The Power of Des

Ian Hamilton

‘Forget England v. Germany. It’s all about Des v. Gary,’ proclaimed the Guardian TV Guide on the opening day of Euro 2000. As things turned out, the Guardian was right – indeed, righter than it could possible have known. Within days of the tournament’s kick-off, a doleful Gary Lineker was telling his BBC1 viewers to brace themselves for some ‘bad news’: his employers, he had just been told, had lost the right to screen highlights of Premier League soccer games on Saturday nights. In other words, Match of the Day, the show that Gary had inherited from Desmond Lynam, would shortly be no more. As from the season after next, ITV would be screening its own highlights package and that package would be fronted by, yes, Des.

Lineker reported this information as though he expected us to weep, and on the following day the non-Murdoch press (the ‘live’ Premier League screen rights are owned by Murdoch’s BSkyB) put on a decent show of following his lead. The cover stories played up Greg Dyke’s ‘humiliation’; the editorials were torn between, on the one hand, commending the BBC’s Director-General for his wise stewardship of public funds and, on the other, deriding him for tactical naivety or ‘arrogance’; the columnists blubbed on about how Match of the Day had been the mainstay of their soccer-loving childhoods, and the features people went to town on the Des v. Gary contest, with Des hailed as the clear winner.

Des, we were told, had quit the BBC about a year ago because he was cross about the scheduling of Match of the Day (the show, really, that sustained his wondrous fame). He wanted the programme to be put out around 7 p.m. on Saturdays, so as to catch the kiddies before bedtime, or clubtime, or drugtime, or whatever, but John Birt’s non-sporting apparatchiks kept on shoving the show further and further towards midnight. And Des was cross, too, about the BBC’s failure to secure the rights to various big games – internationals, FA cup ties, European Champions League fixtures and so on: games which quite clearly needed the warm, guiding hand of Des. All in all, he seemed to feel that his great gifts were being underused. The way things were going, he could easily end up with the snooker or the horse shows.

At the time of Des’s much-publicised defection, there were some who believed that what he really would have settled for was a primetime BBC show in which he could have catalogued his grievances, one by one, and then cuddlesomely shrugged them off: ‘Ah well, that’s life, I guess, but – what the hell? – we’re still alive, or I am. See you for “What’s My Lynam?” next week, maybe.’ Des Lynam, it was pointed out, had started his career in radio and was a BBC man, through and through. Much of his charisma surely had to do with seeming antique and imperilled.

At ITV, Lynam has found plenty to be wry about, and works hard to hang onto our affection. He still comes on with the old ploys: the confidential nods and winks, the raised eyebrow, the faint hint of soccer weariness. At the same time, though, he gives the impression that he’s slumming. For example, he still cannot bring himself to acknowledge that, on ITV, even his programmes have to carry ads. ‘See you shortly,’ he mumbles when about to be cut off by a commercial break, as if he has suddenly remembered that he needs to make a phone-call. He also involves himself as sketchily as possible in ITV’s incessant self-promotion. Most of the ‘only on this channel’ stridency is handled by captions and voice-overs. One of the great BBC Lynam moments in the 1998 World Cup came just before the England v. Tunisia match – an afternoon fixture and unshiftable. There was Des, at 2 p.m., his finger on the nation’s pulse: ‘Hey, good afternoon, I thought I’d find you here . . . but aren’t you supposed to be at work?’ Not, surely, a pitch that could be followed, or preceded, by a message from the world of commerce.

During Euro 2000, Lynam has tried to relaunch his maturely rumpled charm by packing his pundit-panel with seen-it-all ex-England managers, leaving Lineker on the other channel to frolic with the lads. If Gary has any sort of edge over his rival, it is that he, Gary, was not so long ago a top-class player, and, therefore knows exactly what it feels like to be out there, soaking up the pressure. And much the same goes for his two relatively youthful cohorts, Alan Hansen and Trevor Brooking. They, too, and fairly recently, have served time in the communal bath. Hence all the player-to-player repartee that Gary likes to nurture: ‘Well, speaking as a striker, I would probably have missed that, too,’ he will chortle, or (to Hansen): ‘I suppose you’ll be putting a boot into the defence?’ This buddy-buddy stuff can have its charm but it rapidly gets tedious. And meanwhile, on the other side, there is another, wiser option: the deep-marinated Des, flanked by his troupe of haggard former bosses – each of whom, before experience set in, had also known how to banter in the bath. Thus, it was hoped, would Des trump Gary’s ace. He was, unarguably, senior.

