'The Danny Baker who returned was different to the one who left'

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The Independent Online
In an Indian restaurant last summer, a short walk from Wembley, England football fans were joyously celebrating their side's trouncing of the Netherlands in Euro 96. As the night wore on, the numbers thinned a little, but the place was still two-thirds full when Chris Evans and Danny Baker walked in.

The pair were greeted with a mixture of boisterous camaraderie and faint embarrassment, but the contrast in their reactions was remarkable. Evans, undoubtedly the bigger star, smiled a little sheepishly and made his way to a vacant table, a beautiful woman on his arm.

Baker, though, was not going to let the moment pass.

"Do you know what this is?" he said, addressing the throng as he reached down and produced a white garment. "This is Gazza's shirt."

As the cheers died down, Baker flourished a second item. "And these," he declared, "are his socks!"

Danny Baker has never needed much encouragement to play to the gallery, but as of this weekend, his opportunities to do so have been severely curtailed. On Wednesday, he was sacked by the BBC from his evening football phone-in show, a move which prompted him to resign from the Saturday lunch- time phone-in he co-hosts with Danny Kelly. Richard Littlejohn, who presumably went to the same school of tact and diplomacy as Baker, takes over the Saturday show.

Both Baker's programmes were on Radio Five Live, a station for which he has nurtured a burgeoning contempt. For now, Baker's association with the Beeb is limited to his Sunday morning show on GLR (with tomorrow's show now required listening for news editors across the capital).

The catalyst for the current brouhaha was Baker's performance 10 days ago in the programme which immediately followed the controversial FA Cup tie in which Chelsea beat Leicester City thanks to a highly debatable penalty. Baker, never slow to harangue officialdom, was incandescent, and devoted the bulk of his show to a series of vitriolic attacks on Mike Reed, the man who awarded the penalty.

"There is a maggot at the heart of the golden core of football, and it is referees," he thundered. Reed, he said, should be the sacrificial lamb. "We're going to make you responsible for all the bad decisions until there is a change." His coup de grace was to suggest that Leicester fans should picket Reed's home in Birmingham.

When, towards the end of the show, a caller suggested he was being unfair to referees, Baker responded: "Lose him, lose him, lose him. I don't want to hear the other side. I am not interested in some kind of balanced argument."

Not for the first time, Baker's outbursts alarmed the BBC hierarchy and, after a week's deliberations, his show was axed. For many football fans, it was a sad, if inevitable, moment. Five years ago, Baker was the darling of supporters across the country with his brilliant hosting of the ground- breaking 6-0-6, Britain's first national football phone-in.

It gave them a national platform for the first time and they came across as opinionated, passionate, and humourous; sometimes they were irrational, but rarely offensive. It played a significant part in the softening of the national image of football fans in the early Nineties.

Baker was the ideal compere. A Millwall fan, he delighted in the programme's partiality, and spiced up the discussion with brief, stream-of-consciousness diatribes that were both mischievous and articulate.

As so often with radio stars, Baker was soon wooed to television, but his career on the box, which included a chat show, games show and Daz commercials, proved an almost unmitigated disaster, and in the past couple of years, many were asking when Baker would return to 6-0-6.

His long-term replacement was David Mellor, Tory MP and Chelsea fan, whose patronising style was in marked contrast to Baker's genuine matiness. (Mellor can sound like a lord of the manor who has invited the estate workers to the house for their annual visit and is prepared, just this once, to talk about their interests.)

Last autumn, Baker did return to the football phone-in - not to the Saturday evening slot, which Mellor kept and to which Baker made cutting reference in his first show, but to a new programme after Wednesday night games.

The Baker who returned was very different to the one who left. The diatribes were longer and more extreme, and those callers daring enough to disagree received short, often abusive, shrift. To many, he had become a sporting "shock jock", though he angrily denied the description on his last show.

Others detect the influence of his close friend Evans, another who is not known to worry about giving offence. In recent weeks, Baker has encouraged Spurs fans to throw their programmes on the pitch (an illegal act), described the chairmen of one club as "bent" and wished terminal illness on the board of another. Concern within the game reached such a pitch that the League Managers' Association recently considered withdrawing good will unless both Baker's and Mellor's shows were taken off the air.

Baker, who is 39, has reacted to his dismissal with characteristic good humour, and there are already suggestions that Talk Radio are interested.

Even if they are not, Baker, who writes much of Evans' TFI Friday, remains much in demand as a scriptwriter. His opportunities to air his views may be much reduced, but the last thing he would want from the events of the past few days is sympathy. Those close to him suggest he has enjoyed the whole episode hugely.

David Lister is on holiday