Will football’s front men ever learn the lessons from Big’s Ron’s big mouth?

There are a few differences between the off-air comments of Ron Atkinson all those years ago and the “banter” that led to the suspension of Andy Gray and Richard Keys by Sky Sports.
Big Ron didn’t actually use any profanities and his partner in the commentary box made a brave effort to avert disaster by warning of the possible consequences.
We’re not talking here about the 2004 incident which led to Atkinson’s departure from ITV and The Guardian. We’re looking at the episode that occurred on 1 July 1990 during the epic World Cup tie between England and Cameroon.
Along with millions of football fans around the world you may have missed it. After all it was another off-air comment, except in the relatively tiny community of Bermuda.
But for those of us watching live coverage of the game it was one of those “did he really say that?” moments. Fortunately we were recording the match so we double-checked later.
Sure enough as the players sat and strolled on the pitch in readiness for extra time with the score locked at 2-2, Atkinson and Brian Moore chatted about the action so far.
We know this because the resources of the Bermuda Broadcasting Company didn’t stretch to a studio or to hiring the services of “experts” on a sofa. They just aired the live feed sent to them by ITV and trusted such experienced commentators to do their jobs.
Atkinson turned his attention to Benjamin Massing, the Cameroon defender who was having a pretty tough time, whose challenge on Gary Lineker had brought the penalty award that kept England in the game and who would repeat the offence in extra time to give Lineker the chance to score the winner, again from the penalty spot.
The reprimand that followed from ITV was apparently for Atkinson’s suggestion that Massing didn’t have a brain. The pundit also described the defender as a camel, a comment which appears not to have been brought to the attention of ITV.
Finally, following a warning from the ever-professional Moore, Atkinson asked if he could be in trouble if Massing’s mother was watching at home “up a tree in Cameroon.”
ITV claimed not to have heard the comment because it was off-air, yet a many of Bermuda’s 60,000 and 60 per cent black population picked it up loud and clear.
So ITV blamed the Bermuda station for a lack of professionalism in putting the live feed straight to air. Bermuda blamed ITV for hiring unprofessional broadcasters.
A few Bermuda residents complained to the local newspaper, where we reviewed the tape and sought a response from ITV. Always eager to pick up a bit of extra cash I also touted it round the English newspapers with mixed, and in one case remarkable, results.
As I recall the Mirror used it, as did the Express and we got a front page slot in the Yorkshire Post that paid about a tenner – Atkinson was manager of Sheffield Wednesday at the time.
The Sun though rejected the story and claimed, some may say bizarrely, that they weren’t sure it was true. We told them we had the whole thing on tape but they still declined. Sitting in our island paradise some 3,500 miles away from the UK we weren’t regular readers of The Sun and it would be some time before we would learn that their star columnist for the World Cup was… Ron Atkinson.
Maybe Atkinson was dissuaded from expanding on his opinion of Massing by the steadying influence of Moore. And maybe the revered broadcaster would have kept his sidekick on the straight and narrow 14 years later, but sadly he had passed away by the time Atkinson, having failed once again to recognise the perils of those off-air moments, described Marcel Desailly and black footballers generally in particularly obscene and offensive terms.
And maybe Andy Gray would not have been so readily caught out had he been in the company of someone like Moore, or John Motson, or Barry Davies, or Clive Tyldesley, or Martin Tyler.
Some might say they are past their sell-by date, uninspiring, irritating, arrogant but they are all professionals who harbour a real passion for the game with far more respect, even off-air, than that demonstrated by the “lads’ night out” approach of Keys and Gray.
With the old guard’s experience comes deep knowledge of their specialist subject, substance over style. You wouldn’t catch them struggling to remember the name of the first female assistant referee to officiate in the English leagues. They’re also pretty solid on the offside law, unlike many of their more recent counterparts, many of whom moved into the media from careers as players and managers.
Is the controversy tough on Sky Sports? Have they made a significant contribution to the presence of women in the media? Or is that just eye candy?
It could actually be doing them a favour. Over the last couple of years there have been signs that the Sky presentation format is becoming a bit tired, along with the people who front the show.
It’s something Sky has in common with Match of the Day, and the current scenario presents them with an opportunity to make a change.
I’m not saying here that Keys and Gray should necessarily be sacked for what they said, although short-term suspension seems a bit of a let-off given that such a punishment would be appropriate for offensive comments about any match officials made by any member of the “football family” and the sexist nature of these rants is clearly an aggravating factor.
But as further evidence that Sky’s star men are out of touch with the real world and consider themselves bigger than their audience it does at the very least move them nearer to the exit door. Time to ease them out and get Gabby Logan in.

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2 Comments

Filed under By Phil Ascough, Celebs, Football, Media, Uncategorized, World Cup

2 responses to “Will football’s front men ever learn the lessons from Big’s Ron’s big mouth?

  1. Mark

    I’m a Bermudian. I find his their comments to be racist.

  2. David Burnby

    Well said Sir.

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