Sport on TV: Empty feeling for the Saturday night fevered

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The Independent Online
IT TOOK a while for the full magnitude of last week's big transfer story to sink in at the BBC. Late on Monday, just after Newsnight, they ran their pre-season teaser, a brief film in which an assortment of blokes do sad, aimless things, like traipse around DIY superstores with their wife, or build card castles in the pub, because there's no football to go to or talk about. The good news for the lads, though, was that their 10-week stint in purgatory was almost over, for as Gary Lineker reminded us, "on Saturday, normal service will be resumed".

The line had been cut by the following night, but the ghost of Des will not be exorcised nearly so easily. For many viewers, in fact, the Saturday service will never seem entirely normal again. Tourists tuning into the news or reading the press coverage must have found all the hysteria bemusing. On the face of it, the headline on the story could have been: "Man, 56, quits job to take very similar job". Had 300 people in India not been killed a few hours earlier, however, the departure of Des would have led every bulletin until Tuesday morning at least. The only cause for relief is that no one started quoting that poem from Four Weddings and a Funeral, but it was probably a close-run thing.

The reason for the fuss, of course, is that Des is a National Treasure, a bit like the Queen Mum, yet even further beyond reproach. Not that his move to ITV is a cause for criticism, this being a free country after all. The reaction, though, did highlight an interesting case of double standards among the public.

On the radio this week, for instance, John Inverdale hosted Any Sporting Questions (Radio 5 Live), which is a little like Question Time on the telly, the main differences being that the panel is interesting and the chairman is 100 per cent less pompous. A long series of speakers from the audience slated the greed of modern footballers, the consensus being that pounds 20,000 a week was a disgraceful sum to pay people simply for playing football.

What no one seemed to consider, though, was that Des, on a reported pounds 5m over four years, will be getting approximately pounds 24,000 per week merely for talking about people who are simply playing football. When Manchester United - salary cap rumoured to be around pounds 28,000 - play in the Champions' League, he will probably be getting more than at least half the players on the pitch, and actually working for rather less than a third as much time. Five minutes before the match, five minutes afterwards, and a few more at half-time between two commercial breaks is ITV's usual routine, so Des's mots will have to be not only bons, but tres petits too.

Of course, he will earn every penny, particularly if ITV persist with some of their ropier pundits. The point, though, is that Des will be getting his fat cheques for exactly the same reason that the Premiership's star players are getting theirs, which is that the market thinks they are worth it.

The race to replace Lynam's bottom on the BBC leather started immediately, with Inverdale himself among the obvious front- runners, thanks in part to the timely return of Onside (BBC1). And his was an impressive pitch for the job, if the ability to be chummy and banter for Britain is what they look for in an anchorman.

Patrick Vieira and Harry and Jamie Redknapp were among the guests swatting dolly-drops over short leg, with Harry in particular enjoying the experience and delivering a stream of droll anecdotes in his deadpan Cockney way. His wife, on the other hand, might not have been too impressed by his unreconstructed views on the role of women in football (there isn't one, it seems, except when it comes to getting grass stains out of shirts). Then again, Harry probably doesn't allow her to watch the telly anyway, in case it gives her ideas.

There was a far more robust approach to interviewing later in the week, when Martin Bashir attempted to play a round of golf while talking to Robbie Fowler on Tonight (ITV). Since Bashir had never touched a club in his life, it was not a surprise when his first tee-shot moved five yards at a 90-degree angle to the fairway. His questions, though, were straight down the middle.

"It was just one of those things, the heat of the moment," Fowler said of his notorious gesture in Graeme Le Saux's direction. "That, if I may say so," Bashir responded, "is quite a cheap excuse." Fowler, rather more used to the "why are you so wonderful?" school of journalism, did not know where to turn. He stammered lamely that it was all the other guy's fault for taking so long over his free-kick. Perhaps he should have tried the only explanation which is likely to convince anybody: that Le Saux had asked him to point at his brain.