Rabble-rousers take to hot air waves

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With a flourish that would have been appreciated by beleaguered sportsmen everywhere, West Ham's manager, Harry Redknapp, rounded on talk- show tormentor David Mellor last week. Reacting to Mellor's suggestion that he should become more thick-skinned, Redknapp retorted: "There is nothing for me to be thick-skinned about. I've never been caught in bed with strange women."

How Michael Atherton must wish he could turn on his beraters with such knockabout retorts instead of suffering in silence in New Zealand as the exploits of the England cricket team draw more and more derision upon his head. Sadly, the ability to grin and bear it is the only defence available to men in Atherton's position.

The art of being beastly to one's fellow man was once the particular pleasure of the school bully and the politician; quite often, I suspect, two stages in the life of the same person. But we are passing through a passage in sport in which it has become fashionable for all manner of folk to attempt to outdo each other in denouncing the perceived weaknesses of those in the thick of the action. I regret that my own trade is a trendsetter in this area but this is forgivable, I like to think, because it is part of our remit to be frank and fearless when the occasion demands. The ranks of the professional pundit, however, have been infiltrated if not inundated by those who aspire to a level of bitchiness that only a few career scribes can occasionally attain after a heavy night.

Many of these relative newcomers to the knocking game are former stars who are no doubt recruited for their insight, but who soon get tempted into the widespread distribution of abuse. Perhaps it compensates them for the flak they took when in their prime or they may feel that the past can be inflated by devaluing the present. Others, particularly they who wander in from elsewhere, are encouraged to believe that bad-mouthing is the fast-track to recognition in the sporting media world and, regrettably, it can be so.

A larger group consists of callers to the phone-in programmes of which Radio Five's 606, hosted by Mellor, is the leading example, although Channel 4 has launched a late-night show called Under the Moon which has ambitions to seek out the voice of the sporting insomniac.

While acknowledging that sportsmen have had to to bear cat-calling ever since they first attracted the attention of hoi polloi, the hounding has reached ridiculous levels and surpasses even that which our most blameworthy politicians have to face. Negligence, foolishness, poor performance and all manner of malpractice can thrive in other spheres of our national life with barely a protest compared to the hue and cry raised by the failings of the England cricket captain.

Sport is important to us and the progress of those who represent us on the international field is bound to attract forthright comment but strong opinion should be a basis for debate not wholesale condemnation. In a sporting sense we have become a nation of executioners and many seem to think that sacking Atherton would solve England's cricketing problems at a stroke. Cruelly, one of that number appears to be Ray Illingworth, who a few months ago was helping Atherton shoulder the burden imposed by our cricketing deficiencies. Before relinquishing his job he knew at first hand the pain of media harassment. Now he is numbered among the blood-bayers.

It didn't help Atherton that before the country, and the newspapers, went to bed on Monday night he had led England to the brink of victory. When we woke up, we were furious to find that the unlikely Danny Morrison had earned New Zealand a draw. Many an English cricketer has saved us from defeat in similar fashion but that's different.

This was Atherton's fault although I blame Glenn Hoddle more. The England football manager has, traditionally, the main villain's role to perform in our sporting drama and the undue delay in providing evidence that he will oblige in this direction has caused a hiatus to which only Atherton is bringing relief.

Harry Redknapp is a different case in that he manages only that part of England within the boundaries of West Ham United's appeal. And this is where the more worrying aspect of this climate of zero-tolerance raises its ugly head. Football fans have never been renowned for their patience, especially on a Saturday evening when their passion is at its height. Mellor's phone-in offers them a chance to relieve themselves of their frustration - indeed it encourages them to do so.

Referees, centre-forwards, goalkeepers, managers, chairmen - the chance to pour abuse at any or all of these architects of their dismay is irresistible. And, as their genial host, Mellor offers a kindly shoulder. It falls to few Conservative politicians to be the people's friend and Mellor relishes the role.

It is in this guise that he has fallen foul of Redknapp's temper. No one can deny that West Ham are having a bad time, what with pitch invasions and the like. But Mellor's willing leadership of the chorus of disapproval is probably creating more hassle than Redknapp deserves. Managing an under- performing national team may merit a brick-bat or two but at any given time there are about 20 teams struggling at the bottom of the four divisions and any of their disgruntled fans with the ability to use a telephone can whip up a campaign against the manager.

I'm not sure that prime BBC radio time is best used in this direction. Whenever I hear Mellor's programme, I grieve for the waste of space that could be used for mature discussion of sporting topics and problems. Sky are the only channel prepared to stage discussion programmes on our major sports and very good they are. I'm aware they have the space to do so but neither the BBC nor ITV make any genuine attempt to debate the many big sporting issues of the day.

Now it seems Channel 4 are going down the same road with Under the Moon as the Beeb have with 606. I can't disassociate newspapers from this criticism but some do try to hang on to a perspective. Rousing the rabble is not difficult and undoubtedly is good for business but I believe sport and those labouring under great difficulties to satisfy our demands deserve a better hearing than they are getting at the moment.

OF ALL the sporting stars who circle the globe in pursuit of their fame and fortune, the golfers are surely the most advantaged for they actually see the natural glories of whatever part of the world they visit. Not for them the constrictions of the indoor sports halls or the packed arenas. They roam leisurely over vast acres, gaze over vivid scenery to the far horizon and play amid trees and shrubs forever in bloom. The sky is never hidden from their eyes and the night and sound of the indigenous animals and birds are constantly with them.

Nobody is better placed to savour the sweet pleasures of the planet and it is good to know that they appreciate the privilege. John Daly, the big-hitting American, was moved last week to nominate Australia as his favourite haven of all. Asked why, he replied: "The food's good and the people speak English."