Sport on TV: Lip disservice and a word from the wised-up

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The Independent Online
If there is an award for the year's most audacious piece of PR flim-flam - and let's face it, there probably is - then the hype department at ITV should take its evening wear to Sketchleys immediately. For days last week, the sports pages (the little ones, anyway) were full of the story of Alex Ferguson, Paul Ince and that insult. Yet when it arrived, during the second part of The Alex Ferguson Story, you could only furrow your brow, shake your head and wonder - is that it?

Big-time Charlie. Can the former shipyard worker from Govan really do no better than that? The man's going soft. No wonder the players were all looking at him with such blank incomprehension. There weren't nearly enough four-letter words to penetrate the Brylcreem.

They soon set about showing the boss how it should be done. By the end of United's game against Liverpool on Thursday night, you could count the number of players who had not been caught swearing at each other in close-up on the fingers of a boxing glove. Half the time, it was the Liverpool defence having words with their goalkeeper, and if anyone had been monitoring the game on behalf of the Viewers' and Listeners' Association, their ballpoint pen would have run out of green ink long before the final whistle.

Now, no one would ever claim that the working person's game has ever been played without its fair share of strong language, be it at Old Trafford, the local park or in the school playground. Nor would anyone realistically expect or wish it to be any different. These days, though, Sky's cameras provide instant close-ups from so many angles that you might as well be standing between David Beckham and Jamie Redknapp as they swap pithy Anglo- Saxon observations about each other's parents.

The strange thing is that no one seems to notice. When Johnny Rotten let slip an expletive on early-evening television 20-odd years ago, one outraged parent - so the Sun said, anyway - hurled his television out of the living-room window in disgust. Yet when Roy Keane summed up his opinion of Patrick Vieira in three words on Sunday afternoon - the first two were "you" and "French" - no one turned a hair. The producer even played the tender moment back in Super Slo-Mo a few seconds later, just for the benefit of those whose lip-reading is a little rusty.

These days, of course, the Sun would never dream of running a story with a negative slant for Sky, and the same attitude has also taken root in the commentary box since the Boss put in his bid for United. Roy Evans was hardly the only spectator who had his doubts about the penalty which was awarded against Jason McAteer, but to listen to Andy Gray, you would have imagined that the defender had caught the ball with both hands and then hurled it at the ref for good measure.

"That's a definite penalty," Gray bellowed excitedly over the replay. "You just can't put your arm up like that in the box." What, even if Paul Scholes is putting it up for you? If Gray is right, then it is a wonder no one has thought of it before. What interesting commentaries he could be giving in five years' time if the idea catches on. "This is sheer class. Owen runs into the box as the cross comes over, he grabs Stam's arm, shoves it in the air, whacks the ball and wins the penalty. Brilliant, just brilliant."

Gray, of course, is far too professional to allow Rupert Murdoch's business dealings to influence his opinion, although once upon a time, if memory serves, he was heard to claim that United benefit from far more dubious decisions at Old Trafford than the law of averages might dictate. Like, for instance, the new law which suddenly appeared when they played Sheffield Wednesday a few seasons ago, the one which stated that "play shall continue until such a time as Manchester United are ahead". Steve Bruce, as The Alex Ferguson Story reminded everyone, scored the winner in the sixth minute of injury time. How strange it is that in these days when the amount of time for stoppages is carefully calculated, there never seems to be any more than four.

To give him his due, Ferguson was admirably phlegmatic during the final minutes of Tuesday's film, as he pondered Arsenal's success in the Premiership. When he comes out with lines about factory workers giving their front teeth for a chance to be in football, he actually seems to mean it. And anyone who takes the Racing Post to work cannot be all bad.

There were some good stories here, despite a desperate script which even sank to the depths of "football is the new rock 'n' roll". In the end, though, you learned almost as much about Gordon Strachan from his 30-second contribution as you did about Ferguson in the whole two hours.

"If you're obsessed with winning and you don't do it, you end up a lunatic," Strachan said. Which in his case at least explains a great deal.

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