Part Seven: “You’ve Obviously Heard There’s a Match On”

By Steve Williams

First published September 2007

By 1988, football had successfully reinvented itself from a sport shown 95% of the time as highlights to one that existed almost entirely in two forms – the whole 90 minutes screened live, or five-second goal clips on the news. Although fans of all but the biggest clubs expressed dismay at the lack of opportunities to see their teams in any great depth, this rather radical revamp of the way soccer was presented had proven successful enough to banish the worst memories of the game’s mid-’80s nadir.

However, if the way the sport was televised had changed massively, the way it was bought by the television channels was unaltered since the 1960s. Anyone who wanted to buy the rights to the Football League had to buy the whole thing; all 92 clubs from Arsenal to York City. Clearly, most of these clubs would never appear on television, but the way the League worked meant that each was given an identical amount of cash from the TV revenue.

As author Gary Whannel pointed out during 1985′s contractual dispute, “A major problem for football is that even though the overall money offered may be high, it is conventionally divided equally … while £40,000-odd per year may be a windfall to the untelevised Torquay, the Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds regard it as a pretty meagre return for their extensive television exposure. There are persistent rumours that many big clubs now favour a breakaway super-league, which could be far more lucrative for them. Indeed, it is precisely this tension within the sport that will be heightened by a BBC/ITV offer to negotiate a separate payment for each match.”

Of course, the fact that the BBC and ITV continued to bid together meant there was still nowhere else to go, after the Telejector deal in 1983 fell through – hence the almost derisory £6.2 million two-year deal that was finally agreed in 1986. However, when the rights were negotiated two years later, there was a new face on the scene.

British Satellite Broadcasting had been awarded the franchise to bring satellite television to the nation’s screens, and time was spent working out exactly what programming would get the nation nailing Squarials to their walls. It would be hard to imagine anyone getting very excited about simply an extra-terrestrial version of BBC1, so exclusive content was required. Multi-million pound deals with the major Hollywood film studios to get their movies sooner than ever was one obvious answer. Another was exclusive live football, and so the new company offered nine million pounds a year, for 10 years, for exclusive rights to the Football League.

For a while, the League looked certain to accept this offer. The BBC and ITV were stumping up with much less, and the BSB deal also provided the sort of exclusivity the League was after, offering matches for viewers prepared to pay a premium rather than making them available to all for free and thus potentially meaning nobody would go to the grounds.

However, one man had other ideas. Greg Dyke had already made waves in the TV industry as editor-of-chief of TV-am, where he’d managed to save the fledgling company from almost certain oblivion. Now he was Director of Programmes at LWT, and with that position came the job of Chairman of ITV Sport. Dyke made headlines when he arrived in the position by scrapping many of the traditional ITV sports such as wrestling and darts (with their loyal but declining and ageing audiences) and instead concentrating on sports more likely to attract upmarket male viewers their advertisers couldn’t get enough of, like boxing, athletics and, of course, football. The mantra was now quality rather than quantity.

Dyke saw that, if the BSB deal went through, ITV’s screens would be devoid of almost all worthwhile football, and so radical action was needed. His deputy, Trevor East, former host of ATV’s Star Soccer and – incredibly – Tiswas, introduced Dyke to Arsenal’s chairman David Dein, and as Dyke said, “I wanted to pinch the football rights from BSB’s grasp and he might be able to deliver them. He in turn wanted more money for his club and the other big clubs and I could afford to pay it.”

Dyke immediately endeared himself to Dein by saying he thought the BBC and ITV had previously worked as a cartel to keep prices for football artificially low. Eventually, an idea was worked out. “We would go direct to the big five clubs of the day – Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Everton – and offer them a minimum of a million pounds a year each for the exclusive right to broadcast their home matches. This was massively more than any of them had received in the past. The Football League could sell the rest of the First Division matches to whomever they wanted, but of course without the big clubs’ home games, they were worth much less.”

It was a major change in the way the sport was perceived. Previously, the league was considered all important, and each individual match meant nothing on its own. Dyke’s approach went against all this and considered what the television audience wanted was to see the big names and the top teams live, and while it might be nice to know that the likes of Rochdale and Scunthorpe were still going, anyone with any real interest in Fourth Division teams would go to the ground.

With the “Big Five” all on side, Dyke extended an invitation to a quintet of other top flight clubs – Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and West Ham – to join the deal and offer ITV exclusive rights to their home games too, for a smaller amount (though still much larger than anything they’d previously received). All signed up in principle, and so the Football League was now faced with a rebellion, with the top 10 clubs in the country threatening to go their own way. Eventually, the organisation opened up negotiations with ITV, and sure enough the third channel won the rights to the entire league at a cost of 11 million pounds a year. For this they’d show 21 live matches, as well as highlights from any other fixture in the league if they desired, plus the League Cup came free.

