Sport on TV: All that glitters must be big Ron in a time warp

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The Independent Online
YOU CAN say what you like about Ron Atkinson, but he's certainly not one to hide. If you or I were in charge of the worst team in Premiership history, we might keep public appearances to a minimum, but not Big Ron. He was everywhere last week, grinning that chubby grin and playing havoc with your brightness setting as his jewellery caught the studio lights. And strangely, he seemed most at home not in the Turin commentary box, but in The Grimleys (ITV).

This is a sublime, impeccably observed comedy set in the mid-1970s, a tale of miserable schooldays, masochistic PE teachers and divine English mistresses. The attention to detail is such that the schoolboys not only ride through the gates on Choppers, but also carry their books around in those marbled, poo-brown Adidas bags which seemed so flash at the time.

Into this time-warp strode Atkinson, playing a cameo as the manager of a rival school's football team. And the odd thing was that he did not spoil the illusion one bit. There was no need to give him sideburns or flared tartan trousers, because Big Ron belongs to every era and no era at all. He is the manager that time forgot.

His motivational skills did not seem to have come on too much in the last 25 years, either. His team were, at a guess, about two stone a man heavier than their rivals, who had the hopelessly flabby Gordon Grimley in goal, and an assortment of weeds, nerds and halfwits filling the other 10 positions. And yet somehow they held Ron's boys at bay, with Gordon saving a dubious penalty in the final seconds. Atkinson's side, incidentally, were wearing red shirts, white shorts. Some things never change.

Kevin Keegan popped up in The Grimleys, too, falling off his bike in Superstars, much to the amusement of Gordon's dad. And Keegan was back - along with Ron, naturally - the following night, as a supporting player in Sports Commentators: Their Worst Nightmares (ITV).

This was a puzzling programme, not least because of its title. Nightmares? Apart from a few well-worn mishaps which we have all seen a dozen times before, this was an hour-long tribute to the supposed brilliance under fire of British commentators, particularly those on ITV.

The structure revolved around the "10 Golden Rules of Commentating", which ranged from the obvious - "do your homework" - to the blindingly obvious - "communication is key". It even managed to be deeply dull now and again, principally when Brian Moore was answering questions. But there were a couple of moments which almost made the exercise worthwhile.

The first was a reminder of Keegan's bizarre reading of the incident during USA 94, when the Brazilian player Leonardo was sent off for subjecting Tab Ramos to what looked disturbingly like Murder One. Alan Parry, ITV's commentator, the referee and millions watching saw Leonardo elbow Ramos with, as the Americans like to say, extreme prejudice. In Texas, they electrocute people for less.

But Keegan saw it differently. "Maybe it's just my eyes, but it didn't look like such a bad challenge," was how he opened the case for the defence. "That's an elbow, though, isn't it?" Parry said nervously, over the slow- motion replay. "Yeah, but he's being held," Keegan replied.

At this point, the American bench was deciding whether to bother sending on the trainer, or instead save everyone's time and dispatch a priest to administer the last rites. Yet still Keegan was unconvinced. "This is one of the big bones of contention in football now," he said. "I accept it was wrong what he did, but the first foul came from the other guy."

The first foul he was referring to was a gentle tweak of Leonardo's shirt. If he instils the same attitude into Fulham, it's a wonder they could even field a team beyond the first week in September.

The other informative moment in Commentators concerned Sky's team of cricket pundits, and their somewhat unorthodox preparation for a day's play. This involved ringing a spread-betting firm to get their quote on England's run total, and deciding whether to buy or sell.

On the day in question, the first one-day international against South Africa last summer, the line was set at 260-280, and this being England, Bob Willis, Mike Procter, Paul Allott and company did not take long to decide to sell. A couple of hours later, England were stumbling at 161 for 6, and Mark Ealham was involved in a tight run-out decision. Willis did not quite stand up in the commentary box and start chanting "Out, out, out", but he might as well have done. "That's got to be close," he yelped, with a tightness of throat which all punters will have recognised. "Must be out," agreed Procter. And he was.

England, by the way, eventually staggered to 223 for 9, making the commentary team a 37-point profit. So the next time you are watching the national side collapse on Sky, and you fancy that you can hear the sound of high- fives somewhere in the background, there is probably no need to adjust your set.