View From the armchair: Dracula cliche count kills off our lads

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The Independent Online
IT WILL almost certainly go down in the annals of football commentary as the mother of all own goals. "There's only one team that's going to win this game now and that's England," Kevin Keegan asserted after Michael Owen had scored his dramatic equaliser against Romania. As soon as he had spoken the phrase Keegan tried to cover himself but the damage had been done. He knew that he had violated the professionals' code of superstition with that most dreadful of crimes, tempting fate.

He was not alone, however. Brian Moore had assured us that the Romanians would "tire significantly in the later stages of the game", exactly as 30-year-old Dan Petrescu did in the 90th minute, when Graeme Le Saux completely outfought him and won the ball to save the match for England. OK, that's enough knowing irony. While Moore and Keegan's gaffes were individually memorable they were symptomatic of an ITV broadcast that revealed exactly why they always fluff a big event when it comes their way, and why that failure seems linked in the viewers' minds to England's.

ITV's ominous contribution had actually started the night before when Tony Francis, having been denied access to the Romanian camp, scraped together a report in which every known cliche about Transylvania, Count Dracula, vampires, garlic and crosses made an appearance. You knew in your bones that this crass routine would rebound on England, the way it always has in the past when broadcasters either denigrate or demonise our opponents in the name of entertainment. Think of Brian Clough calling the Polish keeper Jan Tomaszewski "a clown" in 1973, or Graham Taylor urging us to "get the beers in, sit down and relax", before one of his disastrous escapades unfolded.

Filled with foreboding, I just about survived Bob Wilson's lumbering introduction which yet again revealed that he has neither the vocabulary nor the delivery for what he called "a huge match, a huge occasion". A leading role in the forthcoming remake of Thunderbirds may be his best bet. But now ITV deployed their secret weapon - they had two former England managers on duty, Bobby Robson and Terry Venables, and the increasingly managerial John Barnes, so what else might you need? Well, how about a cheesy greeting to the England squad from the cast of Coronation Street? The lads in Toulouse must have been thrilled with that boost, and the tactical advantage it gave them over the Romanians.

In between the fusillade of football-linked adverts, this "huge, momentous" occasion unfolded, to the extent that after twenty minutes I had the word "DULL" on my notepad in capital letters. As Brian Moore mistook Shearer for Anderton and Batty for Sheringham, it became obvious that he and Keegan were seeing one match while we at home were seeing another. Much was made of England's slow "tempo", the new buzzword for commentators, but not the reason for it - Sheringham giving the ball away and the Romanians not giving it back.

Only at half-time was some realism admitted. An agitated Venables accurately pinpointed Petrescu's growing authority over the wandering Le Saux, while Barnes described possession of the ball as "gold dust" in the context of this game, with England more guilty than gilded. Moore had just embarked on another plea for England to "up the tempo" when Romania upped theirs first and scored. Gradually the narrative became all about breaking the glass in case of an emergency and pulling out little Michael Owen - a move that had seemed necessary even in the first half. The disparity between the commentary and what was actually happening in the match grew to its unfortunate climax, but there was still time for both Glenn Hoddle and Barnes to assert, without challenge, that "we did enough to win".

ITV's commercial pressures are a fact of life, and while that affects their choice of drama series they really cannot force football to fit into the same feel-good format just because England are playing. The Romanians beat us because they are a shrewd, technically gifted, experienced team and not a bunch of vampiric has-beens looking to get back to their castle to meet Dracula. Indeed, it was they who left England and ITV looking like a bunch of Counts.

The BBC's response to the game was to show highlights so edited in England's favour that you might have thought we had won. I doubt if Romanian television under Ceausescu was more biased. But Martin O'Neill, who is rapidly becoming a welcome renegade in among all the cosy opinions, ruthlessly demolished the impression of English superiority. "Nothing was happening until Owen came on, nothing. I don't buy the view that he has no fear because he comes on late. Owen will show no fear when he starts." Bring on the South American drugs barons, then!