The commercial brake on a job beyond Bob

Sport On TV
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The Independent Online
If and when the greed of some of our better-known football clubs leads them off into a league of their own, it will be bad news for those who are left behind. Who then will want to watch the also-rans, the gritty triers who lack the natural ability to survive at the highest level? More to the point, who on earth will be mad enough to pay their wildly over- inflated wages? Some famous names might even disappear altogether. Yes, the more you think about it, the more you have to feel that Bob Wilson must be getting very worried indeed.

He was certainly looking nervous as he hosted The Big Match Live (ITV) on Wednesday evening - but then again, he always does. And just to make things worse, there was rather a lot riding on Manchester United's performance in Poland. Millions depended on their progress to the group stages of the Champions' League, in hard cash for United and in viewing figures (which equals hard cash) for ITV. Rarely can a tedious 0-0 draw have brought such rejoicing to their ad sales department.

Still, at least there seem to be a few rules about how much time a terrestrial channel can devote to commercials. But even so, Wilson's anchorman role stretched to all of seven minutes over the course of two hours, which pro rata must make him more expensive than David Beckham.

It may not be Bob's fault that a few years ago someone offered him a staggering amount of money to leave a job to which he was ideally suited and take on another that was beyond him (beyond anyone, in fact, since the main competition is Des Lynam). But it did not exactly add to the excitement in an already deathly match to think that half-time had nothing more to offer than Bob and John Barnes, who seems to think he can wing it in the studio as well as on the pitch. He can't, and anything more than the simplest of questions can leave him grasping for words.

And try this from Clive Tyldesley, early in the match, comparing Old Trafford to Lodz's rather humbler home. The former, he pointed out, is "state-of-the-art", whereas the Poles' stadium, he added in a boom-boom tone of voice "should have gone out with the Ark". Art ... ark ... ah, a play on words. How sad.

They said that after ITV's World Cup, their coverage could only get better, but it would seem that they were wrong, even if Kevin Keegan has returned to more appropriate surroundings. When Murdoch and his chequebook come along to finish them off, it will be an act of mercy for all concerned, although it is worth remembering that only this week, he also signed up Jimmy Hill. How many people, I wonder, misheard the news and assumed that Jimmy had gone to join the others in the sky? Perhaps there is hope for Bob and company yet.

The football apart, Sky refuseniks had to take their sport where they could find it this week, which generally meant in the middle of the night. For as long as Gabriel Clarke has a regular slot for Nationwide Football Extra (ITV), though, no week will be entirely without a little shaft of light. The Premiership may have opened with an unusual number of goalless draws, but in the lower divisions the goals are flying in, and anyone who missed the two scored by Richard Johnson for Watford last weekend has significantly reduced their quality of life. Short on gimmicks, big on news and footage, Football Extra is still the best reason around for owning a video, and Clarke himself is long overdue a big promotion.

The other attraction in the wee hours which probably passes everyone by is the Major League Baseball (Channel 5). A person who does not like baseball is simply someone who has not given it a chance, among its many attractions being the fact that fat, tobacco-chewing slobs are more than welcome to play just so long as they can lay bat on ball with some regularity.

This same ethos seems to hold back in the studio, too, where the expert summariser is the distinctly unathletic - and often unshaven - Todd Macklin. His regular partner as night turns to morning is Jonathan Gould, who does a very convincing turn as the clueless Brit, asking Macklin daft questions at an average rate of one per inning.

It is all useful for the novices, though, and anything which brings baseball to a wider audience can only be a force for good. The only gripe concerns the frequency with which the start of an inning is sacrificed to an extended commercial break (during the last World Series, they even managed to miss a home run). But when our current national game retreats entirely to pay-per-view, maybe we could all try baseball instead.