Not before time, frankly. For all its faults (morning, Mr Mellor!), Radio 5 continues
to be something of an oasis. Sports coverage with teeth, commentary that conveys
a sense of drama rather than artificially-enhanced excitement, a feeling of
genuine intimacy amid the corporate screechings.
So television's failure to draw on the rich resources
of R5 can only be explained by market researchers having determined that what
the viewing public really wants is Jonathon Pearce bellowing gracelessly about
"Rrrrrready, stttttteady, Tttttteddy!!!" and Gary Lineker grinning inanely through
Grandstand from inside a giant football. Either that, or the voices we hear
on the wireless belong to faces that are the stuff of children's nightmares - which,
of course, never stood in Jimmy Hill's way.
Anyway, On Side is a commendable first step along the road that leads
to Mark Bloody Lawrenson (a frequent R5 guest, ironically) finding a P45 on his doormat one fine morning. Presented
by R5's excellent John Inverdale, it offers forty-five minutes of informed and
intelligent sporty spoutings. Nothing earth-shattering but, equally, nothing
braindead and banal either - and that's a rare achievement.
Aside from occasional lapses into cliché ('embarrassing' clips of stars in naff
clothing; Johan Cryuff being asked to juggle a ball like a flippin' circus act), it's
stimulating stuff. Where it falls down, however, is in its ambition. The first
show attempted to cram interviews with (deep breath) Frankie Dettori, Chris Eubank,
Jacques Villeneuve, Damon Hill, Evander Holyfield and Johan Cruyff into three quarters
of an hour. Oh, and the highlights of Leicester v West Ham for good measure.
Until someone sorts that out - a newspaper full of headlines is just as dreary
as one with no headlines at all - On Side will remain a missed
opportunity. Inverdale's strength is that he asks questions that force his
subjects to reveal a little of themselves - something that is very, very uncommon
in sports journalism. Yet any momentum that is built up evaporates after seven
minutes as we move jerkily onto the next guest. Shame - while I'm fairly certain
that Dettori and Villeneuve have few hidden depths, I'm just as sure that the likes
of Cruyff and Eubank are complex characters that demand closer interrogation. And
you could've filled the entire programme with discussions on Michael Schumacher's
fall from grace without boring anyone.
Still, it's a start. If On Side represents a counter-attack against
some of the more moronic sports coverage on television, then it's to be warmly
welcomed, regardless of teething troubles.