Garrulous Graham Poll

Cameron Carter watches Graham Poll's quest for celebrity, and an economist's attempts to get players to cough up for nurses

Becoming a famous referee is an odd way of turning out. It’s a bit like being a celebrity waiter. Acknowledging Graham Poll’s unique position in society, Inside Sport lent him a camera for his last season to give, in effect, a video retirement speech to his public.

We join Graham on his first game back after his World Cup debacle, visibly anxious on the way to Colchester. Minutes after telling us he doesn’t usually get nervous, he has to pull into a lay-by to have a word with himself. Cutaways build the emotion, showing his tearful mother recalling the moment she realised her first-born had shown three yellow cards to a Croat and his wife and children presenting a strong front by a duck pond.

In the lay-by, Graham has received a supportive text from his daughter. This chokes him up but, after collecting himself, he biffs off to Layer Road. This is an uplifting start and it’s perfectly understandable that Graham should be upset and his family be protective, but he really is only a referee who made a mistake. However, this is characteristic of Poll – personable, articulate and strong-willed, but truly believing he is centre stage.

There is bad news for fans who vented their displeasure at Poll with the traditional “The referee’s a wanker” broadside. Poll apparently disassociated himself from the referee figure while on the pitch in order to permit his self-esteem a chance of survival. Those who took the trouble to personalise their abuse at the time – “Poll! You wanker!”, for example – would, conversely, have reached their mark.

Economist Dr Noreena Hertz’s attempt to chivvy every Premiership player into contributing a day’s wages to a nurses’ hardship fund was the subject of The Million Pound Footballers’ Giveaway, on Channel 4. Despite almost losing breakthrough contact Ryan Giggs through Hertz assuming he was English, Giggs and Gary Neville are the first to agree to help publicise the appeal. Jermain Defoe also gets on board early, looking winningly vulnerable in a room of playful female nurses on a hospital visit.

When Hertz finally does win access to a whole team, Everton, she quickly makes two mistakes. First, she tells them it’s not about the money. “If it’s not about the money, why are you asking for a day’s wages?” is the reasonable response. Now on the back foot, she brings out her big guns, telling the lads that when she met Bono he told her to pitch the idea at them as if it were a song. I do hope Bono wasn’t watching because the response to this is the kind of deadly silence heard immediately before the first heckle at an open-mike night.

Glenn Roeder listened more sympathetically before allowing Hertz access to his Newcastle players and he handed her a piece of paper with some Kipling-esque wisdom about remaining true to one’s convictions in the face of all life’s troubles. It was a little devalued when Hertz turned the paper to camera to show it had been run off a computer with “Pass this on to ten friends and see how it will change your life” printed at the bottom. Unfortunately, Glenn obviously did pass his own copy on to ten friends as he lost his job four days later.

Major League Soccer on Five US is a weekly glimpse into a brighter, newer world. The phrase “uninterrupted coverage” may have existed once in the USA, but it has long since fallen into disuse. These people don’t miss a chance to interrupt anything. One moment you’re watching FC Dallas building purposefully from the back, the next you’re thrown headlong into a cinematic advertisement for Lynx Vice, featuring Morgan Freeman. A one-on-one with the keeper which resulted in the last defender getting a red card was completely missed because the producer had cut to his news update slot that informed us a basketball player was injured.

What really sets their coverage apart from its British counterpart is the commentators’ exclamations. The Americans appear sympathetic to the game and its players (“Great shot, son!”), as if nurturing a sickly child towards adulthood. By comparison, BBC and ITV commentators are wretchedly cynical, bent over the game like old hags with five gas lighters for a pound. There is simply no way John Motson or Clyde Tyldesley would shout “It hits the hard stuff!” when a shot strikes the crossbar. Neither would you expect to hear Martin Tyler yelp “Whew! I cannot wait for the replays!” But that’s the American mainstream style: loud means fun. They would surely pay Graham Poll a decent pile to bring his circus to town.

From WSC 246 August 2007