But can he, or anyone, be truly senior on ITV? Is it possible to turn from, say, Ian Wright’s dreadful Chicken Tonight advertisement to, say, the ruminative countenance of Bobby Robson without feeling the need to interject some Des-like jest? Lynam’s current technique, with each commercial interruption, is to pretend that nothing much has happened, that the audience he’s now so matily addressing has not, a few seconds earlier, been made to stare at Ian Wright, a former soccer star now flogging tins of yuk. Narrative continuity surely cries out for a back-reference from Des and his assembled team of soccer sages. Des, though, says nothing. On ITV, presenters are not allowed to be wry about the ads. No anchor can be bigger than this ship.

What future, then, for Lynam? At ITV he will get his Premier League highlights show on Saturdays at seven, but at this hour quite a few people, me included, won’t be watching. So as far as I’m concerned, Match of the Day is what happens after supper on Saturday nights. It’s what one does instead of wondering what ought to happen, or is happening to someone else, after supper on Saturday nights. And as for the Saturday pre-supper hours and, indeed, the supper hour itself: these surely should be devoted to not finding out the scores – i.e. no telephone calls, no television news, no sorties out of doors. Surely Des Lynam, of all people, knows about these things? Why is he so keen to sabotage our Saturdays? Perhaps, now that he’s so rich and famous, he has better things to do with his weekends. Or maybe he no longer cares.

And yet Des, we feel, will always care – not much, maybe, but slightly. Even at the moment of ITV’s Premier League triumph, he managed to sound wistful. ‘Thrilled’ though he was by his paymasters’ coup, he took no pleasure in the humbling of his erstwhile allies. He joked ruefully about the BBC’s wrongly organised priorities: ‘whatever happened in the world’, he said, he would have expected the Beeb to stump up for its soccer, ‘even if they had to abandon a few dramas . . . no, make that ALL of their dramas’. He also waxed coy about the satisfactions of recapturing his former empire: ‘It will be like getting into a pair of old boots . . . designer boots, mind.’ Of Match of the Day itself he said:

Its beauty is all about tradition. It’s been on for such a long time. It is synonymous with Jimmy Hill, and then I came to it, followed by Gary Lineker. It is a show that has always been in the psyche of the football fan, every play that has been written about football, every book, every sitcom . . . That is its strengh. But everything changes, I suppose.

Maybe, in this case, everything won’t stay changed. Maybe, before very long, Lynam will be back where he belongs: not to front a weekend highlights show but to cover the big live cup-ties and internationals which the BBC, in an impressive counter-stroke on the day after its Match of the Day setback, somehow managed to sign up. It was the shortage of live football on BBC that drove Des to ITV. Soon, it would seem, nearly all the live action that matters will be on Sky or the BBC. ITV will be left holding an expensive sack of highlights. Plus Des, of course, should he decide to stay. Maybe he has to stay, contractually; I wouldn’t know. But surely the moment is ripe for the BBC to attempt to lure him back. For starters, they could point out to him that, with the England v. Germany game, ITV was thoroughly hammered by the BBC (BBC: 10.9 million; ITV: 5.5 million). They could also ask him what it was in his psyche that prompted him, in his introduction to the Turkey v. Belgium game, to instruct his ITV viewers that they could catch the rival Group B fixture (Italy v. Sweden) by switching over to BBC2. He should have said ITV2, and the error was corrected later (not by him). As for me, I did as I was told: I switched over to BBC2 and found myself watching a programme about furniture design. Such is the power of Des, even when he is pretending to be working for the other side.