Ray Stubbs has flown the BBC nest to become the main anchorman at ESPN. Si Hawkins relates a cautionary tale of broadcasting folk who made similar transfers

Amid all the machinations surrounding John Terry’s mooted move to Manchester City this summer it was easy to ignore another tale of long-term loyalty gone amiss. Ray Stubbs has joined ESPN from the BBC after a sterling 26 years of filling in while more important presenters went on holiday.

It looks a useful deal for all concerned, in theory. The enormous American network – having acquired the Premier League package surrendered by Setanta – now have a familiar face to front their new channel; the Beeb can pursue its policy of promoting younger, prettier presenters without upsetting a popular stalwart, and Stubbs gets to be the main man rather than disappear deeper into the televisual wilderness.

And yet, in practice, such transfers rarely go as planned. Leaving the BBC is rather like leaving Manchester United and the Nicky Butt effect can quickly kick in, as once-confident anchormen flounder in unfamiliar surroundings. The most shocking example was Des Lynam, who, by his own admission, “went from being a great broadcaster, or at least a very acceptably good one, to being a somewhat inadequate one overnight”.

Lynam was enticed across by ITV’s ambitious sport controller Brian Barwick in 1999, via numerous surreptitious seaside walks, but failed to adjust his famously laid-back manner to the hyperbole-heavy ITV presentation. He’d been warned, in truth, as previous anchor Bob Wilson had been lured from Lynam’s shadow a few years earlier and looked similarly out of place, like Terry Wogan trying to host the Radio One breakfast show.

Acquiring staff from the BBC may bring publicity and prestige, but old-school British broadcasting values don’t sit easily in the increasingly Americanised world of commercial broadcasting, as the likeable Stubbs may now be discovering at the Disney-owned ESPN. According to the Daily Mail’s BBC-baiting diarist Charles Sale, the final straw for Stubbs was losing his Final Score gig to Gabby Logan for the 2009-10 season: the latest act of a defection domino effect. Logan joined the corporation in 2006 after being inexplicably replaced as ITV’s chief football presenter by Steve Rider, whose only memorable contribution thus far has been mopping-up after that unscheduled ad break during last season’s Everton v Liverpool FA Cup tie.

Stubbs isn’t the only popular presenter to leave the Beeb under a cloud this summer. Mark Saggers hosted the Champions League final for Radio 5 Live in May but is now finding his feet at Talksport following a big fall-out with R5 commentator Alan Green. The enmity was such that Green even refused to share the same plane as Saggers, reported several gleeful newspaper diarists, but it was the latter whose contract wasn’t renewed.

R5’s finer presenters are rightly renowned for keeping cool under pressure but they too can suffer the Butt effect. The much admired Sport on Five host Ian Payne joined Sky Sports in 2003 to helm its Monday night Premier League game but shared a similar affliction to Gordon Brown, it transpired: extreme discomfort when faced with a camera, which is a bit of a drawback for a television presenter. That slot was eventually offered to Jeff Stelling to counteract his courtship by ITV (who eventually settled for Rider) while Payne was shuffled off to the reserves: Sky Sports News.

Clearly one should think hard and long before quitting the corporation. Just ask Graeme Le Saux, the punditry golden boy who flounced off in 2006 after missing out on the England co-commentator position, and endured a lengthy disappearance before quietly re-emerging on ITV this year. His old BBC boss, Niall Sloane, has since taken over as the network’s head of sport. Expect another spell in the wilderness.

As for Green, he remains umbilically attached to R5 despite regularly rubbing colleagues up the wrong way, and frequent unfounded TV rumours. It could have been different. The abrasive Northern Irishman was lined up for Five’s old Football Night discussion show before Jonathan Pearce took the job, but reckons he’d “scare television witless” these days.

It’s a fair point. Few commercial stations would encourage such a frank soundtrack to their expensively acquired product, and a move to Sky is certainly unlikely after a style-related tiff with Andy Gray a few years back. “His opinion on anything has never interested me in the slightest,” sniffed Gray.

Generally speaking, though, commentators enjoy more successful switches than their studio colleagues. Brian Moore forged a now well-trodden path when in 1968 he was poached from BBC Radio by LWT’s then head of sport, Jimmy Hill, who promptly swanned off in the opposite direction. Thirty years later Clive Tyldesley manoeuvred himself into Moore’s chair after a long spell playing third fiddle to the Barry Davies/John Motson axis, while the latter may also be open to offers.

Sixty-four-year-old Motson held talks with Setanta a few years back, and having half-retired after that failed to materialise, he’s now been linked with ESPN too. Such a deal would certainly garner some handy column inches for the nascent channel, but imagine the culture shock after 40 cosy years. As Motty’s old anchorman discovered, the road from Television Centre can be tough, even for the smoothest operators.

From WSC 271 September 2009

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