Sport on TV: Sleep talkers drift gently through the comfort zone

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The Independent Online
When the Tories arranged themselves on IKEA armchairs at their annual conference last month, the spectacle was faintly familiar. But what was it about that over-deliberate set and earnest front man which rang a bell? Monday night provided the answer. Of course! William Hague must have been trying to model himself on John Inverdale in On Side (BBC1).

You can hardly blame him, since Inverdale has so many things which Hague wants and needs - self- assurance, professionalism, and popularity. But when the country's biggest bunch of losers seem to be aping your style, it is probably time to try something new, rather than asking guests to carry on using a sofa which, if it was indeed purchased at IKEA, was probably called Plonker.

Still, it looked comfortable enough. In fact, to judge by the way Franck Leboeuf and Iwan Thomas settled themselves in, the settee was almost as soft as most of the questions. Leboeuf, for instance, could easily have been asked why he appeared to be wearing two shirts, with collars, buttons and all, one over the other. Or better still, why he seems to commit at least one defensive howler in every match he plays. Now that would have been worth hearing.

Instead, there was the predictable series of "how did it feel when...?" queries which even relative newcomers like Thomas can answer in their sleep. No one expects Inverdale to set about his guests with a verbal cricket bat, but as Clive Anderson (BBC1) demonstrated later in the week, there is another way. He managed to ask David Ginola about his uncertain role at Tottenham now that George Graham is in charge, and the blame which some French fans still attach to him for their country's failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

It can be done, if the interviewer is up to it, and the shame of it is that until recently at least, Inverdale certainly was. Part of the problem may have been that the guests on Monday's opening show were just too ... well, nice. But the Inverdale who used to make driving home almost tolerable during his days on Radio 5 Live is now far too reverential. Perhaps he has spent too much time covering wet Wimbledons, exhausting his well of questions to keep minor celebrities talking while they wait for the covers to come off. Whatever the reason, the supply seems to be running dry, which is a pity for him, the BBC, and everyone else who always reckoned him to be the next great sports anchorman in waiting.

Then again, the BBC is rapidly running out of sports to anchor, especially after a week of European football which finished with a 2-0 scoreline in Channel 5's favour. Aston Villa and Leeds conspired between them to leave a big hole in the schedules, although not before David O'Leary had given one of the season's more unexpected post-match interviews.

O'Leary was naturally feeling a bit down after watching his side suffer what can only be described as a 0-0 thrashing, but the sudden lowering of his horizons just a couple of weeks into his new job was still a little extreme.

Leeds, apparently, have "the makings of a good little club", though not one that would dream of matching "the likes of Arsenal or Chelsea". Whatever it was that O'Leary was doing during the protracted "will-he-won't-he" negotiations with Peter Ridsdale, it clearly didn't include reading his job description.

A manager of the opposite vintage, Tommy Docherty, shared his reminiscences with Garth Crooks in Match Of Their Day (BBC2), which was buried so deep within the daytime schedules, surrounded on all sides by game shows and imported tat, that it probably passed most working football fans by. Perhaps the programmers reckoned that it would appeal only to veterans of the days of Sir Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, who were among the other subjects last week. If so, the series - which continues this week - has been woefully undersold.

Crooks is quickly becoming the exception to prove Barker's Law, which states that former sportsmen and women make lousy interviewers. Even he could afford to take it easy when it came to Docherty, though, since if ever there was an interviewee for Bonfire Night, it is surely him. Crooks duly lit the fuse and retired to a safe distance, as The Doc recalled his encounters with Terry Venables (he didn't like him), Bob Stokoe (he didn't like him, either) and the English in general (likes them now, but used to hate them).

Docherty got particularly agitated when it came to the subject of playing for your country - the ultimate honour, he felt, for which "they shouldn't pay you, you should pay them". You could only pause and wonder whether, by some impossibly happy co-incidence, Brian Lara might have chosen just that moment to switch on the telly in his hotel room at Heathrow.