Sport on TV: Now you can enjoy football without a dish

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The Independent Online
TWO OF television's ancien regime, Jimmy Hill and Brian Moore, were moaning this week about there being too much football on the box. True, it's not like in their day when all the people had were Match of the Day on Saturday night and The Big Match after Sunday lunch and they were happy with what they were given, thank you very much. But I reckon there's just about enough these days - and the best bit is, you don't need to reach for the Sky.

Alarmists cited figures that gave Delia Smith's cookery-for-morons series on BBC2 more viewers than Liverpool's thrilling victory over Valencia over on Channel 5 (but worse figures, note, than Leeds v Roma on BBC1). In fact, the differential - the Norwich City director got 3.8m, the Scousers 2.4m - doesn't seem too disastrous, though it might to suits whose livelihoods depend on a few percentage points here and there. It seems to me that the difference resides in the strange but true fact that for some reason people are more likely to watch a match - any programme, in fact - on one channel than another. Bizarre, perhaps, illogical, but that's clearly the way some people's minds work - why else are BBC2's more successful programmes, like the X-Files, or Absolutely Fabulous, moved to BBC1 once they've proved themselves? Clearly because some people are stupid - too stupid, anyway, to notice a programme's existence if it isn't on the mainstream channel. Too stupid to read the paper or use the remote control. Too stupid even to bother about, really.

The way to avoid football overkill is simple: don't buy a dish, or get cabled up, or digitised, or whatever it is one does these days. All you need is on terrestrial. Think about what's been on offer this week courtesy of the combined efforts of the BBC, ITV and Channel 5: Liverpool, Leeds, Chelsea, Man Utd and Arsenal, all live, depending on where you were in the country (it has to be said that ITV's logic in showing Arsenal on Carlton and United in the rest of the country was ill-conceived: there must be countless thousands more United fans in the Carlton catchment area than there are Gooners).

As well as all this, there was the Italian game on Channel 4 on Sunday, plus all that nocturnal action, easily available to anyone with a child to programme the video - football from Brazil, the Netherlands, Argentina, the United States on Channel 5, and all the Nationwide goals on ITV. So what do the dishless miss? Mostly belt 'n' braces Premiership games that with a few honourable exceptions would have lost little through being filleted by the Match of the Day team.

A dish was also unnecessary to sample some of the more tangential pleasures this week. Perhaps mindful of their falling star in the sporting firmament, the BBC is trying hard to compensate. One way, like a record company with no new product, is to exploit their back catalogue, one product of which this week was Match Of Their Day (BBC2, Monday to Friday), which took football heroes for a gentle spin back through the decades to their prime times. This is the kind of programme the BBC can do - and do well - in their sleep, without causing the viewer to nod off. There's plenty of good archive footage (it was instructive to see a Uruguayan roll over and play dead when given a slight push by Lofthouse, proving that there's nothing new in today's thespian exploits), while Garth Crooks' softly softly interview style (aided, presumably, by his researchers) uncovers some evocative anecdotes.

Thursday's programme was about Nat Lofthouse, my bete noir as a child for the way he sent poor wee Harry Gregg crashing into the back of the net in the 1958 FA Cup final. It was interesting to note that Lofthouse was as surprised as anyone that the goal was allowed to stand.

"I looked at the ref, and thought, `He's given a goal!' " Lofthouse said. "I was glad we won 2-0 and not 1-0."

Lofthouse also spoke about his first pay packet: "I signed on for Bolton Wanderers when I was 17 and I got two white fivers," he said. "Two white fivers. My dad was on pounds 2.50 a week, with the coal wagon. I took them home and put them on the table and he thought I'd pinched them. It was a month's wagers for him. I felt really embarrassed."

At the other end of his career, he played in the same Bolton side as Francis Lee (cue old film of some of Lee's finest moments). It was young Lee's debut, and Lofthouse stuck the ball in the net from one of his crosses. He went over to congratulate the youngster, presumably to ruffle his hair and give him an affectionate cuff round the ear, when, according to Lofthouse, Lee piped up, " `It's about bloody time you scored, Lofthouse, the number of balls I've put over for thee.' He were only 16, the little so-and-so." A harsher word almost slipped past the Lion of Vienna's lips, but he's too much of a gentleman for that.

There was yet more football in the returning On Side (BBC1, Monday). Gary Richardson - who I have to say I find intensely irritating first thing in the morning on the Today programme on Radio 4 - went to Brazil to uncover, so we were informed, the true story about Ronaldo and the World Cup final. He did no such thing, of course. Not one person who was there that day had anything enlightening to say, and all that was left at the end of the item was what had been there before - a handy conspiracy theory but nothing more concrete. The true story, I'm sure, will never be told.

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