Knockout football - Various channels
Zeal: what a word. What a criminally underused word that fair zooms out of your mouth. It is also one that is ideally suited to describe the feeling of the best sporting occasions.
Like knockout football, which we have been treated to a feast of this week. Leyton Orient hosting Peterborough on Tuesday night in the League One play-off semi-final was bursting with zeal: played at a breakneck pace, with ample opportunities for the commentators to get their voices up to the threshold of pain and culminating in a mass pitch invasion. But the highlight was the post-match interview with Russell Slade, the home side’s manager, when he admitted his squad’s affinity for a small manhood.
OK, he was answering a question about the first goalscorer, a diminutive chap called Dean Cox. And his exact words were: “We love our tiny Cox.” But the misunderstanding was easy to make.
Then Thursday it was Rotherham and Preston North End’s turn to duke it out for the chance to face Orient at Wembley this Sunday. And again we were treated to all we love about the game: passion, overeager tackles, a peach of a free-kick and the welcome sound of a commentator who takes any chance he can get to blow things out of proportion. Ben Pringle had “stardust in his boots”, according to Daniel Mann, the commentator. That’s Ben Pringle. Who plays for Rotherham. That centre of stardust.
One wonders what Mann would have liked to say as he watched the belly of Steve Evans, the Rotherham manager, wobbling like a waterbed as he rushed down the touchline in celebration at Kieran Agard’s goal to seal the match for the home side. If the footage were a little more grainy, it could have passed for one of those “before” segments in a Weight Watchers promotional video. To his credit, Mann followed the commentator’s creed and said very little – the pictures told us enough.
Sandwiched between these two feasts of League One football was the Europa League final, on ITV 4. It was riveting, if you were a groundsman, because the best part of the coverage was that we got to watch two uninterrupted hours of the grass growing at the Juventus Stadium while Seville and Benfica jogged their way round it, doing their best not to kick a ball straight. As extra time drew to a close Sam Matterface was heard to groan: “How much more of this ‘excitement’ can we take?” You could clearly hear him raise his fingers to do a “speech marks” gesture when he said “excitement”. His cohort, Andy Townsend, merely grunted. Or perhaps he was snoring.
Yes, it was dire – and through no fault of the ITV bods. Matterface gamely tried to make proceedings sound interesting, but when things grew desperate he was reduced to making comparisons between the managers’ haircare regimes.
Of all the week’s knockout giants, special mention must go to the Rotherham ballboy seen in the background of the slow-motion replays of Joe Garner’s attempt at a late equaliser for Preston, furiously giving the visiting team the fingers. Zeal indeed.