SPORT ON TV: Darke arts give the conspiracy theorists a Highbury field day

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The Independent Online
Darke forces are at work, say the conspiracy theorists, as Sky's football commentary team continue to adopt a "squad rotation" policy that might have come straight from the Claudio Ranieri manual of How To Lose The Confidence Of The Dressing Room.

Further ammunition to those who believe that there's something going on within the Sky corridors of power - and judging by the banter in football chatrooms, it's a subject of much debate - came at Highbury last Tuesday when Arsenal squared up against Manchester United in a battle of two of the Premiership's heavyweights.

For joining Andy Gray in the commentary box was not the familiar voice of the seasoned Martin Tyler. These two have formed a television double act as heralded as Ant and Dec, but on the night it was Ian Darke, better known for his ability at ringside.

Only a few months ago Darke had been in New York as Danny Williams made his ill-fated challenge for a piece of the heavyweight pie against Vitali Klitschko. With the British challenger's face a bloody mess, Darke said: "Let us hope his children aren't watching at home." You sort of understand what he meant, but if everyone turned off then the man himself would be out of a job.

Darke's recent addition to the football ranks is not entirely surprising. Signs are that Sky are reducing the hours allocated to boxing, and he returns to covering a sport he was involved with when the Premiership started.

However, his apparent elevation to sitting beside Gray for the more important Sky matches at the perceived expense of Tyler is one which has set tongues wagging. Rumours of a fall-out between Tyler and Gray are thrown around in conversation, while others feel Tyler has fallen foul of his bosses.

All of which is nonsense, according to Sky. A spokesman responded last week: "Martin Tyler is still one of four commentators used across Premiership football alongside Ian Darke, Rob Hawthorne and Alan Parry. All four have commentated on top-level football on Sky Sports during the last decade and will continue to do so."

At Highbury, though, one got the impression that either Darke and Gray are still finding their way as a commentary duo - which, given their experience, is unlikely - or that they are not the closest of allies off camera. For his part, Darke come across as trying too hard. Perhaps he's listened too much to John Motson. "Lauren won a gold medal for Cameroon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics" might be true, but the relevance of that in a Premiership match over four years later was what?

Given Darke's appreciation of hand-to-hand combat, he would have risen several notches in the estimation of the live Sky audience had he fallen back on his pugilistic instincts as referee Graham Poll tried manfully to quell the uprising between Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane. One of boxing's trusted axioms is that a good big 'un will beat a good little 'un, but if Vieira (6ft 4in, 13st) was to take on Keane (5ft 11in, 12st), I know where my money would be.

Darke is a hugely capable journalist, and more of an all-rounder than Gray, but the gods conspired to set the stage for him last Tuesday and he wasted it.

In those pre-match moments when testosterone filled the air in the tunnel, he had the opportunity to vindicate Sky's rotation policy in what was not only one of the most explosively entertaining games of the season, but also watched by millions worldwide.

It would have been a masterstroke had Darke, for instance, told us that Keane's weight division is super-middleweight (the domain of Joe Calzaghe) and Vieira's is cruiserweight (Johnny Nelson), and that if they really wanted to fight there are two idle British boxers out there willing to let them have a go. "Now get on the field and play football," he might have added.

As things turned out last week, Tyler got the Wednesday-night match, the one on PremPlus (pay-per-view) between Chelsea and Blackburn, and he also sat behind the microphone for Chelsea's FA Cup defeat of Birmingham last Sunday. He might be at Stamford Bridge again this afternoon, but that will not necessarily quieten those who remain convinced that something more sinister is going on. Is it just shades of Gray, or are we really being kept in the Darke?