Sport on TV: Very much a game of two channels

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The Independent Online
IT WAS, said Matthew Lorenzo, trying to adopt the gravity of a commentator at a state funeral, 'a sad, sad night again for English football'. But only if you were watching ITV. Over on BBC 1, fans conga'd in the stands, players tumbled joyfully on the pitch and, as it all ended, millions at home joined Des Lynam in a hearty chorus of 'From all of us, it's cheerio'. When English sides went into Europe on Wednesday, it was, as never before, a game of two channels.

ITV had tied up the rights to the disasters: Manchester United's gloomy late-afternoon elimination from the European Cup in Turkey, and Aston Villa's mildly gloomier loss at home to La Coruna in the Uefa Cup. Meanwhile, the BBC were partying hard in Norwich - though with a duly solemn pause at half-time for the announcement of the Manchester United score.

But how was it that ITV didn't reciprocate and mention Norwich's fabulous victory over Bayern Munich? It would certainly have interfered with Lorenzo's tidy 'bitterly disappointing' thesis, but this was surely no reason for proceeding as if the game had never taken place. The assumption here seemed to be: it only happens if it happens on ITV.

Football's a funny game - but in Europe, it's a funny game in a funny language. Doubtless the reasons for Manchester United's failure to perform in Turkey were many and various. But for the viewer, one significant thought occurred: how was anyone to keep their head for the big occasion while surrounded by advertisement hoardings reading 'Arcelik'?

As it turned out, the most televisual moments came immediately after the final whistle, with Cantona offering his warmest congratulations to the referee and the police trying to bear sundry members of the United team down the tunnel on their riot shields. Alas, ITV's coverage had been abruptly suspended to enable Raquel and Tanya to meet up in an urgent episode of Coronation Street, so we saw nothing of this. And even more remarkably, given the programme's uncanny knack for working in topical references, there was no mention of the incident during Coronation Street, either.

Half an hour later, when the coverage resumed, we returned to Istanbul, where Les Sealey was standing by the pitch, ready with an update. Sealey is as close as the Manchester United squad gets to a John Simpson figure - which is to say, not very close at all. 'Apparently there's a film of the copper hitting him (Bryan Robson). But I don't know who's got the film or what.' Where was Jim Rosenthal, king of the post-match interview, when his country needed him?

Well, actually he was at Villa Park. Rosenthal spends more time in tunnels these days than the average miner, and it's a pretty thankless task down there at the face. Particularly when the face belongs to a defeated Ron Atkinson. Atkinson might be a sometime employee up in the ITV commentary box, but that didn't mean he was going to give Rosenthal more than 0.8 seconds of his busy time. 'I get the impression - before you go, Ron - that you might be having a little go at your players . . .' Too late. The camera looked on pointlessly as the back of an expensive coat disappeared at speed towards the dressing-room.

Meanwhile in Norwich, our commentator was very much John Motson. 'Christian Ziege - very much a left-footed player . . . Jan Wouters - very much a Dutchman.' Boyishly ecstatic even during the quiet moments, Motson is the only commentator to retain, as a staple part of his match vocabulary, the phrase 'Ooh, look]' 'Ooh, look]' he said. 'There's a player doing up his boot and he's put Eadie onside]'

A darker tone only entered whenever a German player went down. 'Witeczek makes the most of it,' said Motson. True, the Bayern Munich player was at this point writhing on the ground, but given that a Norwich defender had just attempted to remove his leg at the thigh, this didn't seem unreasonable. Still, the unspoken rule is that foreign players are never injured - they're always trying it on. 'Matthaus knows all the tricks,' Motson said: '103 caps for Germany'. Stands to reason, then.

Afterwards Alan Hansen - a full-time Norwich-baiter on Match of the Day - did his best to spoil the atmosphere. One warms to Hansen as much as one can warm to anyone whose sentences all begin, 'What you've got to do is . . .' But not even he could poop this party. All of which ITV missed, though even in their studio there was something to celebrate afterwards. West Ham's Lee Chapman - almost certainly in compliance with a pre- arranged challenge from a friend - became the first professional footballer to work the word 'frugal' into a post-game analysis. Arsenal were, he opined, 'very frugal at the back'. Beside him at the table, Ray Wilkins gave one of his famous puzzled looks, possibly under the impression that 'frugal' was one of the Banana Splits. Anyway, congratulations, Lee. Next week's word is 'endocrine'.

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