Sport on TV: Jack the lad plays the green-eyed monster

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The Independent Online
THEY SAY that watching a football match on television can never be the same as being there yourself. Sure, you may have a comfy seat just a few feet from the action, and a fridgeful of beer close at hand, but you can never equal the noise and the excitement, or the temporary deafness that comes from sitting next to a man who bellows like a town crier from the first whistle to the last.

Well whoever "they" are, they must live in one of Channel 5's blackout zones, because the station's coverage of Wednesday's game between the Republic of Ireland and Yugoslavia had the lot. In fact, it had not one, but two bellowing fans, in the shape of Jonathan Pearce and his co- commentator, Jack Charlton. All you needed to do was stub out a few Carroll Majors on the carpet, and you might as well have been at Lansdowne Road.

Pearce, of course, has always been the mad fan in the commentary box, a man who would never have made it past a studio door in the days when impartiality was strictly required. The closest he got to even-handedness on Wednesday was his observation that Pierluigi Colina, the referee, "always looks to me as if he's just appeared from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but to be fair, he's one of Europe's finest". In other words, Pierluigi looks like a transvestite alien, but he's good at what he does. If that's Pearce's idea of a compliment, you wouldn't want him to give you a slagging.

To a man like that, the small matter of his Englishness was never going to get in the way of a good old root for the boys in green, who, after all, tend to play most of their football on this side of the sea. The revelation on Wednesday, though, was the depth of Jack Charlton's continuing feeling for the side he used to manage. No one in the ground can have yelled, muttered and fretted through the 90 minutes like Big Jack, who in the final, gripping quarter of an hour, seemed to forget completely that he was up in the stands and not on the touchline.

For much of this time, Charlton was babbling away non-stop. He had already achieved something that many viewers previously thought impossible, by shouting "YYYEEESSSS!" so loudly when the Irish found the net that he managed to drown out Pearce doing the same. Now, Pearce was reduced to sliding in the odd word when Jack paused for breath.

There were dozens of marvellously biased observations, shouts of encouragement and heartfelt groans as the clock counted down. "C'mon Lee," Charlton said as the Yugoslavs pushed forward in search of an equaliser. "C'mon, somebody come to him. Eeeurgh. Win it, win it, win it, no, no, no. Eeeurgh." The cross came in. "Yours Alan," he yelled, and Kelly made the catch. "Good lad."

It was during this brief lull that Charlton suddenly remembered where he was. "I'm sorry," he said to Pearce, "I'm doing your commentary here. I'm talking aloud when I should be keeping my mouth shut." "No, you carry on," Pearce said. "I'll have an evening off." And Jack, like the no-nonsense Geordie that he is, took him at his word.

It got even better - or worse, if you take a Reithian view of presentation - as injury time beckoned. An occasional partisan slip at a pivotal moment is common enough these days, but how often have you heard a commentator demanding that a player commit a foul? Mark Kennedy lost possession near the Yugoslav penalty area. "Foul him, foul him," Jack shouted. "There, that'll do, foul him, foul him there." It was so loud that Kennedy probably heard him, but to his credit, he kept his challenge legal. For the first time in 10 minutes, Charlton fell momentarily silent, no doubt in disgust.

Still, he was back in full flow during the three minutes - "three minutes? Where did that come from?" - of injury time. He laughed, for instance, as the ref gave the Irish an undeserved free-kick. "Tony [Cascarino] has been playing in France and he knows when to fall over. He's backed into him, let him put his foot over, and then fallen down to get the free-kick. Good lad." And then applauded as Kevin Kilbane took the ball into the corner. "The negative places are important now. Gowon Kilbane. Into the corner. Good lad."

Had the scoreline been the other way around, of course, with the Yugoslavs playing out time, these tactics would have been reckoned cynical, disgraceful, and symptomatic of all that's bad about European football. Charlton and Pearce would have been spitting bile, and calling for bookings, dismissals, perhaps even a declaration of war.

But it wasn't the other way around, and Big Jack's ex-lads got their result. And so - as Barry Davies memorably put it when the German defence went AWOL in the Olympic hockey final - frankly, who cares?