The Italia job
'Golazzo!' How sweet the sound. In the weekends before satellite television made jaded experts on Stoke City of us all, 'Football Italia' on Channel 4 was a terrestrial jewel in football's crown.
The Art Of Noise cum Def Jam theme tune would beckon a welter of indecently good taste and chat and there was plenty of 'Golazzo' -- great goals -- in what was a golden age of Italian football before false economics skewed the European game.
Lombardo and Vialli, Zola and Lentini, Baggio and Van Basten, Capello and Sacchi. Oh, and Gascoigne, Ince and Platt.
James Richardson was the witty and urbane host of the must-see weekend festivities and, although he doesn't predict a return of the golden age, he does point out the creepy parallels between the implosion of Italian club football and the potential difficulties facing the English game.
"The Italian decline is a bit over-wrought; they're not as healthy as before but the story is a little bit out of date. Their bubble burst when TV money stopped flowing. Financially, now it's on a much better footing than the Premier League and we know what happens when economies over-spend.
"The Italians have been through this in the 90s, which caused their slump initially and they're more fiscally prudent now than ever. There aren't any clubs saddled with debt like Man Utd.
"They may not be able to throw their weight around in the transfer market which the English can do, and that's the only reason England are successful in Europe, let's face it."
Richardson started presenting in 1992 but a decade later the dream was over. With English clubs buying up Italians -- even Crystal Palace -- the balance had tipped. "A lot more violence was coming in and other issues which were buried were finally being addressed, or at least being admitted to," says Richardson, latterly referring to the infamous Calciopoli scandal. "And teams weren't being successful in Europe."
But what japes when the show was at its peak. Gazza was supposed to be the show's presenter initially after his move from Spurs to Lazio. "His time-keeping wasn't the best," admits Richardson, then a mere lackey behind the camera.
Up stepped the lackey and TV's wittiest and most urbane figure was born. And what a life. He lived in Rome, from where he would sip espresso on a sun-dappled piazza while poring through the pink 'Gazetta Dello Sport' for transfer rumours, and thence up and down the country for the weekly live games.
"It was a great time in my life," he enthuses. "I think meeting Elvis Costello, at a Genoa match I suspect, was one of the biggest thrills for me. He's a huge football fan." Richardson paid homage to Mr McManus by linking an Elvis tune to each half-time score. Try that, Gary Lineker.
But it was the Saturday morning show which really demonstrated the show's ability to treat football with the absence of fawning respect it arguably deserves. Waking up with Gazza in pajamas, surrounded by kitchen implements, was one of the least bizarre memories housed by Richardson.
He did the lambada with Attilo Lombardo -- "a fantastic chap". One programme opened with Richardson moaning that he was supposed to interview Lombardo and Gianluca Vialli.
"I said that they hadn't turned up," recalls football's cross between Vic Reeves and Dom Joly. "But they were behind me, messing around with black wigs on." Try that, Robbie Keane.
A personal favourite accompanied the furore when Richardson was rubbing Pierluigi Casiraghi's face into a plate of pasta and cackling: "So do you want to see a replay of your wonder goal last weekend then?" "No, I am not interested." "But it's Gary Bloom commentating." "Gary Bloom? Fantastico!"
The death of Italian football on terrestrial TV left a vast chasm that a hundred seasons of 'Super Sundays' can't possibly fill. In terms of punditry, Richardson's absence was keenly felt until he popped up on Setanta Sport's weekly football preview show.
In an age of obeisance and obsequiousness, Richardson's ability to talk without condescension and with intelligence presents a breath of fresh air; at least in his territory, although he admits to a sneaking regard for the RTE football panel.
"Setanta have been really nice to work with, they're really relaxed. We have very creative people and we try to take a fresh angle on things. We try not to take it too seriously, it is only a game after all.
"It's a bit more fun to watch when it's done a different way. Your guys do the same as well. It doesn't really happen in English football. I suppose a lot of people grow up watching nicey-nicey and think that's the way it should be."
He still follows the Italian game keenly, even conducting an impromptu newspaper review for us like the old days, albeit down the telephone from drizzly London.
And as Ireland pitch up in Bari this week, there is a sense of almost airy insouciance emanating from many Irish voices with a solid kick in the rear the last thing expected by Trap's Army on this visit to Italy's heel.
Beer-goggled memories of this season's Champions League knockout dismissals of feeble, cramped-up Italian 'nancy boys' have propagated that feeling of surprising confidence amongst the Irish fans.
Yet club and country have never coalesced in Italian football history; Azzurri championship-winning teams have never coincided with a golden age for the country's club sides.
"When Italy win World Cups, their club sides are usually performing poorly. And remember Italy are the world champions.
"This is a huge game for Trapattoni obviously. There's a big issue with Antonio Cassano of course for Lippi. I don't think Italy will feel as if they have to win. They're very optimistic according to the press. Their win in Montenegro was a decent result but furthermore there's a feeling that Lippi may have hit upon the shape of the team. Pirlo had an exceptional game, it was like watching him nine or 10 years ago. And Glampaolo Pazzini made a big impact.
"So the feeling in the Italian press has been maybe there's a system here to build that on as opposed to Euro 2008 when they really just pitched up with the World Cup-winning team and tried to take it from there. I don't think Italy will care too much if they draw, once they're winning the group. So that could leave something for Ireland."
And if Robbie Keane can notch a 'Golazzo', all the better.
James Richardson presents 'The Friday Football Show' on Setanta Sports every Friday.
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