Ally and Andy and the Champions League table

By James Olley
Last updated : 04 October 2005
When sitting down on Tuesday night to watch ITV's coverage of the Champions League, I started to think that this has become an acceptable part of football life. The Champions League has been on ITV for several years now, and I can remember enough big European nights at Old Trafford down the years to think that I feel comfotable in the hands of Logan, Tyldesley et al.

But as the night wore on, this feeling started to erode on the grounds that they don't really deserve it. Let's face it, Ron Atkinson was the best thing about ITV's football coverage, and he is sorely missed. Jim Beglin looks too slender to carry the weight of Big Ron's jewellery, let alone his commentating mantle.

The opening sequence was the first thing to irritate the hell out of me. It's now 'ITV Champions Tuesday'. When did that happen? Featuring Manchester United, who were nowhere near Chelsea last season. It was another step in the gradual Americanisation of British football coverage that SKY are initiating. All those spinning and invasive graphics just serve to upset me. Stay still, for God's sake, my eyesight isn't good enough for all that.

A second point served to annoy me and further erode ITV's newly-found status in my footballing psyche, and we still had not kicked off. Fifteen minutes of build-up, two advert breaks. I am certain this happened last season, but for some reason it really got up my nose. Not even the advertised Vicks spray could help me.

SKY started this trend of having a break just before kick-off, thereby draining any of the tension the build-up had managed to create among the fans. ITV have followed suit, but then it occured to me that it must be there to give the third reason ITV went down in my estimation time to dissipate.

Andy Townsend has traded in his tactics truck for surely the most ridiculous thing anyone has ever seen in football punditry - a table on the pitch with a glass Champions League sidescreen. Yes, that's right, actually on the pitch. We're ITV and we are as close to the action as we are going to get. What do they achieve from being there, apart from being able to give a backwards nod to the fans when talking about them?

He stands there with Ally McCoist and they do the usual pre-match stuff on the pitch with a clipboard each to highlight just how much homework they have done. The only benefit is to the guy who sells ITV their wiring and microphones, who can make a killing from the extension leads and remote mics they need for this farce. And what is the glass screen there for? I can only assume, apart from aesthetics, it has the purpose of blocking the fans from throwing debris in their direction.

Perhaps it was an attempt to get the closest possible feel for an Old Trafford crowd whose minority turned on their manager at the weekend. This is not the great revolt against a manager who should have already left, as some have reported.

The fact is that United fans are frustrated by the change of formation that the 2001 purchases of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Veron were a prelude to. Ferguson's sole reason for still being in the job is to win more European trophies. Jose Mourinho's impact has breathed fresh life into the Premiership, but Europe is still his priority.

After the swashbuckling triumph of 1999, United were tactically exposed in many of their subsequent exits, and Ferguson's admiration of AC Milan's 4-5-1 formation led to United's more regular use of this system. Mourinho's deployment of the same formation has reinforced Ferguson's view that it can work at United.

What upsets the fans, is that United are not the patient side that Milan are. The Italians will pass a team into defeat, but United's attacking instincts are curbed by a more patient build up. Paul Scholes does not undo defences with killer passes - it is the timing of his running from midfield and his ability to find space that defences cannot cope with. In a more restrictive system, he does not have such licence to do this, and consequently he has struggled more than most in the new system.

United do not go after sides anymore for fear they will be exposed. But this means teams get a chance to find their feet at Old Trafford, making the place less daunting than it used to be. The fans are used to seeing United go at sides with near abandon, and when they don't and they lose, there is obvious frustration.

Many argue that Fergie shouldnt have changed the system. But he felt they had to show more guile in Europe, and ultimately that is where he wants his formation to be judged. Indeed, for all the plugging of their Championship coverage, that is also where ITV will be judged.

Many fans want the old system. They don't want the change. And that's where ITV failed me the other night. Too much change. Even Clive Tyldesley is more smug than he used to be. ON reporting the goal that got Ajax back in the game at 2-1, a player hit the ball from the edge of the area. Tyldesley, to try and pass off he was in total control of everything, said "and what a goal it was" as the shot went goal bound.

Little did he know that the ball would crash off the inside of the post, presenting a tap-in for the goalscorer. Too proud to admit his mistake, he carried on as if nothing had happened. He never used to be like that.

And perhaps that is the point.The BBC do a decent job and it's because nothing has really changed. The music is the same, the name hasn't changed and Gary Lineker is basically Des Lynam 30 years ago (although Des didn't present it 30 years ago, but he's not Jimmy Hill is he? Can't see Lineker on Countdown either, but never mind). Simple but effective, because you know what you're getting. So when Townsend and McCoist went back onto the pitch at the end of the game, the rain that fell was probably the most poignant punditry moment of the night.



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