BBC's good sport

Profile: Desmond Lynam; They all love Des. Geraldine Bedell on the commentator who knows it's a game

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A conversation overheard the day after the Euro 96 final between one of the new breed of female football fans and male friend:

Woman: "Ruud Gullitt's brilliant. And Alan Hansen - compelling."

Man: "Yeah. And of course we all love Des."

Woman: "Oh yes!"

Desmond Lynam, the BBC's chief sports anchorman, has hardly been off our screens all summer. First there was Euro 96, then Wimbledon. This Friday a fortnight of Olympic coverage begins, anchored at peak times (during the early and late evening programmes) by Lynam. After so many hours of live television, any other presenter (one thinks of Esther Rantzen and Terry Wogan) might begin to seem over-exposed. But we all love Des.

Atlanta will be Lynam's seventh summer Olympics for the BBC - yet, extraordinarily for someone who has been so much a part of national life for so long, he provokes scarcely a murmur of complaint. Sports journalists admire his acuity, colleagues and rivals admire his stylishness and television critics wonder at his self-effacing poise.

Bob Wilson, who was pitched against him on ITV during Euro 96, worked with him at the BBC for 20 years and is one of his staunchest admirers, insists that there are plenty of people who are jealous. But you wouldn't know it; even women feel warmly towards Lynam. In some cases this may be because, in tabloidspeak, he's "Dishy Des". But it's also his sheer professional inclusiveness. He is empathetic rather than blokeish; he speaks directly to his audience, as if he'd just popped back from the kitchen with teabags in one hand and the pot in the other because he'd thought of something else he wanted to say.

His language is homely - "Tell you what ... Mind you ..." and his accent impossible to place. (He was born in Ireland, grew up on the South Coast and went to grammar school, all of which has left him conveniently classless, with just a hint of a lilt.) He is generous in letting studio guests have their say, in their own way, even if that happens to be, like Jimmy Hill's, eccentric. And he seems intuitively to articulate the audience's point of view, which in the heat of a contest can be a great relief. When he said we could come out from behind the sofa during the penalty shoot-out in the Euro 96 quarter-finals against Spain, he defined the emotions of 18 million people. "I'm worried ..." he kept saying at half-time in England's semi-final against Germany, when the score stood at 1-1. Everyone was worried. Des, of course, looked anything but.

His greatest talent, probably, is always to remember that it's only sport. He knows it can contain all of life but that, in the end, it isn't life. He consistently undercuts the tension of the moment with his wake-me-up- when-it's-over manner. "Glad you've tuned in," he said at the start of that England-Germany semi-final: "you've probably heard there's a football match on tonight." He appreciates sport's essential pointlessness - but also, that the key word here is essential.

DES LYNAM has taken care to keep his private life private. He finds his celebrity faintly absurd: he was, for example, discomfited to be asked for his autograph at Wimbledon a couple of years ago while two famous players standing close by were ignored.

He was born 53 years ago in Ennis, County Clare. His mother was a nurse and his father a mental-health officer, and they had a younger child, Anne, who died in infancy of meningitis. When Desmond was six the family moved to Brighton , where he was sent to the Catholic primary school and then to Varndean Grammar.

The school football team was about as far as he got as a sportsman - something Gary Lineker believes can work to his advantage: "I know I find it easier talking about other sports than football, because if I ask a question about football I usually know the answer already." Whether Lynam would agree is debatable. Bob Wilson recalls despairing openly of ever writing such apposite, whimsically characterful phrases as Lynam's. "Des said to me, 'I'll tell you one thing. It's OK me writing lovely words, but I'd give anything to be able to speak with the authority of someone who's been out there, to be able to say the pitch will be a problem today. You stick to what you do well.' " Wilson tells this story chiefly to demonstrate Lynam's generosity, but it also suggests he might even sometimes suffer from self-doubt. Lynam has said in the past that of all the thousands of hours of programmes he's made over the years, he can remember only the ones that went wrong. In his rare interviews, he is usually the one to mention the occasion during the 1990 World Cup in Naples when he lost concentration and the words simply stopped coming. He calls it "See Naples and dry".

