Sport on TV: Don shows how as John seeks higher ground

FORGET Keats and his 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness', this first autumnal week of September is the equivalent of a harvest festival for the armchair sports fan. After the rather parched flavours of the summer - cricket, athletics, tennis, golf - we're suddenly allowed back on to full- blooded rations. Football Italia (Channel 4), The American Football Big Match (Channel 4) and Sportsnight (BBC 1) all returned last week to sustain us with action, incident and comment throughout the winter.

Anyone shouting 'Get a Life]' after this opening eulogy, doesn't know what they're missing. For the house-bound, child-bound, sports parent, these three courses match anything on offer in the smartest restaurant in town; their three acts are better than any award-winning play; and they can outstrip even the most modern, computer game. As for inter-active TV - it was pioneered here. I first remember wanting to reach through the screen and strangle Jimmy Hill many years ago.

Football Italia is the newcomer of the trio, beginning only its third season. But already the culture of the programme has taken root - that catchy theme tune, now wedded to new opening titles which go some way to explaining the words; the pre-game scene-setter outside the sunlit stadium; the emblematic voice of Kenneth Wolstenholme; and the match prospects analysed by dear old Don Howe.

The resurrection of Howe is perhaps the programme's most startling achievement after the football itself. Don is a nice man, and a tremendous enthusiast for football, but he will always carry the baggage of 'Boring, Boring Arsenal' with him. When he first appeared last year, dressed in his shortie mac and brown trilby, I suspected what is now termed 'post-

modern irony' at work. (The rehabilitation of once-reviled comics such as Bob Monkhouse and Bernard Manning is a parallel manifestation.)

But if it was a joke, it has backfired with tremendous success. Don is a passionate, enlightened and credible witness to the Italian game, even though his clothes say that he thinks Armani and Cerruti are full-backs for Bari. His performance on Football Italia certainly indicts the producers of ITV's World Cup coverage, who obviously never knew how to get the best out of him.

The one problem that Chrysalis, who produce Football Italia for Channel 4, have is that Serie A is in danger of becoming a one-horse race for Milan. There seem to be only three or four teams capable of giving them a game, so juggling the choice of fixture must be a nightmare - last Sunday's Torino v Inter match, for example, just didn't take off.

The team behind the American Football for Channel 4 solved that problem last year by moving their coverage to the Monday night, thereby eliminating the lottery element of broadcasting a contest that wasn't. On paper, Pittsburgh at home to the Super Bowl champions Dallas looked promising enough to have the presenter Gary Imlach front the programme from there. But when it proved as competitive as a TUC debate, they were able to promote to the main highlights the high- scoring Dolphins-Patriots game. In this, the Miami quarterback Dan Marino threw five touchdowns on his return from injury, despite playing across a grassless scar on the pitch which looked as though it had been caused by the launch of a Space Shuttle.

The new package - the animated graphics by Barbara Tutty and Susan Young are particularly eye-catching - has been stripped of last year's banal inter-state chat between Imlach and the Incredible Hulk and now puts the emphasis on the action. All we need to complete the Monday Night Game's success is to hear more of John Madden, the commentator who is the authentic voice of blue-collar America, and for whom Murdoch rightly paid almost as much as the football itself.

That the BBC could do with a Madden in their midst was emphasised by Sportsnight's return with a full wedge of rather bloodless international football (can't wait for Wales v Moldova]). The programme has not renewed its credits or its line-up and even Des Lynam's cheery welcome could not disguise the fact that they were about to broadcast highlights of an England-USA game which a large part of the football-watching public had already seen on Sky.

In having only rights to the highlights, the BBC turned out to be lucky, but whether the knowledge that they are now only the England national team's secondary broadcaster has forced the commentators Motson and Brooking to strike out for the higher ground in petulance, I don't know. Trevor did come up with a tackle that was 'innoxious', while Motson referred to a 'linesman's more deferential decision', and also used the word 'metier'.

I'm all for the ascent of man, but I sometimes wish the BBC had someone like Dave Bassett in the presentation packet to add a touch of salt and vinegar to this couch potato's life.