But where was the BBC in all this? Dyke claimed that, at the start of negotiations, he’d contacted Paul Fox, Managing Director of BBC Television, to offer him a role in proceedings and ensure football stayed on all viewers’ screens rather than just those who paid for BSB. However Fox declined to take part, claiming that some, as he saw it, anti-competitive behaviour wouldn’t endear them to the government while they were negotiating their charter renewal.

Instead, the BBC joined forces with BSB and bid for, and won, exclusive rights to the FA Cup and England matches. This meant that, for the first time in three decades, the two channels would not be going head to head on Cup Final Day, although the commercial channel were unlikely to lose too much sleep over it – they were always thrashed by the BBC in the ratings and the League deal offered guaranteed big clubs and big names most weeks, rather than the uncertainty of the cup draw.

The 1988/89 season brought about the biggest changes to televised football in many years. Rather than dividing up coverage between them, the BBC and ITV concentrated on matches from their specific deals. The BBC’s deal with BSB meant the Corporation would enjoy the lion’s share of the action from the FA Cup, including the first choice from every round, while the satellite broadcaster would gain exclusive live rights to England’s games at Wembley with the BBC showing highlights. Hence the season started with the BBC screening highlights of the Charity Shield although, unlike in previous years, it wasn’t shown live anywhere as BSB hadn’t started transmissions yet.

For the first few weeks of the season, things stayed much as they had in the recent past, with very little coverage at all. Although ITV had exclusive rights to the entire Football League, they decided not to screen any live matches until the clocks had gone back – aware the audiences on Sunday afternoons would be much bigger during the darker, colder winter months.

Finally, come October, live transmissions began most Sunday afternoons and continued throughout the winter. To mark the new deal came a new look to ITV’s coverage, as The Big Match became simply The Match. A new frontman was also installed, with Elton Welsby now the face of ITV’s football. Having spent 10 years fronting Granada’s coverage, Welsby had for the previous three years introduced the post-World of Sport results service, the imaginatively-named Results Service, for the ITV network and was now charged with hosting all the live games. Saint and Greavsie were still around with their Saturday afternoon preview and Brian Moore was in the commentary box most weeks, with other matches being covered by ex-BBC man Alan Parry, moving back to football after a few years exclusively covering athletics after existing ITV number two Martin Tyler defected to BSB.

The Match also promised numerous innovations, including extra cameras, players and managers being interviewed at half time and even shots from the changing rooms, but such grand plans failed to really translate into much on screen and coverage stayed pretty much as it was. One difference, though, was all the goals from the weekend’s top flight games being screened during half time, which was some service for fans of the First Division’s lesser lights, because, as desired, almost every live match involved one of the Big Five.

With regular announcements that the games were “live and exclusive, only on ITV”, The Match was always a programme that seemed to be tolerated rather than loved by football fans, especially as the amount of money lavished on the rights meant Welsby and the team were not too keen to point out that a dire goalless draw was anything other than thrilling, lest viewers switched off. Not all the teams were that enamoured at their presence either, Arsenal banning ITV cameras from Highbury for a time due to what the club thought was unfair coverage of a on-pitch fracas, while Ken Bates also refused to let them into Stamford Bridge to cover Chelsea.

Although ITV had the rights to screen highlights, by and large they decided not to bother, aware of the lack of interest shown in pre-recorded sport in recent years. However the regional ITV companies did occasionally show snippets of matches involving local clubs, with some regions such as Yorkshire launching regular weekly shows on Sunday afternoons. However the Leeds-based station always had to suffer from accusations of bias towards the Elland Road club, which reached a crescendo when Sheffield Wednesday won the League Cup in 1991. ITV decided to extend the coverage by 30 minutes to screen the celebrations, but Yorkshire, alone among the ITV regions, elected not to continue and cut it off to press on with the scheduled programme, War of the Monster Trucks – a title that was used for a Wednesday fanzine for many years.

Other regions decided to make use of their exclusive rights to screen brief highlights immediately after the final whistle on Saturday teatimes, but somewhat inevitably these programmes – normally just 10 minutes or so in duration – enjoyed less than sparkling production values, often suffering from extremely hasty editing, and screened at a time when nobody who had actually been at a match could see them.

In FA Cup weekends, coverage reverted to the BBC. Of course, the big clubs didn’t enter the cup until the third round in January, so for the first two, John Motson and Barry Davies found themselves in unlikely settings such as Enfield and Kettering on the look out for giant killings. There was also a new presenter here, too, as after 15 years Jimmy Hill relinquished the frontman’s seat to become purely an analyst again, with hosting duties now handed to Des Lynam.

