Topless but not dishless

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AT MIDDAY last Sunday I had the rare pleasure of being on a beach in the Canary Islands. The sun shone brightly, the temperature was around 75 degrees and the south Atlantic shimmered invitingly beyond the golden sand as a steady flow of topless maidens quivered by.

But my attention was drawn more urgently to the back of the beach where, beneath the promenade, a narrow, sunken alleyway contains a long sequence of cafes. Prominently displayed above one of these establishments was a large blackboard upon which was chalked in halting English: 'See all FA Cup goals from yesterday on Sky TV soccer. Plus roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Two veg and Bisto gravy. 750 pesetas.'

Unlike its neighbours, the cafe was full. All available sitting and standing room was packed with the cream of British man-and boyhood. I trust that the moral of this touching cameo was not lost on the other nationalities in the vicinity - that real men can get tired of topless maidens but they can never get enough of football or, for that matter, Bisto gravy.

However, the scene had a far greater significance than a mere demonstration of correct priorities. It provided more evidence of a swiftly developing trend that has fascinating possibilities in the world of sports watching.

Five days earlier I had stood shoulder to shoulder in a packed bar in the same resort to watch Sky's live transmission of Manchester United's 3-3 encounter with Liverpool. The following night I saw Coventry v Swindon, on Sunday I saw a thrilling rugby league match between Warrington and Leeds, and when I was taking my leave of the place last Monday afternoon many bars and cafes had posters that usually advertised Happy Hours and Paella Specials but proclaimed instead: 'Tonight, Millwall v Arsenal - Live.'

While I was away, the office decided to experiment with eloquence in this column by asking Stan Hey to write it. By coincidence he mounted an entertaining tirade against the way televised sport was going and bemoaned the fact that, not having a satellite dish, he was deprived of the joy of watching the United- Liverpool game live.

That he and tens of thousands of other dishless devotees stranded in their living rooms should be denied what was once a basic entitlement while 1,500 miles due south we holidaymakers were tuned in for no more than the price of a pint of Spanish gnat's pee is a sad sign of the times. But the implications go much deeper.

It is impossible to make anything but a wild guess at how many viewers are watching these matches around the tourist spots, or anywhere else in Europe and north Africa, but comparing notes with other recent holiday takers has left no doubt that this is a fast-growing trend despite its being illegal.

BSkyB is licensed only to transmit to the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Their satellite is in range of a vast area on this side of the Atlantic but they are not allowed to sell their decoders abroad and all those being brandished around the foreign bars are not supposed to be there.

The company take a far from benign view of the situation. Apart from any loss of revenue, they can't count these illicit eyes among their viewing figures. It must also concern the sports involved that they are being watched by those not coughing up for the privilege - not a complaint confined to distant shores.

In common with many other pubs and clubs, my local has installed a giant screen. Now that the BSkyB sports output has settled down into a routine, it is amazing how quickly we have acquired new priorities. Unable to receive the satellite signal at home because a majestic Canadian Redwood is in the way, I am now rooted to a spot in the public bar for the rugby league matches on Friday and Sunday nights and for the big football match on Monday night.

The number of those similarly summoned has grown remarkably in a short time. The contagion is nationwide. David Howes, Public Affairs Executive of the Rugby Football League, tells me that clubs in the north are offering free pie and peas and are attracting audiences of up to 1,500 to watch their Friday-night game. Monday- night football has an even bigger pulling power across the country.

It has created a new spectating culture, or rather it has resurrected an old one. With standing room disappearing from our football grounds, the old Bob Bank atmosphere has returned as an indoor pursuit and good fun it is, too. It has diluted even the sacred attraction of the Cardiff Arms Park. More than a few of my friends decided not to scramble for a ticket and stand in front of a pub screen instead. But how long can it last as free entertainment, apart from the cost of one or two pints which carry additional benefits?

BSkyB has responded by issuing a commercial rate for pubs and clubs of pounds 30 a month compared with the domestic fee of pounds 6. So far 26,000 premises in the British Isles are paying the new rate. If an average of 20 extra customers per match are attracted to each of them, it amounts to more than half a million spectators. It is a brand new market as yet untapped - apart from the brewers and countless foreign owners of the sort of bars British holidaymakers can be tempted to frequent.

WHEN we talk of the faltering standards of British football over the past 20 years or so, the castigation usually falls upon the players, the coaches, the managers, the chairmen, the FA, the Football League . . . rarely do we hear the fans mentioned.

Yet many of them have had an important role to play in the drama. They have terrorised much of Britain and large parts of the world, they have created the worst image of any crowds since the Colosseum, they had English clubs banned from Europe for five years and have generally made a visit to a football match far less pleasant than it used to be.

Now they appear to be more selectively powerful. Earlier this season supporters forced the Manchester City chairman Peter Swales to abdicate and last week a group of them appear to have been almost totally responsible for the departure of the Southampton manager Ian Branfoot on whose back they had been since the day he was appointed.

Perhaps fan power will improve the game. On the other hand, the impatience of the terraces may have had the most profound effect on the way we play. There is no doubt that supporters have found a new eloquence, as the growth of fanzines will testify. The future fortunes of Manchester City and Southampton may give us a clue to whether these voices are capable of being constructive.