When two sides go to war

Smart-casual wear and laid-back pallyness proliferated on both channels during Euro 2004, even if expert analysis did not. But, says Cameron Carter, the pundits' humour was no worse than Skinner and Baddiel's

 I t started tensely and just got worse. Before the Portugal v Greece game many of us were troubled by Dull Host Anxiety – you may yourself have experienced this on hearing the voice of Norah Jones wafting earward as you pull off your mittens outside the neighbours’ door. I sat there on day one fearing that in the opening ceremony Portugal would be reduced to a demonstration of the port bottling process by a giant Eusébio doll, aided by Lisbon schoolchildren holding dining-table-shaped balloons. So it was with some relief that I learned Portugal had in fact discovered the world and taught it how to exist. To add colour to the nautical scene, several hundred citizens dressed as orange sperm arranged themselves into a representation of a giant football, a spectacle only partly diminished by a shot of two of the sperm clearly chatting about their costumes on their miraculous journey to the ball-womb.

Of course, when tournaments like this arrive, with countries from all over Europe coming together with one goal, it is a chance once again for our pundits and commentators to demonstrate their knowledge of precisely two things about each participating culture. John Motson knew the Germans were Teutonic and thorough. Barry Davies knew something about Greeks bearing gifts, which was handy because it could also be cleverly worked into Greeks not bearing gifts when they kept a clean sheet. Someone else mentioned Trojan horses.

Graham Taylor, who once famously attributed his England side’s defeat by Norway to the Norwegians’ greater experience of the outdoors, was quick to offer that the Scandinavians’ skill at building teams was a known characteristic of those countries. One wonders if Taylor realises how faithfully, during the wilderness years of his management of our national side, millions of English people believed he was putting some effort into team-building himself. Clive Tyldesley may know more than two things about our neighbours across the Channel but, unhinged by England’s impersonation of a non-League side holding a lead in a fifth-round FA Cup tie, he informed us that “Arsenal are making a change” when France brought on a late substitute.

The closest match of the tournament was the battle of the panels. The BBC had Alan Hansen, a man so relaxed in front of the camera he now only bothers to use abstract nouns in his analysis (“Strength, pace, vision, touch, technique…”), and the increasingly camp Mark Lawrenson as head boys. Gary Lineker was assured at the helm; so assured, in fact, that he became schoolmasterly with Hansen, Schmeichel and Wright at half-time of England v Croatia. Lineker: “So if you’re struggling against corners and free-kicks, what’s the thing you don’t do?” Hansen (piping up first): “Give away a silly free-kick.” One fervently hopes Ian Wright gave Hansen a Chinese burn as soon as the camera was back on the game.

If Hansen and Lineker were relaxed, Des Lynam on the other side displayed a serenity that usually only attends those whose heart has stopped for several seconds. When Ally McCoist and Robbie Earle, dressed immaculately in white shirts and navy blue slacks, joined Des for the Sweden v Holland game, the illusion that we were watching a decent old cove on a country rendezvous with his grown-up foster sons became quite overpowering. As the pictures of unwinding fans drifted across his second-half hand-over to Tyldesley, Lynam murmured, in no particular hurry to arrive at a point: “Well it’s a nice friendly crowd on the Algarve tonight… still 0-0, though… everyone having a nice drink…” You could almost hear the plop of the water vole at his dangling feet.

While it was sickening to see ITV pundits Robbie Earle and Graham Taylor with two top buttons undone on national television, one almost expects that from a channel whose prime time easy-viewing slot appears to last four hours. Yet the BBC, currently angling for a new charter on the basis of “public val­ue”, had Alan Hansen, shirt-tails around thighs, lounging powerfully in his seat like a man who has been invited to choose his pleasure. Schmeichel, Strachan and Wright all had untucked shirts. They cleaned their act up for the semi-finals but by then the nation’s watching children and I had been tainted.

But it was Ian Wright who lost all sense of professionalism when he simply sulked away his analysis time after Portugal equalised against England, choosing to stare silently out of the window. Ian Wright and Garth Crooks are so dissimilar that they surely warrant a sitcom vehicle. Wright feels things and blurts them out. Crooks senses things and whispers them to you like a Native American tracker. Obviously, Garth means well and, unlike his peers, never indulged in the incontinent pun-making surrounding bouncing Czechs, great Danes and foreign names sounding a bit like English words. Mark Lawrenson, in particular, seemed spellbound by the humourous possibilities of someone having the surname Heinz, just like on a tin of beans. On ITV’s panel, Danny Murphy didn’t make a joke. He looked like he might perhaps try one, with support, during the 2010 World Cup.

As for the professional comedians, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel attempted to prove once again what a rich comic yield is harvested from the way people sometimes look like someone else or maybe sound like someone else. Or have funny hair. Skinner is to be congratulated for appearing in public only weeks after his godawful sitcom, Shane, was hurriedly secreted across ITV’s schedules like so much tunnel soil from the trouser of a Colditz internee.

However, dressing up Derek Mountfield as a vicar on a Christmas card who looked a bit like Sven-Göran Eriksson, and then making him sing, is not perhaps the most considered way of answering your critics. They don’t do stuff like that to emaciated monkeys in Morocco any more.

The most poignant moment came three days after England’s exit when I chanced upon recorded footage of Gabby, Robbie Earle and Clive Allen discussing our boys immediately after the Croatia game. “Real fluidity”, “great inteplay”, “they passed with intent”, they all said. Robbie remarked that England would “want to impose themselves on Portugal”. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – so I got on with my ironing.

And the most uplifting came in the BBC’s high­lights of Switzerland v France. Switzerland equalised with the youngest ever scorer and Barry Davies shrieked: “Remember the name… Johann Vonlanthen!” Five of us in the room went through 16 different laughing sounds. Almost worth the admission fee alone. Almost worth all the pain.

From WSC 210 August 2004. What was happening this month