Lynam’s first appearances on the programme had come a decade before, during his early days on BBC Television, when he’d filled in for Bob Wilson on the round-ups and worked as a commentator on a few occasions. His first such appearance came on a match between Bristol City and Wolves in 1979 which was edited down to four minutes, leading to, as he put it, “a very repetitive Lynam”. After the 1982 World Cup, he gave up commentating and started to establish himself as an anchor, taking over from Frank Bough in the Grandstand hotseat and, with his engaging, unflappable manner, soon making himself the first choice for all the major sporting events.

As Match of the Day was now only an occasional series, it was felt Des could combine hosting it with his weekly role on Grandstand, and for his first programme, in November, he drew attention to its rare appearance in the schedules by starting the show, “Come on, you know it! Course you do! Altogether now, one, two, three …”, before the familiar theme played.

Des Lynam also fronted the programme on Saturday 15 April 1989, which covered the horrendous events of the Hillsborough disaster. Lynam was then asked to commentate on the memorial service at Liverpool Cathedral, an occasion he found so overwhelming that he barely uttered a word. He was convinced the production team would be extremely annoyed, but in fact it was felt that his subdued approach was perfect for the event. By this point it was clear his unique style had made him the consummate live television presenter.

One other effect of the disaster was the fixture list had to be completely ripped up, with Liverpool not playing again for three weeks after the event. Several league games had to be rescheduled, with their home match against Arsenal moved to the Friday night following the FA Cup Final. As fate would have it, by the time the match was played, Liverpool had won the Cup and were huge favourites to claim the league, yet Arsenal could still win it if they beat Liverpool by two goals.

ITV covered the game live, and with 30 seconds to go Arsenal were winning 1-0 – not enough. Yet then, as Brian Moore hollered “It’s up for grabs now!”, Arsenal’s Michael Thomas scored with virtually the last kick of the game and handed the title to his team. The cameras caught it all, 11 million people watched, Greg Dyke had justified the cost of the deal and, for better or for worse, football had become a major part of the entertainment industry.

This was emphasised even further the following year when the World Cup in Italy came around. Lynam was installed as main frontman for the tournament on the BBC, and made an immediate impact by suggesting the Corporation use the music of Pavarotti as their theme. This was something rather out of the ordinary, as vocal tracks had never been used in such a context, but editor Brian Barwick’s choice of Nessun Dorma worked spectacularly well, with the recording reaching number two in the charts and making the tenor a genuine superstar in the UK. It also appealed to a whole new audience who previously had no interest in football on TV.

England’s World Cup campaign got off to a poor start with dull draws against the Republic of Ireland and Holland, but they soon improved and pretty soon massive audiences were tuning in to the TV coverage. The BBC and ITV had, as was traditional, shared out the matches equally, but as the England bandwagon started to gather speed, both broadcasters were eager to make the most of it and ripped up the schedules to televise as many live matches as they could. Gazza, Lineker and the rest had made football a big box office draw again.

This all meant increased exposure for Lynam, and his reputation as the ultimate television professional was sown here. However the tournament was not altogether a happy time for him, thanks to one incident. After the opening rounds from London, it was decided to send Lynam off to Italy to front some of the matches from the grounds, which he was unsure about, saying, “ITV had gone down this road with all their broadcasts from Italy, and it has certainly not improved their coverage.” This was true enough, with Elton Welsby often seen drenched, with his finger crammed in his ear, shouting questions at his guests while being jostled by the crowd.

Regardless, Lynam arrived in Naples to introduce the quarter final between England and Cameroon, which turned out to be a particularly fraught production, with the host constantly being asked to move position and only being able to hear intermittent prompts from his producers. Hence, when he came to speak, he suddenly found himself at a complete loss for words, and ended up admitting, “I’m so sorry, I’m forgetting what I’m saying”. This sort of drying was common enough in television, and only lasted a few seconds, but Lynam had proven such a professional it was a major surprise. He was completely thrown by the moment, later claiming, “I was shaking with disbelief that this could have happened to me”, and that it wasn’t until he’d successfully presented the 1994 World Cup he felt he’d exorcised his demons.

Still, safely back in the studio, Lynam was totally in control, keeping the debate between regular panellists Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables flowing and coming out with just the right line at just the right moment. When asked to announce the entry details for the Goal of the Tournament competition, he informed viewers, “Phone 0898 111190 and if a lady called Mandy answers … you’ve got the wrong number.” He welcomed viewers to coverage of England’s massive semi-final against Germany by saying, “You’ve obviously heard there’s a match on”, and after their epic defeat on penalties, advised them “If you’re going to have a drink tonight, do it with pride and not with aggression.”

Lyam’s performance and Gazza’s tears went together at, you could argue, the exact moment English football finally said goodbye to the bad old days. Almost everyone could name the National squad’s players, confirmed soccerphobes were watching and enjoying the matches and ratings proved little could beat a big fixture as a moment of TV drama. With the ban on English clubs in Europe being lifted, the future looked bright … and increasingly profitable.

<Part Six