Outside the Box – Football on TV: An evening of Eurotrash as United make their Channel 5 debut
European football returned to our screens last week as our plucky English clubs once more ventured to the four corners of Europe to mix it up with some of the mightiest names in continental football; goliaths such as Barcelona, Inter and FC Metalist Kharkiv could all be on the horizon. As the week began though, I was a little perplexed by all the talk of Manchester United’s Europa League bow. There seemed to be much mirth and childish sniggering bandying around over the fact that United were suddenly no longer playing with the big boys and I really didn’t get the joke. So United were having to play on a Thursday night? And they were going to be suffering the ignominy of appearing on Channel 5, so what? Oh wait… I get it now… ha ha, Fergie on Channel 5, that’s priceless!
Like United, I am not too familiar with the football-broadcasting merits of the nations fifth channel numerically but 655th most popular overall. I seem to vaguely recall some ramshackle presenting by John Barnes some years ago and a lot of gratuitous nudity from Keith Chegwin (although I suspect that may not have been the football). So it was a new experience all round as Ajax vs. Man Utd: Europa League kicked off on Thursday night and the first thing I was struck by was just how long the pre-match chat was – it seemed to take about five days for us to get to kick off after the part-gargoyle host Jim Rosenthal opened the show.
Joining Jim for the never-ending natter was ex-footballing legend and Basic Instinct 2 star Stan Collymore: of course being cast in a rubbish film known only for it’s titillating content meant Stan was at total ease on Channel 5 and his effortlessly-laid back demeanour was enough to convince me that this was his spiritual home. And Rosenthal was happy that Stan was in attendance too; huddled together in the freezing Amsterdam Arena, the beaming Rosenthal looked over to Stan and announced that it was, “great to be working with you again.” I Googled it and it turns out our Jim worked as Sharon Stone’s body double in the film. You live and learn eh?
Rosenthal wasn’t just boasting of his friendship with Stan either. He also demonstrated his close links to the United camp and admitted that he was, “talking to some of the United staff about the game last night.” Apparently United assistant manager Mike Phelan believed the game would be “tight”; Malcolm the coach driver thought Ajax would prove to be “a walkover”, and tea lady Hilda said “if Ajax conform to the usual 4-3-3 system and are guided by their attacking footballing philosophy, then United could exploit the narrow midfield by utilising their wide players while anchoring Rooney into an advanced midfield role.” Or something like that.
So then we came to the game itself, and a whole new level of guff. Question: how do you achieve the seemingly impossible and further decrease the standard of the output at Channel 5? That’s correct, you employ Graham Taylor. Not so much a seasoned and knowledgeable shaman of the beautiful game, more the kind of old nutter you avoid in the ground on match days, clutching a Bovril and the programme and regaling you with pointless facts and nonsensical twaddle. I don’t even recall anything he said, it was so incredibly dull and inane that I simply tuned out of the game and began trying to count the number of spectators in the ground. I suspect a similar method of escapism was employed by some of the England players during Taylor’s team talks all those years ago; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that we didn’t make it to USA ‘94 because Des Walker was calculating how many blonde men were in the crowd.
So from my embarrassment of watching Channel 5 on Thursday to the despairing depths of shame felt by anyone connected to the Gunners a night earlier on ITV for UCL: AC Milan vs. Arsenal. A hellish evening endured from Wenger’s men in Italy in which they were on the end of a 4-0 drubbing. However Arsene was getting his excuses in even before the match had begun and told touchline reporter Gabriel Clarke that, “it was terrible and just not good enough”. Host Adrian Chiles claimed he was referring to the state of the San Siro pitch but sources close to the manager told me that Wenger was in fact talking about Gareth Southgate’s hairdo; although there were conflicting reports that he may have in fact been discussing the love scenes in Basic Instinct 2. Never mind that anyway you Arsenal fans; don’t worry about losing to Milan, or indeed to Sunderland in the FA Cup; at least you weren’t on Channel 5.