Sport On TV: Parma flannel, blues brothers and the vicar

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The Independent Online
IT'S A fair assumption that the man in the Beeb camp when the season's football schedules were haggled over has a collection of Betamax videos at home. His dad may well have a Sinclair C5 in the garage and his grandad is a certainty to have backed Craganour in the Derby.

The Uefa Cup final, with seven British teams involved in the competition, might have seemed a sure bet as an audience-puller. The trouble is, come the dawn, not only were the BBC landed with Parma v Marseilles but the domestic midweek match which kicked off an hour later live on Sky turned out to be a Premiership cruncher. The choice was sub-zero at the Luhzniki Stadium or the crucible of Ewood Park.

The feeling was that Des and the boys were as little up for their task as Marseilles. Before the match emphasis was laid on the fact that this was going to be a walk-over for the Italian whizz-kids and at half-time, with the under-strength French side trailing 2-0 and looking incapable of scoring in a brothel and their rivals barely out of second gear, the main thrust of the pundits' points seemed to be that there was something more interesting happening elsewhere. Phrases like "one-sided", "underperforming", "poor", "without spirit" and "Manchester United and Blackburn are playing tonight", plus a resume of the Man U-Arsenal top-of-the-table struggle, were a bit of a giveaway.

There was always going to be high emotion in Lancashire. After Arsenal's reverse against Leeds the previous evening (and what intelligent dignity in the face of defeat and banal questioning Arsene Wenger maintained) a win would have, if not sealed the championship for United, certainly taken the pressure right off. Only a win would save Blackburn, managed, soap-style, by Alex Ferguson's former right-hand man Brian Kidd.

Now, if you support - say - Exeter City, you don't do high emotion, at least not on any sort of regular basis. You do stoicism, you do relief, you do long-suffering, you do checking the geographical whereabouts of Conference teams just in case, your shoulders develop exaggerated shrugging muscles. But on the Big Bank - say - you don't often see the desperation that the TV cameras reveal. On Tuesday night Arsenal fans wept for a title slipping away. On Wednesday tears flowed freely as the Blackburn faithful mourned their club's fall from grace. But they will still go to work the next day. For the players, though, as realisation dawned on their haggard faces above the blue and white shirts as they trooped off it was apparent than not many folk lose their jobs quite as publicly.

The post-match interview with Ferguson revealed just what an asset he would have been in Stalag Luft III. He seemed, genuinely, to have thought that a point was enough to give Blackburn a chance of survival. But you can read no sentiment there, only tunnel vision. His main concern was that his players had suffered no injuries with three more "Big Ones" coming up.

So, on to the cricket, with the team at Bletchley installed to sort out Duckworth-Lewis. Sky scored here too, having annexed the opening game and the opening ceremony. I have to confess a weakness, like a snake for a mongoose, for opening ceremonies. I have the utmost admiration for David Coleman as he gallantly intones, an hour into the supplied drivel: "And now, the mood changes. Children, dressed in white and bearing doves of peace..." I remember the farcical moment at USA 94 when Diana Ross, kicking like a big girl's blouse, sent the ball zapping off at right angles but the goal still split open with the alleged force of her allegedly mighty boot.

For connoisseurs, England 99 was a village fete among ceremonies. The fireworks proved damp squibs in the rain, 10,000 balloons drifted inconsequentially into the grey yonder, the microphone failed to work when the chairman of the parish council (Tony Blair) made his little speech. Michael Holding was certainly underwhelmed. "Maybe cricket is not something that lends itself to extravagance," he remarked tactfully.

Before important race meetings we are always bombarded with the sort of statistics that are supposed to tickle our zany side - 50,000 lobsters will be eaten, 3m bottles of champagne drunk. The cricketing world is no different: 2,500 man hours of mowing on 42 different pitches will - fancy! - produce 75 tons of clippings. At least the always watchable David Gower had the wit to surmise that he and his 44 commentating colleagues might produce enough hot air to get Richard Branson round the world twice.

The Channel 4 racing team are, largely, strangers to such genuinely self- deprecatory sentiments. How its Derby day broadcast merited a recent Bafta award is something of a mystery until you realise that the execrable Who Wants To Be A Millionaire won its category. One of the C4 pundits once vouchsafed that his game-plan was never to overestimate the intelligence of the viewer. Or judges, it seems.

Greg Wood is on holiday

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