Sport on TV: Age of nostalgia in close-up and super slo-mo

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The Independent Online
HOW MANY great sporting moments have you witnessed in the flesh? Not many. How many have you seen on the telly? Every single one, I bet. Most people's recollections of such occasions are framed by the TV screen. It's nostalgia in close-up and super slo-mo, embellished with opera scores, indy bands and techno beats.

My memories of the 1991 European Cup-Winners' Cup final include seeing my brother-in-law caught on camera just before kick-off in Rotterdam draped, for some reason, in the Stars and Stripes, leering ecstatically at the camera. That is as much a part of my experience of the game as Mark Hughes's winner.

The last time Manchester United were in the European Cup final, I watched it with David Parry, my next-door neighbour, an Everton fan who desperately wanted Benfica to win, his dad, who also supported Everton but was behind United because they were English, and Uncle John from down the road, a Liverpool fan, but as patriotic about United as he had been about England a couple of years earlier. My godmother went to the match with her friend, Mary (Shay Brennan's sister, as it happens), who had to be passed over the heads of the crowd when she fainted. She saw none of that match. Her memory of it is restricted to the first-aid room at Wembley. I remember it, like most people, in gritty, grainy black and white.

The point about all this is that on Wednesday night, a ball of clammy- handed tension in front of the TV, I felt guilty that I wasn't there in Turin, guilty that I hadn't been in Rotterdam eight years ago, guilty that I probably won't be in Barcelona in a few weeks, guilty that despite supporting United for 32 years, I have seen them in the flesh considerably fewer times than I've had hot dinners.

I think the point I am making is that for most people, especially these days, football is an exclusively televisual experience. It was appropriate that Rupert Murdoch tried to buy United, as it was the historic Sky deal in the first place that stumped up the cash, pumped up the volume and plumped up the club till it was ripe for takeover. And it was the consequent explosion of wall-to-wall coverage that enabled United, who had always enjoyed plenty of support outside the city anyway, to extend their fan base to anywhere a dish could be installed.

Why else are there legions of parents all over the country tearing their hair out because the kids love Becks and Giggsy rather than their local maestro? Blame Murdoch. Not that it's just a United phenomenon - there are probably young Gunners in Goole and young Chelseaites in Chester.

Though I was the son of Mancunians, they weren't interested in football and we lived 50 miles away, so it was only because of TV that I became a United fan when, one Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks after my dad had died, I saw them beat West Ham 6-1 to take the title in 1967. Football rushed in to fill the void (cf Nick Hornby and how football helped him deal with his parents' divorce) and I was enslaved for life, my development arrested at that precise moment in time. (A lifelong soft spot for Celtic was established around the same time when they beat Internazionale so magnificently in the European Cup final.)

It was probably Brian Moore commentating at Upton Park for The Big Match, though it might have been Gerald Sinstadt, who was Granada's main man in those days. We could have done with Moore on Wednesday because although Clive Tyldesley is a trier, he lacks a yard of pace at the highest level (mind you, so did Moore, especially in his dotage).

Tyldesley seems to be trying to establish himself as a maker of memorable phrases, although I was left wondering if he was thinking on his feet or reading a few bon mots he prepared earlier. When United equalised on Wednesday, he exclaimed, "They've seen the Juventus away goal, and they've raised it!" I can't decide whether that's brilliant or terrible. Probably the latter. To single out Tyldesley is unfair, though: Motty and Barry "The Great" Davies apart, terrestrial football commentating is at the proverbial all-time low.

Still, at least Tyldesley isn't Frank Skinner. The West Brom-supporting comedian does an extremely funny stand-up routine, I am told, and his off-the-cuff jokes were usually the best part of Fantasy Football League, especially when it ran out of ideas. But these ingredients clearly do not equip him to be a chat-show host, as the second in the series of The Frank Skinner Show (BBC1, Thursday) cruelly demonstrated.

His poor victim, Alan Hansen, came over - not surprisingly - as spiky, bringing Skinner to a merciful halt at one point over the host's preoccupation with Hansen taking a glass of fruit cordial to bed with him.

On and on Skinner banged, to looks of increasingly withering contempt from the gimlet-eyed pundit. I kept turning over, squirming, then turning back to see he was still going on about it. It was dim, dumb, embarrassing, witless, brainless, pointless and about as funny as those Fantasy Football sketches where they dressed up as Saint and Greavsie (yes, it really was that bad). Whoever is in charge of these things, please, please, please, please, please Do Not Give This Man Another Series.