Night when reason turned into rhetoric

Sport on TV Giles Smith
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FOR several minutes we had been watching whole segments of seating drop out of the upper tier. Martin Tyler in the commentary box talks to Nick Collins on the touchline. "Has it been a case of throwing seats?" he asked. Nick implied that, yes, that did seem to be why there was now a large abandoned area in the stand, a throng of people on the pitch and lots of uniformed men running around with truncheons. Tyler pressed him again: "And Nick, can you confirm that it is England fans totally causing the trouble." Nick said it was difficult to see.

When it went off at Lansdowne Road on Wednesday night the worst place to be was in that lower tier, helpless beneath a shower of wood and glass but it wasn't so great at home, watching it on Sky Sports, ducking in your seat from a barrage of muddled remarks. For the most part, we would prefer to ignore the fact that the sport we watch has connections - be it with far-right activists or with anything outside the stadium's walls. We are happier when the evening's action can be contained within Sportsnight and doesn't have to spill over into Newsnight. Sky's live coverage made excruciating viewing for two reasons - partly because some of the things which were said were plain excruciating, but also because the situation was so unfair on those saying them. There were hints of Heysel here - a live sports event unfolding and growing beyond the bounds of sport, the commentators finding their job description has changed beyond recognition.

Imagine, for example, being Nick Collins on Wednesday. You've gone along intending to spend most of the game eavesdropping beside the England bench and hoping to squeeze a couple of breathless words out of David Platt at half-time, and suddenly you are a battle correspondent, jostling for a position near the frontline. Similarly, the programme's producers don't employ Alan Ball to comment as a sociologist. They employ Alan Ball to . . . well, actually, I don't know what they employ Alan Ball to do, but it certainly isn't to deconstruct some of the patterns behind errant social behaviour. On the one hand, he said these were "mindless thugs" and on the other they were a highly organised and disciplined paramilitary force who "knew exactly what they were doing". And just to confuse matters further, as the image of a baffled boy wearing an Ireland scarf appeared on the screen, Ball suddenly came over all misty eyed. "Says it all," said Ball. "He's gone with his dad to see probably his heroes from England. He's probably only read about them in magazines and his dad has said, `Come on, I'll take you along to watch them play and see them in the flesh.' And they're subjected to mindless people . . ."

Back in the studio, Richard Keys announced to the camera: "They shouldn't let them out. They should nick the lot, because somebody in there knows who was doing this." It was hard to know what was more alarming: the images of those numbheads in England shirts converting their benches into missiles, or the sight of Keys, tight-lipped and advocating indiscriminate imprisonment, a thought ripped from Block W in his mind and tossed recklessly into our living-rooms.

In the struggle to find an appropriate tone, the further up the rhetorical scale everyone climbed, the more out of touch they sounded. When the game was cancelled, Tyler said, "the ultimate price has been paid here for the folly of a few", as if he was reading the lesson at a service of remembrance. He went on: "There's just a terrible feeling of dismal sadness, sorrow, say what you like - shame is the word that constantly comes to mind."

On Sportsnight, Desmond Lynam had his glasses on again which is always a signal that all is not well. Jimmy Hill talked, rather movingly I thought, about the particular awfulness, for his generation, of seeing England fans use the Nazi salute. When they screened some rugby league, it was possible to experience an intense relief. At last, you thought: some sport. About two minutes in, there was a fist fight and three men were sin-binned.

Newsnight's piece involved a qualified sociologist, the Irish Sports Minister and the MP Kate Hoey. Hoey's balloney ranged from absurd piety ("It's something that brings disgrace on all of us") through to noisy tub-thumping. "It's very important that someone takes the initiative," she said before calling for "an immediate inquiry" - the politician's standard means of looking active and on the case while merely saying: "Would somebody somewhere do something about this."

Beside her, Philip Cornwall from the magazine When Saturday Comes pointed out that when we talk about the long period of time since England fans were in trouble at an away match, all we mean is that England haven't played away for a long time - since 1993, in Rotterdam, when there was trouble. It was suggested that some of the known thugs should never have made it to Ireland: Cornwall said that you can't detain people who have no criminal records. These were by no means happy things to think about but it was heartening, at the close of a cheerless evening, that just about the only person talking calmly and sensibly was a football fan.