Sport on TV: Piercing Pearce looks on the bright side of strife

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The Independent Online
When Walter Cronkite, the veteran American news anchor, let slip a sceptical observation on the Vietnam War at the end of the evening bulletin, a senior member of the White House staff supposedly observed that "if we've lost Walter, we've lost the war". A similar sentiment was probably abroad at Lancaster Gate on Wednesday, as John Motson came to terms with the award of a penalty to Luxembourg just minutes into the game against England. "It is," he said, "a rare opportunity for the Luxembourg team to score a goal against top-class opposition." At which point there was a brief pause for reflection. "Well, supposedly top-class opposition." Ouch. Et tu, Motty?

Nor was there much solace back in the studio. If Des and Trevor appeared to be perspiring a little more than usual, it was nothing to do with the studio lights. They were merely soaking up the great blasts of schadenfreude radiating from Alan Hansen. As he took care to roll the Rs in "very ordinary", it was as much as he could do to keep a straight face.

But it was not all gloom. At least the live transmission was on Channel 5, where Jonathan Pearce, the commentator, could teach even the average Labour MP a thing or two about staying on-message. Pearce's microphone technique, not so much in-your-face as halfway-down-your- throat, may not be to everyone's taste, but you cannot fault either his enthusiasm or his dedication, even when one or both get the better of him.

With a little over 20 minutes still to play in Luxembourg, Pearce's prediction was that two more goals would give England a reasonable total. Ten minutes later, it was clear that even that modest target was wildly optimistic, so Pearce simply moved it a little closer. "Just one more goal," he urged now with touching desperation. Had Gareth Southgate not obliged, Pearce would probably have burst into tears.

He deserves credit too for managing to keep talking during the deadlier phases of Wednesday's game, even if the English language did take the odd blow to the chin in the process. Rio Ferdinand, we learned, was "the one light in the gloomy firmament", while Glenn Hoddle, apparently, believed that criticism of his team in the run-up to the Sweden game was "injust". Still, to pick too many holes in Pearce's performance would be to do him a gross unjustice.

Being the solid fan and team player that he is, Pearce was predictably forthright in his support for David Beckham, "an honest player who certainly didn't deserve some of the horrible things that happened to him" after his dismissal against Argentina. But at this point you could only ask, what horrible things were those exactly? Some stick at Upton Park, where he always gets barracked anyway? Or the fierce but short-lived criticism in newspapers which he probably doesn't bother to read?

On the evidence of The Trouble with Beckham (C5), he is a young man with no troubles at all, who has emerged from his disaster in France with his ego unbruised. This was unfortunate from the director's point of view, since he was trying to push the idea that British football needs to nurture its young players' minds if they are going to stay on the rails. Just like Pearce, though, he refused to let an irritating fact get in the way of his grand theme.

This serious thrust was carefully hidden away, though, amid a series of contributions from B- and C-list celebrities, and one, Mandy Smith, whose list lies much further down the alphabet (about halfway through the Cyrillic one, in fact). Thus, after the thoughts of Smith, Gary Rhodes and a News of the World columnist whose incoherence made Beckham himself sound like Martin Luther King, the script suddenly became terribly earnest. Beckham, it seems, could not spell either "professional" or "footballer" on a school careers form. "This lack of education," we were told, "has always been the English way, and it is damaging the national game. It means our players struggle under the immense pressure." After that it was straight back to Mandy and Co, and so rapidly that it was a minute or two before you could collect your thoughts and shout: Whoa! Hang on! Says who? Where's the evidence?

Now there is nothing wrong with encouraging young footballers to make the best of themselves, be it mentally or physically, and a trip to the Ajax Academy emphasised the point. In Holland, the choice between football and decent education is not an either/or, and very well- adjusted the kids all seemed, too.

Which is fine as far as it goes, but the possibility which all the celebrity froth left no time to address was that there are basic and important differences between the football cultures in Holland and Britain. One telling anecdote involved Bryan Robson's advice to the adolescent Beckham that he should build himself up by drinking Guinness. It is the booze mentality, not a shortage of GCSEs, which is the real poison in football's veins.