and appear uninterested. Being the centre of attention suits him and on Wednesday, he responded with his most polished contribution in months.

But what of Des? How did the master fare in his new surroundings? Well, to coin a sporting phrase, the performance was patchy. The greeting was vintage Lynam: "Seventeen matches to win the thing," he said in his cool, laconic manner. "But you can't phone a friend." Good start. Then came the first real test: a commercial break. Cue fumble. "See you in... a little while," he said almost apologetically. Further confusion arose during the half-time interval: "And now for some brief highlights from the first half of the Valencia-Rangers match. Commentary comes from..." - think Des, think. Trevor Brooking and John Motson? No, no they're the enemy now - "Ian St John and Peter Brackley," Lynam finally announced. Perhaps it was all too much to take in. Even for the silver fox.

Des did get better as the night wore on. Slowly but surely, he settled into the groove. Immediately after the final advertising break, signs of the old Lynam appeared: "I'm getting used to them," he quipped. "I get a cup of tea in." That's more like it, Desmondo.

At the time of his surprise defection from Auntie back in August, his former bosses were quick to point out that Lynam may have left the corporation but he hadn't taken any sports with him. "Match of the Day was a national institution before Des and will continue to be one after his departure," said the head of BBC sport, Bob Shennan, clearly trying to hide his displeasure. The Beeb may indeed hold the rights to that old dinosaur, MOTD, but their coverage of the beautiful game is now virtually extinct.

The Saturday night highlights programme remains for now - until the Premier League rights come up for auction in 2001 - but, of the 11 European ties involving British clubs last week, the BBC could do no better than the first leg of Leeds' Uefa Cup match with Partizan Belgrade.

Optimists will point to the fact that the BBC screened the most emphatic away win of the week, a 3-1 success - secured on Dutch soil as Yugoslavia is still a no-go area. Realists will say this was never going to be a classic, hence the afternoon kick-off. Pessimists, for their part, will simply remind Gary Lineker and Co that the second leg, at Elland Road, will be on Sky. Oops.

Des was probably right to hit Britain's favourite button and switch over to ITV. It may not have been the perfect debut, but he did give the programme a much-needed lift from the charming but wooden Bob Wilson. And by the final whistle, the old twinkle had returned. "Stay up for Gabby [Yorath]," urged Des, raising a chuckle from El Tel.

ITV may have opted for experience over youth, but then Alan Hansen did once tell Des: "You don't win anything with kids."