American VAR expert Christina Unkel gives ITV edge over BBC at Euro 2024

<span>Former referee Christina Unkel has been a refreshing presence on ITV for the Euro 2024 coverage. </span><span>Photograph: Christina Unkel</span>
Former referee Christina Unkel has been a refreshing presence on ITV for the Euro 2024 coverage. Photograph: Christina Unkel

As the rights-holder not tied to their regular set of white-soled Match of the Day pundits, ITV has made significant recent gains on the BBC for tournament coverage in being able to call up some big guns. Saturday lunchtime’s Trooping The Colour had also meant the baton was ITV’s for Euro 2024’s first three matches.

Inform, entertain, hope the football is actually good and don’t hit the “let’s go off to the England camp” button too early? That was the formula, once opening idents revealed these Euros are jointly sponsored by Qatar Airways and Lidl to remind where much of football’s power lies and of the cost-of-living crisis.

Opening night saw an alpha-male lineup: Graeme Souness, Roy Keane and Ian Wright as Scotland were given a William Wallace-like disembowelment by Germany. Mark Pougatch, less high performance more eternal head-boy, oversaw proceedings in his brisk, sunny fashion. Wright is these days a nation’s favourite uncle but still possesses the kinetic energy to stop Keane going off at the deep end. Still, so poor were Scotland that Wrighty and Souness could only nod approvingly as Roy hit the Keane-isms. “Being aggressive is part of football,” he squawked. Souey couldn’t have put it better himself.

The Friday night innovation was Christina Unkel, imported from CBS as video assistant referee expert. An initial communication breakdown with Sam Matterface was solved – Unkel would suffer a similar glitch with Seb Hutchinson on Saturday – but when the lines are working, her delivery is authoritative. A Stateside accent offers a passing resemblance to an AI bot yet far more humanity – and sense – than either Peter Walton’s adenoidal officiousness or Mike Dean’s matey ramblings ever have.

Much ITV weight is placed in the cult of Ally McCoist but if he kept up his boyish co-comms enthusiasm while Germany paggered Scotland, by the time of a continental breakfast staged ahead of Saturday curtain-raiser Switzerland v Hungary, even Coisty’s clinical elation appeared cured. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he protested. “I’m really disappointed …”

For ITV’s final part in their trilogy, Spain defeat of Croatia, their punditry team was replete with Overlap funhouse regulars: Wrighty and Roy, Gary Neville dropping into that Ray Liotta to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas relationship he shares he with Keane, unable to control laughter when Roy goes off one one, forever wary things can go postal. That Wright was able to hold himself together in discussing the death of former strike partner Kevin Campbell was remarkable. “It’s too raw,” he told Pougatch.

A poignant and necessary moment was relieved by a visit to the England camp, Gabriel Clarke’s breathy, thespian tones taking over, a segment followed by Keane’s ready dismissal of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s midfield credentials. “He’ll be ripped to shreds by top teams,” cussed Roy. Meanwhile, in Berlin’s Olympiastadion, Hutchinson, a breakout star of the Qatar 2022 was being accompanied by Lee Dixon, a man never knowingly impressed by anything.

That left the floor open for the BBC’s bow, barring a Friday highlights package where a chilly David Moyes bemoaned Caledonian failings with Alex Scott offering sympathetic noises. After the BBC’s opening titles of a techie pinball game, inferior to ITV’s use of 80s Euro-schlock hit Never Ending Story over a cartoon fable that recalls Ralph Bakshi’s attempt at Lord of the Rings, in came Gary Lineker and co, badly mic-ed up at the Brandenburg Gate and clad in the open-necked, pastel shirts that once led Mark E Smith to compare MOTD’s main men to a bunch of off-duty policemen.

Cesc Fàbregas joined another commercial podcast trio in Lineker, a gruff-voiced Alan Shearer and Micah Richards to let the guffaws begin, after, like Wrighty’s lament for Campbell, Lineker and Shearer were genuinely distraught in wishing their best to stricken former colleague Alan Hansen.

Italy’s defeat of Albania included the One Show’s Jermaine Jenas advocating stewards wearing studs to stop pitch invaders and Micah Richards revealing an unlikely DM bromance with Alessandro Bastoni. That left Gary to sign off with some England-centric badinage: “Spain have won, Italy have won, Germany have won, you know who’s playing tomorrow.” So far, so familiar, both teams playing tried and tested formations but ITV taking full advantage of their head start.