The words free and kick performed a little two-step before the K of kick stepped forward and bent the ball round his colleagues

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The Independent Online
There was a lot to catch the eye at Upton Park on Monday night as West Ham took on Manchester United: the moment Iain Dowie lost a contact lens so far up his eye it was practically in his scalp; the incident when Ryan Giggs ran into Julian Dicks and bounced off him as if from a trampoline; or, a year after Selhurst, the unexpected sight of Eric Cantona acting as peace maker, suggesting to an over-heated Andy Cole that football really isn't worth getting all steamed up about and that, like one of Harry Enfield's scouse brothers, he should really calm down, calm down. Despite all that, what nobody could avoid staring at in open-mouthed astonishment were the pair of giant video-screen scoreboards squeezed into two corners of the ground.

In the old days, you may remember, information was conducted to the crowd at football matches via the number board. An archaic wooden structure, this item was supposed to give the half-time scores in other matches via a series of letters and numbers. Invariably sited well out of eye-shot (at St James' Park it was placed atop an unsteady scaffolding structure up which an old boy used to have to climb at half-time with a box of numbers, provoking much impromptu book-making in the stands about whether he was going to make it), as a source of information it was virtually useless. You spent much of the time, eyes narrowed in concentration, squinting to work out if the score at match A was 1-1, 0-0 or 10-10. And that was before you realised that you didn't know which game match A was in the first place. You'd need to be an expert in the Times crossword to decipher what was going on in the rest of the football world.

Electronics did away with all that and, as the new stadiums have bloomed post-Taylor, the screens have started to appear. Highbury has one, White Hart Lane has one, Old Trafford hasn't yet, but when one is installed you imagine miniature take-home versions will be available for pounds 19.99 at the United Megastore. None, though, is operated with quite the elan of the Upton Park screen. Not for it the simple expedient of listing the teams, or perhaps showing action replays of near misses and moments of controversy. Taking its lead from the computerised scoreboards in Australian and South African cricket grounds, on which cartoon stumps fly every time a wicket is taken, or sad looking ducks waddle pavilion-wards when a player is out for nought, the Upton screen feels the need, like an Internet Alan Green, to pass judgment on everything that happens on the pitch. And a lot more besides.

When a player was booked, for instance, a giant animated ref appeared on the screen and flourished his huge yellow card; when there was a free- kick, the words free and kick performed a little two-step and formed a wall, before the K of kick stepped forward and bent the ball round his colleagues; after a West Ham near miss, up on screen came the word "ooooh" as if the entire East End crowd were made up of Julian Clary soundalikes. And when a player went down injured a cartoon sequence ensued, worthy of a contract with Warner Brothers as the latest Loony Tune. Up on the screen came the words "Player injured. Oh no, this looks like a job for...der der der...Super Sponge." At which an animated sponge with arms, legs and apparently super-hero levels of restorative properties, bounced on to the screen to administer a soothing balm. This happened every time except when Cantona was down, when, with a chirpy cockney sparrer's sense of mischief, the screen mixed two programs: "Player injured. Oh no, this looks like a job for...der der der..." appeared as usual but, before Super Sponge could arrive on the scene, up came the sequence which had run several times of a giant hammer smashing on to a tiny green pitch to leave an indentation of the West Ham club crest on the turf.

Such cunning subversion made you think what an intriguing idea it would be if a scoreboard was allowed to reflect the genuine feelings of the crowd. When a full-back sliced a clearance the words "My granny could kick it further than you" might come up on the screen. Or when the opposing striker missed a sitter, it could inform us he was, after all, an Arsenal reject.

Never mind Super Sponge, if a member of the opposition went down injured the scoreboard could, in a revivalist nod to the old 1970s chant, be filled with a little cartoon dustbin chugging on to remove the felled player. And if one defeat signalled the start of a bad run, the screen could lead the chants of "sack the manager" or organise a petition to demand the resignation of the board. Ideal for the computer generation - not so much terrace hooligans as video nasties.

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