Sport on TV: The Nolans and a game of better halves

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The Independent Online
WOULD you marry a footballer? Maybe you would go and see one a bit - maybe even start seeing one regularly. And perhaps, in due course, you would end up professing, loudly and in verse, your undying love and admiration for him (at least until the next time he cocks it up). But marry one? Surely you'd have to be a sock short of the full kit?

This is where an illuminating On the Line (BBC 2, Wednesday) came in, inviting into the studio a group of women who - perhaps not realising quite what they were letting themselves in for - had agreed to share their lives with footballers. You got the impression their lot would have been more easily envisaged had there been a simple amendment to the marriage vow, as follows: 'Till death us do part: and / or away games, internationals and European matches'.

But, as it emerged, the problem with marrying a footballer is only partly the football. More centrally, it's the football club. One wife complained that, just a week after the wedding, her husband had phoned home to say he was off with the rest of the team for a night out at a Nolan Sisters concert. Imagine that. Imagine the slowly dawning horror of discovering you were married to someone who wanted to see the Nolan Sisters.

And it's not just a matter of occasionally losing your husband to an evening of C-list cabaret. Most football clubs insist on taking their players off for a partner-free, team holiday at the close of the season. Several of the wives here questioned the value of this, failing to see that it's obviously vital to the success of any properly disciplined, well-oiled footballing side that everyone in the squad adjourns to Marbella each June to drink large quantities of banana daiquiri and monkey about with the fire extinguishers in the hotel corridors.

'Clubs see players as pieces of meat,' it was claimed, with evident justification. Then again, that's positively sensitive compared with the way fans see them. And wives carry this load, too. It's hard to estimate the emotional impact of sitting in a stadium in which maybe 25,000 people are enraged specifically by your other half, perhaps inventing songs which briskly question his sexual preferences, his haircut, his parentage and the likelihood of his having had, at some stage, an illicit affair with the referee.

Even away from the ground, there are appalling social consequences. One wife said that she had resorted to lying about what her husband did for a living - not just because he played for Southampton, but also because the weight of people's automatic assumptions about her was too tedious to bear. If you marry a footballer, received wisdom says you must be chiefly interested in shopping and hair products and barely sharp enough to remember your own address - at which you will enjoy the company of your daughter Chantalle, your World of Leather sofa, an entire pack of leopard-skin cushions and a large collection of Michael Bolton CDs.

You can understand anyone wanting to resist the implications of these personal slurs - particularly in relation to the Michael Bolton CDs. But then again, these stereotypes don't come from nowhere. If On the Line had a fault it was in being highly selective. This exclusively bright bunch of women - Martha Whittingham, Jane Varadi and Karen Wigley among them - looked suspiciously hand- picked. Where was Mandy Smith when we needed her?

Still, not shy about getting right to the centre of the matter, On the Line thundered in with the big one: what's it like in bed with a footballer? Janet Burridge, married to John the goalkeeper, implied it wasn't necessarily end-to-end stuff: 'the night before a game, he'll be playing it in his sleep'. She complained of being kept awake by her partner's twitching and flailing, though maybe she should have been offering up a small prayer of thanks that she wasn't Mrs Tony Adams who - if one assumes disrupted sleep patterns are a general condition for footballers - must wake up most Fridays to find her husband punting the pillow high into the wardrobe. Evidently John Burridge once did an entire after-game interview with Gerald Sinstadt in his sleep. But there's nothing unusual about that, of course.

The darkest tale was that of Jane Varadi who, while separated from Imre and struggling for money, wrote to the chairman of Leeds United at that time to ask if the club had any means of helping her out. She received a letter back on the notepaper of the club's solicitors, warning her that blackmail would get her nowhere. Nice touch.

Meanwhile Karen Wigley (married to Exeter's Steve) reported that she was in hospital, in labour, with the baby's head already in view, when the manager phoned direct into the delivery room to check on Steve's availability. Heaven help them all, really. Those whom God has joined together, let no manager put asunder.

At the start of Superbowl XXVIII (C 4, Sunday) Natalie Cole hit the pitch and screamed blue murder for a minute and a half. Eye-witnesses at the scene later confirmed that this was in fact the American national anthem. Hard to know where they could take it next year. Unless the Nolans are free.