Lynam left school to work for Cornhill Insurance, having failed to get a job on the local paper. He stayed for 10 years, writing freelance match reports in his spare time. When, in 1969, BBC radio expanded into local stations, including one in Brighton, Lynam gave up his preferential mortgage, company car and pension and joined the staff. He was 27 and just married.

The marriage produced a son, Patrick, to whom he is close, but ended after nine years. For the past 14 years, Lynam has lived with Rose, an interior decorator, on the Thames at Chiswick and the South Coast. Lynam is debonair, in an old-fashioned gallant kind of way (his one seriously irritating habit is referring to women as ladies: "I've got a very nice home life with a lady I've been with for 14 years... Get a few letters from the ladies...'').

His first major radio project was to co-write a satirical series, How Lunchtime It Is, for which he also provided the voices of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. But it was sports reporting that led to his recruitment by BBC Radio in London, where he specialised for a time in commentating on boxing. He claims that this was where he really learned his trade, from a man called Angus McKay, and has marvelled on several occasions that he received absolutely no guidance on how to appear on television.

Perhaps this was an advantage. From Colemanballs to Alan Partridge, sports presenters have been figures of fun: blabby, incoherent, over-excited. Lynam has developed a distinctive style. When he opens his mouth, you have the sense that he knows exactly where the sentence will end. In 1977 he moved to television to present Sportswide, the Friday evening sports segment of Nationwide. And then gradually, he began to take over from Frank Bough and David Coleman as the BBC's lead sports anchorman.

"He deceives the public," Jimmy Hill says. "He looks so calm and relaxed, but his mind's whirring, and his heart and pulse rate are thudding." Presenting a live sports event or series of events is the mental equivalent of rubbing your stomach with one hand and patting your head with the other. Though only Lynam's producer and editor may address him directly from the gallery, he can hear everything that's going on and knows whenever there's a mishap. His presentation is almost seamless. He finds the right phrase for the moment, and reflects with rare intuition the relative importance of anything thrown at him. He broke the news of Ben Johnson's disqualification from the last Olympics on air from wire copy, and you could tell he realised instantaneously its implications. He admits, however, that he had difficulty during the Gulf war.

"I am fully aware of what sport can mean to people, those who watch it and those who play it. But there were all these extra news bulletins during Grandstand. And you'd come back from some awful report and be expected to introduce some jolly old rugby league match or something."

He refuses to be a "turn": he intervenes subtly, to create the conditions for interest and pleasure, rather than to be the centrepiece of the programme in the manner of a Saint and Greavsie. But neither is he bland or smug, both of which he might appear to anyone who has seen him only while flicking through the channels for some alternative to sport.

Those who work with him say he is capable of becoming ratty, and certainly doesn't suffer fools gladly. "He wants to work with people he considers high-quality, and I'd say you'd have to earn your spurs, win his respect," Bob Wilson says. His drollery can be quite barbed, not least when he's dealing with Jimmy Hill. When the pair were talking about the 1966 World Cup final, Hill said: "I was employed even then by the BBC - though in a very minor capacity of course." Lynam was straight back: "You're still in a minor capacity, Jimmy."

He can also be sly. Closing the BBC's coverage of the first Euro 96 semi- final, he trailed the England-Germany match, which was being shown live on both channels. "I'd be surprised if you didn't watch it on the BBC," he said with a half-wink, chin on his hand, one finger up the side of his face. "Frankly, I'd be disappointed." The combined viewing figure was 26.2 million, and 19.8 million of them were tuned to the BBC.

Not long ago, Lynam described the fascination of walking into an Olympic village: all those world-class athletes, superb specimens of humanity - "an amazing experience. You'll never see bigger, taller or stronger people. It's really extraordinary to be ordinary."

Lynam speaks to his audience as if he were sitting down in the room next to us. His manner is wry, his phrases truncated; he talks to us as if we're already half-way to understanding what he's going on about. He is as familiar and reassuring as the sofa in front of the telly. It's really extraordinary to be ordinary.

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