Sport on TV: Surreal Sue, the fall of Ball and figures of fun
Sunday 31 January 1999
This was hardly a promising opening, for at least two reasons. First, as Ball soon admitted, he was actually born on 12 May 1945, and if that was VE Day, you have to wonder what all those happy people were doing outside Buckingham Palace four days earlier. And second, the managerial analogy was hopelessly awry, for the simple reason that a roller-coaster has ups. A better one might have been that 18 years ago, Ball stepped into the elevator of football management at the 32nd floor. And then the cable snapped.
As a study in denial, this interview should be required viewing for trainee psychoanalysts. There is no doubt that Ball the player was both hard and skilful, a real team man. Ball the manager is another matter. Into every life, so they say, a little rain must fall - unless Alan manages your football team, in which case it is time to start building an ark.
Deep down, you think, he must know. For one thing, his life insurance policy probably includes a clause which forbids him from going within 50 miles of Stoke. But if the merest hint of self-knowledge really has penetrated that bullish exterior, he hides it very well.
Holmes is not an interrogator from the bright-light-in-the-eyes school, but after a nervous nibble on a thumbnail, he did manage to ask the big question. "Are you," he wondered, "a good manager?" There was not the slightest pause for thought. "I would like to think so, yes," Ball said. Holmes, who is one of those Manchester United fans who wouldn't recognise the Arndale Centre if it poked him in the eye, somehow managed to stifle his giggles.
To give Ball his due, he is a straight-talker and a trier, who seems to feel the hurt when his teams fail almost as painfully as the fans. But there is an important point here, which British football continues to ignore. It is not simply that good players do not necessarily make good managers. Rather, they often make very bad ones, because they cannot make the most of average players with limited abilities. In the United States, NFL coaches may or may not have played the game at a high level, but they all have to study and qualify in man-management before they are let loose on a team. Here, when a vacancy for manager arises, the chairman - often with the whole-hearted backing of the fans - tends to appoint the last half- decent player they had on the books. It is a strange way for a serious business to carry on.
Not nearly so strange, though, as the shenanigans which Sue Barker was forced to endure last week. Every other BBC anchorperson apparently having decided to take January off, Barker was under orders for both the Australian Open Tennis and the European Figure Skating Championships, and even Superwoman Sue cannot be in Melbourne and Prague at the same time.
Instead, Barker stayed put while the background and pundits changed. One moment, there she was in front of the soaring Melbourne skyline with Jeremy Bates for company. The next, it was the Charles bridge, Vltava river and Haig Oundjian, whose name seems so improbable that he might well be Jeremy after a heavy session in make-up.
They ran an episode of The Outer Limits between the two, and nothing in it was nearly as odd as the sight of Barker, in a fresh shirt but otherwise unchanged, trying to pick up where she had left off on the other side of the world. And while you were trying to digest that, the skaters appeared, locked as normal into a world where Jean Michel Jarre and gold lame will be forever fashionable.
The burning topic on Tuesday was a change to the scoring system. "There is a lot of discontent around the rink about this," Oundjian said. Which may well be true, but you would never have known, because skaters always smile as if the corners of their mouth have been surgically attached to their scalps, even when they have just received a rogue 4.9 from the Hungarian judge.
Nothing bothers them, including the mixture of bad hairdressing and worse costume design which left one man looking like a cross between Michael Bolton and Lord Nelson. They can fall smack on their well-upholstered backsides and still the grin doesn't budge.
This last manoeuvre seems to be the only one in the skating canon which does not have a name of its own. There are the Salchows, Lutzs and triple toe-loops, but nothing for the embarrassing slip-ups which are, let's face it, the main reason that most people are watching. One Russian managed to topple over twice in the course of a three-minute free programme. Perhaps they could call it a double Yeltsin.
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