Misjudged Euro-vision and a bad sound-bite

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The Independent Online
Manchester won in Manchester, but Barcelona drew in Barcelona, so that was that. For depleted United, it was two suspensions, five injuries and a knock-out. ITV was in both places at once (European Champions League Live, Wednesday), biting back th e tears.

It had begun with such optimism. In a move borrowed directly from American football and baseball coverage, at the start of the game ITV cut from the studio to the pitch via the commentary box: a camera up there revealed an optimistic Brian Moore who addressed his opening remarks directly to us and then turned in a business-like way towards the pitch. Beside him, an optimistic Ron Atkinson, wrapped in several miles of expensive cloth, attempted to look optimistic.

In these few seconds, you got to note the striking similarity between the Old Trafford commentary position and a wind-blasted cowshed. Otherwise, the point of these shots is obscure. Doubtless they will have been explained in production meetings in termslike "profile-raising" and "viewer-to-commentator interaction ratio", but it's hard to know quite what Moore stands to gain here, given that the combination of giant overcoat, fat headphones and a headset microphone the size of a tennis ball made him about as recognisable as a combat-ready Spitfire pilot.

The shots also contradict a vital tenet imbued in us all since our childhoods: commentators should be heard and not seen. And sometimes they shouldn't be heard, either. Anyway, when I was a lad, did we have this kind of luxury? No, we did not. We had to make to do. The only sight we ever had of John Motson was the back of his neck and the collar of his sheepskin coat during the post-game interview. But I'll tell you what: we were happy.

When Barcelona cut short Manchester United's European campaign, they also cut short ITV's, who would have been praying for United to go the whole way and drag the channel into the big-ratings beano of exclusive final coverage.

The inevitable slip ITV made was to imagine that all of us watching were at one with them on this. Hence all that stuff, from studio and commentary box, about the good of the national game. And hence the extraordinary approval voiced by Moore and Atkinson when, with only a minute on the clock, the absurd Roy Keane narrowly escaped a booking for attempting to slice a Galatasaray defender's ankles off - both ankles, simultaneously. "That's the sort of spirit from Manchester United we want to see," said Moore. "Exactly what we want to see," said Atkinson. "A bit of up-and-at-'em. That would definitely be the way to play these Turks."

"Our thoughts are very much with United's seemingly impossible dream," said Bob Wilson, as we switched over to Barcelona for the last quarter of an hour. But who was the "our" there? The assumption was that, for these 90 minutes at least, we were all of us Mancunian. But football fans don't necessarily deal in this kind of civilised largesse - and there would be no such thing as football fans if they did. For many of us, United's failure to advance to the next stage was as joyous as the FA's decision togive Tottenham their points back was disappointing.

Accurately predicting United's exit last Saturday on his football phone-in Six-O-Six (Radio 5), David Mellor remarked that there was now only Arsenal left to carry the English flag in Europe. This was to overlook Chelsea, whom Mr Mellor currently supports, though, in fairness, he may not be alone among those who attend at Stamford Bridge in occasionally assuming that the team's appearance in the draw for a European competition quarter-final must be some sort of mirage.

No mitigating circumstances, though, can be offered for what happened to Mellor during the newsbreak. It was a moment when, as it were, the foot was in the other mouth. In one of those dream live-on-air gaffes, a microphone was left on enabling us to hear, over the top of the newsreader, half of a conversation between Mellor and his producer. "Bit boring I thought," said Mellor. "Couldn't get that bloody Paul off the line." You realise that phone-in presenters have next to no respect for the people who call in, but it was still strangely breathtaking to hear that contempt so graphically expressed. I can't imagine how Paul must have felt. The incident only crystallised suspicions one has had for ages about Mellor's tenancy of this show.

Under Danny Baker, Six-O-Six prospered as an opening for the voice of the fan, an outlet for the views of the seldom heard. Under Mellor, who appears to be more of a sucker for figures of authority, this policy has suffered a debilitating erosion. The man actively solicits the participation of club representatives and people who already have as many platforms to choose from as a scaffold company. Recently Bob Wilson got through. Perhaps it's time Radio 5 found someone else, before the programme turns in to It's Your Chairman.