Larry Ryan: How much bad TV was made trying to replicate Ian St John's genuine amusement?

Banter only became a dangerous force when the Saint stopped supervising it after Saint and Greavsie was dropped
Larry Ryan: How much bad TV was made trying to replicate Ian St John's genuine amusement?

TWO UP FRONT: Ian St John (left) and Jimmy Greaves in 2009, when they reformed their legendary double-act for for Setanta Sports’s FA Cup Special. St John played the straight man to Greaves in their much-loved football show.

Inconveniently, I have very little experience dealing with the gee-gees in this column. But luckily there is plenty of knowhow to call upon vis-a-vis the dangerous force at the heart of the week’s big story — banter.

Yes, we have kept a watchful eye on the bantz in these quarters, and its close links with ‘controvassy’.

We have tracked the downfall of many reckless banterers, even if we have rarely seen the bantz come so close to bringing down an entire industry.

Over the years, we have tried to gain some understanding of this compulsion, mainly among football men, to say and do crude, unnecessary things in the cause of amusing their colleagues.

We have puzzled over the wasted energy invested in cutting off the tops of teammates’ socks and other such acts. And still no better explanation has presented itself than the words of Paul Merson as he recounted his youthful adventures in this area — culminating in the heady evening when he downloaded his own excrement into the pillowcase of Perry Groves.

“I used to love seeing the look on his face,” reflected Merse. In most cases, that simple reward seems to be motivation enough.

Certainly, the bantz can also operate as a convenient valve through which all manner of badness can be released. The cruelty and the sexism and the racism and the homophobia usually ranking up there towards the top of the charts.

But there is a school of thought that we had seen the last of banter’s worst excesses, ever since Trump took the shine off things, since he managed the impressive feat of taking ‘locker-room banter’ down a peg or two in people’s estimation. Nowadays the cruel and sexist and racist and homophobic generally don’t bother dressing it up as banter, instead preferring the more straightforward medium of abuse.

In that regard, we should remember we are dealing with historic banter this week. So how harshly should we judge?

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this grim episode was the cold anonymity of two dead horses. These dispensable casualties couldn’t have lain further from the fawning of a winners’ enclosure.

But we have noted many inexplicable, self-destructive acts in the name of banter, including an ostensibly good man parking the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of tsunami deaths for the swift payoff from a ‘Toon Army’ joke live on television. So you can see how people who might otherwise treat animals with due care and love and respect could be momentarily seduced into losing everything by the power of bantz. And might sit on a dead horse, just to see the look on a colleague’s face.

All we can know for sure is that this is another cautionary tale.

And it came in the week that we lost one of the founding fathers of modern banter, Ian St John. Indeed, you could argue that banter only became a dangerous force from the moment the Saint stopped supervising it, when Saint and Greavsie was dropped.

It was a magnificent programme, first and foremost, two of the great footballers combining beautifully for a good-humoured synopsis of the week that was worth a trip to the roof to shift the ‘snow’ from an elusive ITV signal.

Looking back at it now under today’s standards, no doubt Greavsie strayed just offside, on occasion, in the name of banter. No wonder, since he was ad-libbing blindly while the Saint operated the autocue.

But the two lads were never given a retrospective cancelling, because everyone accepts that it all came from the right place, and that football was certainly paid due care and love and respect.

Even Trump came through his cameo on the show without disgracing himself. Though naturally he sold himself as a big soccer man, probably the biggest soccer man of all.

Mostly, there was a gentleness about the humour. “Altobelli came in for the Italians, Jim.” Jimmy patting his midriff: “That’s what my kids call me, Alto-belly.”

That’s all it would take to incapacitate the Saint with mirth. And in many ways, his helpless chortling, his genuine amusement at his old pal, was the true star of the show.

How much bad television has been made since in an attempt to replicate the look on the Saint’s face?

Soccer Saturday, in its pomp, probably did most to keep the spirit of Saint and Greavsie alive. The Saint revealed last year that he managed a young Chris Kamara at Portsmouth. “Very enthusiastic kid, liked a laugh. He’d have done well working with me and Jimmy.”

You can easily picture him giggling away at every “Unbelievable, Jeff”, the successor to “It’s a funny old game”.

In contrast, Soccer AM hasn’t been the most reliable custodian of that spirit. Over the years there was a harsh sneeriness to the bantz that didn’t always portray a true love of the game.

Maybe it’s down to seeing it now through the eyes of kids not much younger than I was when first watching Saint And Greavsie, but has there been a noticeable shift in recent times?

In Jimmy Bullard, they don’t have one of the greatest players of all time, like Jimmy Greaves was. They don’t even have one of the great entertainers, his banter delivery invariably a little forced and strained.

But he’s an enthusiastic kid, of 40-odd, who likes a laugh. And you have to think it’s down to Jimmy that they always seem to be out the back these days, kicking a ball.

This week, Frank Bruno paid kind tribute to the Saint, recalling the fun of his regular turns on the show. Last Saturday Frank was on Soccer AM, nailing his crossbar challenge at the first attempt and celebrating with an extravagant dance. There was something beautiful about that too.

And at the end, Bullard duly delivered his catchphrase that the Saint would certainly agree with: “Football’s always the winner.”

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