They made Luke Chadwick's life hell when it should have been a dream come true.
he kid had broken into the Manchester United team at the age of 18 when the people at BBC's They Think It's All Over sports panel show decided it would be funny to have a running joke about him being ugly. Host Nick Hancock stuck the boot in while Gary Lineker and others chortled witlessly in the background.
You can imagine the effect that kind of thing would have had on a teenage boy. In fact, we don't need to imagine. Last week, as part of the FA's campaign to encourage young footballers to speak up about mental health problems, Chadwick revealed that, "The abuse I received about my appearance affected my mental health a lot. I was always so anxious about going out. Even if people didn't say anything to me, I was worried they were thinking that about me or that someone might say something."
The drill being what it is these days, Hancock was quick out of the blocks with an apology. Yet, in a classic weasel move, he decided others should share the blame, suggesting that, "Nobody should expect Luke to have called us on it but it would have been effective if the PFA or his club had said something."
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Yeah right. You'd imagine the reason the PFA didn't get in touch was that they suspected any communication from them would probably have been read out in a silly voice by Hancock on the show to make things worse for the player.
All the while, Chadwick recalls, "I would dread the show, thinking 'please just don't say anything else'. I just wanted it to go away but it seemed like every time this show was on, they would bring up my looks in some way."
A weird strain of bullying was never slow to manifest itself in the blokey sports panel shows epitomised by TTIAO. On Fantasy Football League it was Jason Lee of Nottingham Forest who came in for the treatment.
Host David Baddiel even blacked up, donned fake dreadlocks and put a pineapple on his head to perform a Lee impersonation. When this led to the player being assailed by 'pineapple' chants from fans Baddiel and Frank Skinner proudly played them back. "It was, looking back, a form of bullying. I don't think people appreciate the harm it can cause. Not everyone has the make-up to deal with that and they shouldn't have to," says Lee.
The excuse that things were different then doesn't hold much water. It's a very long time since taunting a teenager or slapping on the boot polish to mock a black man were acceptable behaviour. You don't need to go to Cambridge University to know that.
Hancock and Baddiel actually did go to Cambridge and to public school before that. It figures. Because at the root of their treatment of Chadwick and Lee was the class snobbery which is never far away in English life, even if these days its perpetrators like to don a mask of matey egalitarianism.
Those shows were products of a time when Fever Pitch, written by another Cambridge graduate Nick Hornby, had made it acceptable for middle class people to admit to liking football, which they'd previously derided as the preserve of shaven-headed working class oiks.
But breeding dies hard and these new recruits couldn't escape a certain guilty embarrassment about their enthusiasm for the game. Deep down they regarded it as an essentially immature passion, so when they spoke about the game they tended to behave like children. Picking on the likes of Chadwick and Lee fulfilled a fantasy of being schoolyard bullies for these middle class twits desperately trying to fit in with the lads.
Chadwick is at Cambridge too these days, coaching at United's academy. He forgives his tormentors and says, "I didn't want to make a big deal out of anything, I just wanted to share my experiences. Maybe we can all be a bit kinder to each other."
As it happens, the one-time butt of the joke has grown into a fine cut of a man, while these days Hancock resembles an anxious badger startled by a fox. The looks gap between Lee and Baddiel is roughly the same as the points gap between Liverpool and Leyton Orient.