Ron Atkinson gets a shot at redemption reporting on the Milan derby. But, as Simon Tyers reports, it didn't all go according to plan

British television’s attitude to the continental club game used to be so simple – apart from the odd European final on Sportsnight, it would be an occasional goalkeeping error on Football Focus. But the weekend before Christmas a Sky and Setanta subscriber could have watched league games from seven different nations. Not all the coverage enjoys the greatest production standards – France’s Le Championnat goes out in Monday’s very early hours on Channel Four and features the same person on presentation and commentary, as if production company TWI had a particularly savage round of cost-cutting just before it was commissioned – but the two most obvious leagues at least have live slots with decent profiles, even if the thought put into them has not all been well directed.

Sky Sports have been showing Spanish football for nine seasons, but it’s only now that we can properly ascertain its role as a money- saving device, in that it means none of its viewers needs buy a season ticket for Real Madrid or Barcelona as they’ll see all their games live anyway. Such a brazen bias towards the top teams, so well enforced that should they both be playing on the Sunday the live Premiership game will be cut off almost as soon as it has finished, perhaps doesn’t reflect Sky’s outlay on exclusive rights, but at least means they don’t have to claim a wide overview of the league.

These games are generally handled by Rob Palmer, a man who seems constantly amazed that they actually play football in Spain, and Gerry Armstrong, who seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of La Liga players’ abilities and an appreciation of their actual contribution that extends as far as “what a player this lad is”, inserting “young” before “lad” where appropriate.

Highlights programme Revista De La Liga benefits from resident pundit Guillem Balague, who should his work dry up could grow a beard, don glasses and gain an extra source of income as a professional David Baddiel lookalike and brings with him a keen grasp of the top clubs’ machinations and a never-say-die attitude in his weekly arguments with Graham Hunter, “Our Man In Spain”.

Meanwhile, since Channel Four dropped Serie A in 2002 it appears to have become the holy grail of satellite. After a couple of seasons on Eurosport, it’s moved on to Bravo, via Setanta, who gave production rights to North One, who under their previous name, Chrysalis, had produced the Channel Four coverage. Thus Bravo’s coverage consists of a live game on Sundays commentated on by Peter Brackley or Gary Bloom, another shown late one weeknight under the banner Mezzanotte and magazine show Gazzetta Football Italia, which includes a slot where James Richardson sits at a pavement cafe making quips about sports press headlines.

Richardson’s style remains unchanged but his surroundings aren’t – where once he seemed to get the free run of the gantry when sent out to present from the stadium, he now often looks to be stuck in a corner of the stand. In London, Bravo have built him a mock sports cafe, complete with flashing fruit machines in the corner and extras milling about chatting at a low level, almost as if it’s intended as a test for the viewer to remain concentrated on James and his random selection of pundits. Recently, Ron Atkinson was given another go at public redemption, although from his debut in the San Siro for the Milan derby alongside James in the gantry, stumbling over virtually every word, it’s fair to assume ITV aren’t planning to give Jim Beglin some bad news just yet.

The last broadcaster to try punditry in the round was Channel Five for Poland v England in 1997, set in a mock sports cafe populated with the “stars” of Five’s other shows actually eating, drinking and being served, but miked up so there was constant background chatter almost drowning everything else out. It was generally agreed that a march on the Polish Embassy would be needed if their FA offered the then fledgling network the live rights next time the teams were drawn together. Nobody would go that far with Bravo just yet, but much more of that booking policy and they may reconsider.

From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month

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