Part Four: “Sunderland are in the Stripes”

By Steve Williams

First published June 2007

In 1974, a journalist named Martin Tyler compiled Marshall Cavendish’s Book of Football, where he opined that there was too much soccer on television. Meanwhile, Points of View constantly reported in the 1970s that the largest number of complaints from viewers concerned the extensive coverage of the sport. How much was too much? In an average week in the mid-’70s, you could probably enjoy a grand total of three hours across all channels.

From a modern perspective, it seems bizarre to think that not only was there so little football on television, but that which actually appeared was shared equally between two channels. All worthwhile soccer – the Football League, the FA Cup, the League Cup, England matches – were carved up between the BBC and ITV, who faithfully took it in turns to cover a World Cup qualifier or have first dibs on the weekend’s fixtures throughout the entire 1970s.

The face and voice of ITV football during the decade was undoubtedly Brian Moore. Having attended the same school in Kent as fellow commentators Peter West and Barry Davies, he first went into sports journalism via newspapers, reporting on football for The Times, before joining BBC Radio in the early 1960s. By 1966 he was the Beeb’s senior man and was in the commentary team for the World Cup Final – though he was deprived of continual repeats in later years because BBC Radio – as now – swapped commentators midway through each half, and Moore’s colleague Alan Clarke was on the mike when Geoff Hurst completed his hat trick.

Moore was happy enough at the BBC before he was headhunted by Jimmy Hill in 1968, looking for a commentator for London Weekend Television’s imminent sports output. Yet he wasn’t hired simply for his voice, he was also installed as the main presenter of The Big Match, despite his Bobby Charlton-esque combover.

For a decade, the pundit’s weekends always kept a broadly similar pattern from August to May. On Saturday lunchtime he would introduce preview programme On the Ball as part of World of Sport. This was initially presented at the ground from which Moore would be commentating later that day, but there was little chance of any build-up to The Big Match‘s main attraction.

As Moore pointed out, “In those days we were not allowed by the Football League to give even the slightest hint of where our cameras were operating for the Sunday afternoon highlights show. It was considered that any sharp-eyed viewers identifying the ground at lunchtime would not bother to go to the match because they knew they could watch it the next afternoon. So much for the Football League’s faith in their own product.

“So every Saturday it used to be operation cover-up. The cameras to which I worked would be strategically placed so that the background would be totally anonymous.”

In addition to the logistical problems of presenting a programme from a supposed secret location, Moore also had to host the show outdoors whatever the weather, whether it was heavy snow or torrential rain. Fortunately, after a few seasons, grimy authenticity was swapped for slightly more professionalism, and he switched to fronting On the Ball from LWT’s studios, departing for the match straight after the show.

Come 3pm, Moore would commentate on whatever London match came under the camera’s gaze that weekend. Even safely up in the gantry, however, he was still required to multiskill and keep his wits about him, as when a goal was scored he was required to commentate on the action replay without actually seeing it, as this was added back in the studio after the match had finished.

Come Sunday, Moore would introduce highlights of that game on The Big Match at around 2pm. After Jimmy Hill departed to the BBC in 1973, the programme didn’t replace the analyst and from then on Moore would be the show’s sole frontman. There was still plenty to entertain, however, with regular special guests, from Bobby Moore to Freddie Starr, along with silly clips from football around the world and a regular delve into the postbag. There was also scope for the occasional experiment, most notably the trial of something dubbed “Total Soccer Action”, where that week’s match was edited to remove all stoppages in play, with the aim of creating a more exciting end product, but which was abandoned after one week thanks to a negative response from viewers.

The Big Match was a hugely popular series but, as Jimmy Hill’s taxi drivers continually reminded him, one that wasn’t nationally networked. Instead, ITV’s football coverage took advantage of the broadcasters’ regional structure, with each individual company filling the traditional Sunday afternoon slot as they saw fit. Alas some of the smaller stations, such as Westward and Channel, had neither the resources or the league clubs to justify a regular football programme themselves, so usually just simulcast The Big Match – despite its obvious London bias. Indeed, the capital’s match always got top billing on The Big Match, leading to Moore introducing the show in December 1978 by announcing, “Don’t worry, we will be showing that very special match between Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion [which ended 5-3 to West Brom]. But first, Arsenal vs Birmingham City,” and linking into the Gunners’ uninspiring one-nil win.

The larger ITV regions, however, produced Big Match-esque programmes of their own, with a league fixture on their own patch taking priority. Most weeks, Granada, ATV, Yorkshire, Tyne Tees and Anglia would run their own show, while some of the other stations, such as HTV and Southern, might also cover local encounters if the fixture list threw up a particularly attractive tie. Scottish Television also had their own programme, but of course this was arranged via the Scottish Football League and different rules applied.

Hence, football fans across the country enjoyed their local teams with their own equivalent of Brian Moore. Viewers in the Midlands were treated to ATV’s Star Soccer, initially introduced by former Wolves legend Billy Wright, and with Hugh Johns as commentator. Johns had previously worked with ATV when it covered London at the weekends before the 1968 franchise reallocation, and was the ITV network’s commentator for the 1966 World Cup Final (“He has! He has!”) before moving to Birmingham when ATV took over Central England seven days a week. With a massive amount of clubs in the Midlands – many of which were in the top flight in the ’70s – ATV had a tough job pleasing all fans who could only count on their team appearing a couple of times a season, and viewers in the East Midlands regularly complained there was a bias towards clubs from the West of the region – despite hosts Trevor East and Gary Newbon supporting Derby and Leicester respectively.

