Sport on TV: Big Ron in the land of little Englanders

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The Independent Online
NO changes in the ITV side for the Netherlands v England tie (World Cup Football - Live, Wednesday): Brian Moore up front, Ron Atkinson tucked in alongside him, and out on the wing, Jim Rosenthal, our 'Touchline Reporter', charged with gathering gossip and insight from the dug-outs and relaying it to us while it was hot.

This is a comparatively new team position and some still question its value to the overall formation. In an ideal world, late in the game, the England manager Graham Taylor would furtively beckon Rosenthal over, lean into his ear and whisper, 'Between you and me, Jim, Cilla Black takes over on Monday.' What happens in practice is that Rosenthal gets to inform us that Carlton Palmer was subsituted because he wasn't playing very well. Two minutes into the second half, this was a scoop with all the news value of 'Beatles to Split'.

All of television's cultivated impartiality goes right out the commentary box window in a time of national crisis. And Brian Moore's throat gets tighter and tighter, as if he finds defeat hard to swallow in a literal sense. For one glorious moment, two minutes from time, it sounded as if England were bringing on Glenn Hoddle. Alas, it was just Brian Moore having trouble pronouncing 'Van Gobbel'.

Beside him, Atkinson too was looking wobbly under pressure. As David Seaman leapt to beat out Rijkaard, Big Ron was inspired to conjureup an unforgettable footballing moment. 'That save will be as famous as Banks's in, er, . . . where was it?' Atkinson is frequently good value, but he is evidently subject to the terms of a contract stipulating that he must make his remarks a) when the ball is out of play, b) when the ball is in play and c) at all other times. On Wednesday, he and Moore dialogued incessantly, as if engaged in some kind of sponsored talkathon, which for us at home severely curtailed the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere in the stadium (the braying choruses of 'Rule Britannia', the howling police dogs, etc).

Towards the end, with the Netherlands two goals up, the cameras stopped watching the game and concentrated instead on Graham Taylor, who had risen from the dug-out to stomp about illegally on the touchline, despairingly shaking an arm. Wrapped in his fizzy blue shellsuit, he looked like someone in a park at the weekend, trying to get an errant dog to come back. Occasionally, a troubled Fifa representative engaged him in a vivid exchange. In so far as one could lip-read, the gist was, 'Mr Taylor: if you don't sit down, we will have to get you your job back so that we can ban you from future matches.'

For poor David Platt, things got no better after the final whistle. As if it wasn't enough to get pulled over on the edge of the penalty area by Ronald Koeman, he was then slide- tackled on his way down the tunnel by Jim Rosenthal. It seems a touch unreasonable to interview defeated players directly after 90 minutes of top- level international football and before they've even had a chance to break the dressing- room door. But dignified and restrained, Platt spat out a few choked but careful words and walked briskly away.

Next in front of the camera, though, was Taylor, and then things really hotted up. 'I don't think I've ever seen you so angry,' said Rosenthal, sensing a story at last. Taylor spoke through a cloud of steam: 'That referee has not applied the rules of the game as we apply them honestly and openly in our country.' There were several reasons why this was a disgraceful statement, not least the fact that it was completely untrue. It's thanks to their honest and open application of the rules, on pitches up and down our country, that the United Kingdom's referees can rely on a popularity rating and general public warmth-factor somewhere below traffic wardens and estate agents.

But worse, and potentially inflammatory, was the implication that this refereeing cock- up was somehow a nationalist issue. We manage things differently; Johnny Foreigner was to blame. Only England could be roundly and deservedly defeated while reserving the right to feel, as Taylor insisted, 'totally cheated'. At this point, there was little to separate the manager's attitude from that of some of our brave travelling fans, about to leave the stadium and do their duty on the streets of Rotterdam. It fell to Matthew Lorenzo to wrap up this possibly pivotal evening in the nation's sporting history. 'That's football, I'm afraid.'