When the Sky's the limit, there's always the rugby

I got so fed up with Sky messing me around, taking all my money, giving me so little, even though their coverage of football matches can be brilliant - far better than anyone else. But one can only take so much. One deserves respect, so I did something most unusual for me. I not only turned to another channel, I turned to another sport. That one with the funny-shaped ball, the big beefy blokes. Rugby, it's called. You must have seen it. Quite a lot of it around at present.

My complaints against Sky have all started since I went digital. The picture is better, but the interactive stuff is a nonsense, the tricksy stuff where you can call up replays and highlights and statistics. I never wanted that facility, so that doesn't really worry me.

What has upset me is that I'm now being asked to pay extra for things I got free before, such as Eurosport matches, and even for some of Sky's own football coverage. The other week we had a choice of two, Leeds and Newcastle in Europe. They were giving Leeds for free but I wanted Newcastle. When I tried to get it, it had to be paid for. What a swizz.

I used to be able to get German, French and Italian channels which usually had a football match, even if the commentary was in a funny language. Now I can't get them at all. Just boring cartoons and soppy films which I never wanted. I was paying £16 a month, pre-digital. Now I'm paying £25 - and getting less.

You're probably skipping all this if you haven't gone satellite. It's giving me a headache just thinking about it. That's why I switched to the rugby World Cup on ITV. Isn't it slow, rugby union? I played at school, once even for Carlisle in a Border Sevens at Galashiels, where they are currently playing some of the World Cup matches. They could have used my field, here in Lakeland. And got bigger crowds. I thought they would have improved the rules by now, got rid of those stupid scrums, those boring penalty kicks which take for ever. I reckon 40 per cent of every rugby match is stationary.

I do like the refs, though, ever so helpful, warning people when they are about to infringe, and so forbearing, allowing brutality to go unpunished. My sister, when she was seriously ill, took a passion for rugby on the telly. I think all the kicking and punching and deliberate stamping cheered her up.

South Africa look excellent, though I thought Scotland did jolly well. England against Italy was so one-sided I was nodding off. You never get that sort of one-sidedness in football, I was thinking, about to nod off again, when the mention of football in my thoughts made me think, OK, I'll give Sky football another chance.

Blow me. If I'd missed that Chelsea-Manchester United game I would never have forgiven myself. It was one of the most remarkable and unexpected games I have ever seen. Almost as one-sided as those early rugby games. Man Utd got well and truly stuffed. Chelsea deservedly won 5-0. Man Utd were two down before they had a man sent off, so they can't really blame that. Or can they?

We've had so many red cards this season, yet you can't predict what the effect will be. Like my sister, and most nasty, sneaky, brutish football fans, I do like a good punch-up. Always great fun, great entertainment, great to watch. It's like being at school when the cry goes up in the playground "Fight, fight, fight!" and everyone rushes in.

I also love it when the yellow card comes out, especially for the team I'm not supporting. That usually has a good effect on the game. It opens it up, as the player on one yellow has to be careful from then on.

But I don't like red cards. I suppose I should, having said I like to see a punch-up. Most punch-ups in football are laughable compared with rugby. Not just handbags at ten paces; more like fighting each other with feathers. That brawl between weedy little Jeffers of Everton, the one with the sticky-out ears, and the huge Liverpool goalie, was pure comedy.

So often the red card is a result of a second yellow for something piddling, like not getting back ten yards or giving lip. In theory, the team with ten men is now at a disadvantage, but we know that in practice the reverse often happens, galvanising them into playing better.

Whatever the outcome, and you can't predict it, I don't like it happening because the balance has gone, the plans and tactics of either side have to be reassessed and the game gets ruined. I think we should get a discount, as we've paid to see 11-a-side.

The team with 11 gets over-confident or frustrated, feeling they should be doing better. The ten men turn negative, shut up shop, unless they are already behind. This was the case with Man Utd. There was no point in them being negative. So it made for a great spectacle, especially for Chelsea fans. "We only won five-nil." They won't be singing that again at a Man Utd match, not in their lifetimes.

It was good for Man Utd, letting them see they are but mortals. They were getting a bit spoiled, rather petulant. It pointed up just how well they did last year, never coming a cropper. And also what an ace goalie Schmeichel was, someone whose consistency we had begun to take for granted.

It's also good for football. We don't want Man Utd or anyone getting too far ahead, not at this stage of the season.

So I am returning to the beautiful game, my number one love. But I might tune in to some more of the World Cup rugby. When I want to see a really good, really nasty, full-blooded punch-up . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children