In the North West, Sunday afternoon football came from The Kick Off Match – named after the “brand” for all their soccer output which also included a Friday teatime preview. When regular weekly regional coverage began in 1968, Granada’s main commentator was Barry Davies, but, following his move to the BBC a year later, the refined, bespectacled Gerald Sinstadt arrived from Anglia, as both presenter and commentator. The biggest issue Granada had to deal with was dividing time equally between the two Manchester and two Merseyside giants, as well as giving clubs lower down the league a fair crack of the whip.

Yorkshire’s Football Special saw a particularly frantic turnover of presenters and commentators. Fred Dinenage could often be found in the host’s chair, while commentaries initially came from Keith Macklin. When he decided to move on in the mid-’70s, an up and coming Martin Tyler took over, joining from Southern Television where he’d begun his television career – clearly having changed his tune since he wrote that book – on their ad-hoc coverage of league and cup matches. Derek Dougan was Yorkshire’s regular analyst, the only one on the network after Jimmy Hill defected to the BBC, despite having never played for or managed a Yorkshire club.

Anglia had been the first ITV company to broadcast regular weekly football in 1962, and despite their small size and the limited number of league clubs in their region, continued to broadcast most weekends. In the ’70s their programme went under the familiar name of Match of the Week, and vocal duties were taken on by Gerry Harrison, snapped up by Anglia after he had failed to win the BBC’s commentator competition.

Tyne Tees named their programme Shoot!, although it failed to live up to this dynamic name, being by far the homeliest on the entire network. Up until the mid-’70s, the network only owned one outside broadcast unit and so, if it was needed for anything else on the Saturday, they couldn’t cover football and would have to show The Big Match from London instead (as would any other region that, for whatever reason, couldn’t get to a local match), while slow motion replays were completely out of the question. This was the show that clung to the old format of linking everything from the ground for the longest time, not becoming studio-based until 1977 – though North East fans still speak fondly of a pleasingly shoestring show, with its affable host (and Head of Sport) George Taylor and commentaries from a slightly past-his-prime Kenneth Wolstenholme.

This regional system meant that, unlike the BBC who were stuck with the two matches they had covered even if they turned out to be dreadful goalless affairs, ITV generally had around six fixtures to choose from every weekend, and hopefully at least one of them might be fairly interesting. Every Saturday evening, Tyne Tees’ George Taylor would chair a conference via intercom of his colleagues across the network, who would describe the match they’d covered, and each region would choose two – preferably involving a local team playing away – to show brief highlights from on their own programmes. These would have to be carefully introduced by Brian Moore, or his regional equivalent, who would announce, “The pictures are from Tyne Tees, the commentator is Kenneth Wolstenholme, and Sunderland are in the stripes!” The last bit was very important as, lest we forget, a sizeable percentage of the audience were still watching in monochrome.

Of course, just as Match of the Day did not usually get to cover the best actual match of the day, there was no guarantee Anglia were showing us the match of the week, or that LWT’s offering was a genuinely big match. The Football League imposed stringent criteria to ensure the smaller teams were not completely ignored by television in favour of the big clubs. Therefore, as with Match of the Day, each region would have to cover a set number of lower division matches throughout the season. Every so often, Brian Moore would be forced to bypass Chelsea or Arsenal and go to Millwall or Gillingham, while Gerald Sinstadt would foresake Liverpool and Everton for Stockport and Bury.

The method for selecting games, meanwhile, seems utterly archaic, and in the 1970s was in the hands of ITV’s Gerry Loftus – their first TV commentator who had since moved into an executive position – and the BBC’s Sam Leitch, the Head of Football who until 1974 also presented “Football Preview”, the Grandstand segment looking towards that day’s games. In August they would toss a coin to decide who would have first pick for the month, before working their way through the fixture list. The only certainties in this period were that the BBC covered the Charity Shield and ITV the League Cup Final – which, unlike the FA Cup Final, wasn’t broadcast live and shown on a rare networked ITV highlights show the following afternoon.

The two companies would also carve up the midweek fixtures, back when football was almost exclusively played on either Saturdays or Wednesdays, with the BBC and ITV taking it in turns to show a cup replay, an England match or an English club’s latest tie in one of the European competitions. The BBC’s coverage became part of Sportsnight, while from 1978, ITV ran the Thames-produced Midweek Sports Special – as it was from the third week, the first two episodes being named First Division and Midweek Sport respectively while they worked out exactly what it was going to be called.

This was hosted, again, by Brian Moore, and meant that the top midweek game would generally be covered by the likes of Johns or Sinstadt. Indeed, somewhat uniquely for an established commentator, Moore was anchorman only for a number of big occasions, notably staying in the London studio for the duration of every World Cup between 1970 and 1982. The rest of the regional commentators covered the matches, HTV West’s Roger Malone even travelling to Mexico in 1970. That’s also why Moore missed the start of the 1972/73 season, as he was fronting ITV’s coverage of the Munich Olympics.

Such dignified divvying up of almost all major football between the two broadcasters seems a bizarre idea now, but it’s worth remembering that they were the only two in the ’70s, so where else were they going to go? Similarly, with the authorities only allowing a tiny fraction of what was actually played to be broadcast, there was little chance the two would tread on each other’s toes. That was until a cigar-chomping impresario got his feet under the desk at LWT and decided to shake things up …

<Part Three