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Monday, March 16, 2009

How sports coverage parted company with sport

Since reading What Sport Tells Us About Life and talking to its author Ed Smith a few weeks ago I've become increasingly fascinated by the contrast between what happens in sport and what hacks say happens in sport; between the events – which are generally, as Smith described them to me, "chaos upon chaos" – and the narrative imposed on those events by commentators and journalists.

Last week ITV's Andy Townsend hailed Manchester United's four-nil victory at Fulham with the words "well, they're so far ahead of everybody else, they must be wondering who can give them a game." He'd already forgotten the previous Sunday when an under-strength Manchester United were held to a goal-less draw for 120 minutes by an under-strength Spurs team. I was at that game and found it hard to see any resemblance between the events – desultory stalemate with defences on top – and the narrative in the paper, which turned out to be something to do with iPods. This was the first time I'd seen a penalty shoot out live. Without the overheated commentary provided by television it's about as gripping – and as much to do with sport – as drawing straws on the halfway line.

I wonder what Townsend had to say about this Saturday's game when the same Manchester United got beaten four-one at home. You can say that's the wonderful unpredictability of sport. You could also say, that's the irrelevance of people like Andy Townsend. And it's not just him. The same applies to the most sage wordsmith cranking out 2,000 words for the broadsheets. None of them can bear to say what every fan mutters to himself every week. It could go either way.

Something similar happened this weekend with England rugby. In the past week the commentariat were united in the view that England were slow, unadventurous, ill-disciplined, borderline-hopeless. They stopped short of saying that there should be another regime change. They were saving that one for Monday morning. In the event they didn't get to write that story because, in the most one-sided contest in recent Six Nations history, England unexpectedly beat France 34-10. If they'd examined recent events before building their narrative they would have seen that England's defeats in this year's tournaments had been by small margins, they had scored more tries than anyone else and they had not conceded a try when they had fifteen men on the field. So the sensible analysis, and one held by all their opposing managers, was 'misfiring but might come good'. What kind of story is that?

All the firmly-held opinions of two weeks ago look ridiculous today. England have won, Manchester United are having a crisis-ette and Liverpool are daring to dream. But people like Ferguson and Johnson and Benitez know that's it got nothing to do with what anyone writes in the papers or says on the wireless. It's not the tide of history. It's not payback for what somebody said at a press conference. It's not part of the long wave of a continuing story. It's the bounce of a ball, the timing of a pass, the foothold that doesn't give way, Michael Essien's fortuitous mis-kick yesterday, somebody reaching out to nudge the unforgiving moment, that makes the difference between this victory and that defeat. Before the game yesterday the BBC were asking Martin Johnson if he thought his pack could out-muscle the French. He gave the only honest answer which is, "we'll see".

That's not what they wanted to hear. I told Ed Smith what Danny Blanchflower had said when he was asked who was going to win. "I don't know," he said. "That's why they're playing the game." I asked him if that was the most banal thing ever said about sport or the most profound. He thought it was the latter. So do I.