Part Three: “Goals Pay the Rent”

By Steve Williams

First published May 2007

Most football fans could probably recite for you a couple of lines of commentary relating to their favourite moments – Brian Moore, for example, said that Arsenal-supporting taxi drivers were forever quoting his, “It’s up for grabs now!” commentary, said as the Gunners clinched the title in 1989. Many famous commentary lines have passed into popular parlance, but for those of a certain age, the most memorable and evocative is probably the most simple – “One-nil!”, as shouted by David Coleman.

It’s an exceptional commentator who can make a catchphrase out of such a simple line, but then Coleman’s career was, to quote his other famous expression, quite remarkable. A keen amateur runner in his time, he was already editor of the Wilmslow Alderley Express in his home county of Cheshire by the time he was 23, on one occasion attending a Stockport County reserves match to report on it and ending up playing due to a lack of numbers. He first arrived at the BBC in 1953, at the age of 26, initially as a news reporter, but sport was always his main interest and by 1958 he took over the new Saturday afternoon strand, Grandstand, on its second edition.

At this point, the show was not only a showcase for the day’s sporting action, but also home to anything else the BBC’s Outside Broadcast cameras had happened to capture. Hence Coleman found himself interviewing The Beatles on their triumphant return from America (“I hear you were whispering things to Harry Carpenter in the training camp, Paul?”) or introducing “a little of the theme music from the film we’re showing at about 3.30pm, a film often described as the greatest western ever made, High Noon“.

However Coleman’s most acclaimed role came at the end of each week’s programme, where the football results would start flying in on the teleprinter, and it was up to him to pass comment on each scoreline. As Frank Bough, who would later replace him in the big chair, pointed out, “Coleman was the only one who could tell you that win had put Arsenal on top of Division One on goal difference, or that was East Fife’s first score draw in 19 consecutive games. Nobody does the teleprinter like him.”

Coleman was also unique among Grandstand‘s subsequent presenters in that he would often not only introduce the programme, but also commentate on the main event as well. Athletics was his favoured sport at the time, and at the 1968 Olympics he was recorded as speaking at 200 words per minute when David Hemery won his gold medal. By the mid-’60s, however, he was looking for a new challenge.

These itchy feet coincided with a move to freshen up the BBC’s football coverage. Kenneth Wolstenholme was still the Corporation’s main man, but Coleman was eager to get more involved with football on a regular basis. He presented and commentated on his first edition of Match of the Day in September 1967, and did a couple more programmes that season, but in 1968 he stepped aside on Grandstand to make way for Frank Bough – while still arranging to return for the big events such as the Grand National – and took over as the host of Match of the Day full-time.

Initially the show continued much as it had before, bar the occasional move over to BBC2 to allow it to be screened in colour. However Coleman’s arrival coincided with ITV’s first real attempt to challenge the BBC’s stranglehold on football audiences, with The Big Match on LWT and its regional equivalents across the country. Almost all viewers now had the choice of two programmes at the weekend covering that week’s football output. The competition began in earnest.

One great advantage ITV had over the BBC was its regional structure. By the end of the 1960s, seven of their component companies – LWT, Granada, ATV, Yorkshire, Tyne Tees, Anglia and Scottish – were covering a league match in their regions more or less every weekend, with the smaller regions also taking the opportunity to report on their local teams, dependent on the fixture list. This meant ITV had much more flexibility and many more games to choose from, so if, for example, the match LWT had chosen to broadcast that week turned out to be a dire goalless draw, they could supplement it with an exciting encounter from the Midlands or North East.

Meanwhile, if the BBC had stumbled across a damp squib, they were more or less stuck with it. So, from the start of the 1969-70 season, Match of the Day underwent a revolution. They decided to take advantage of the BBC’s regional outposts to produce a new programme where one game would be screened nationally, before each region split away for highlights from another match of local interest.

This was a major expansion in the BBC’s football coverage – whereas before they had cameras at just one fixture each weekend, they now had them at seven. It also meant a change in the format of Match of the Day, which after five seasons was no longer pre-recorded from the ground of that week’s game. Instead Coleman linked everything live from a studio in Television Centre, with much more scope to cover breaking news and react to the rest of the day’s football programme.

The downside of this new arrangement was production of the programme became rather more frantic. Coleman would present the show, but had normally been commentating that afternoon and so often arrived in the studio with seconds to spare. Producer John Shrewsbury said, “David used to turn up about three minutes before transmission, rattle off the opening link, wait until they were in VT then go off to his dressing room and just come back for the next link.”

In addition, the regional contributions often lacked the finesse of the network offering, with technical problems abounding. Each area was expected to opt out for precisely 10 minutes to screen their local match, but some were less conscientious than others and massively over- or underran most weeks.

The new format also meant Match of the Day was now in the market for many more commentators. The days of Kenneth Wolstenholme covering 95% of all televised football were long gone. He was still at the BBC, and still commentated on a match most weekends, while Barry Davies arrived from Granada in 1969 to join the team. Yet with the 1970 World Cup on the horizon, there was still a vacancy open.

The BBC decided to find this new voice in the most public way possible – by running a competition on Sportsnight, with the most promising commentator getting a full-time contract, and flying out to Mexico to join Coleman, Wolstenholme and the rest in bringing the World Cup to British viewers.

10,000 would-be commentators entered the contest, with the final six travelling to Wembley to record coverage of an England vs Wales match. They were then marked on such things as player identification, voice, use of language and presentational flair by a distinguished panel including England manager Sir Alf Ramsey, Manchester City’s Tony Book and Sports Minister Denis Howell.

The lucky half-dozen all managed to make inroads into the world of broadcasting, including Radio One DJ Ed Stewart, long-serving BBC Radio correspondent Tony Adamson and broadcaster Larry Canning. Gerry Harrison failed to convince the BBC panel, but did catch the ear of Anglia TV who decided to hire him instead, and ended up going to Mexico to commentate for the ITV network. The final decision, however, was between former Liverpool star Ian St John and Idwal Robling, a sales manager for a packaging company. Alf Ramsey had the casting vote, and plumped for Robling, although as a consolation St John was hired as a pundit for the tournament.

Robling did indeed commentate on the World Cup, but never quite made it to the top level, and though he remained at the BBC for over a decade, he spent most of that time reporting on the likes of Swansea and Wrexham for BBC Wales. In any case, Robling’s debut wasn’t the most notable aspect of Mexico 70 on the BBC, as two of the BBC’s biggest names battled it out for broadcasting supremacy.

By now, David Coleman was the Corporation’s number one commentator, and therefore selected to work on all of England’s matches in the tournament. However, Wolstenholme’s contract stated that he would be the BBC’s commentator on the World Cup Final, which meant a legal row blew up over who would actually get the gig should England reach the final stage. This reached such an impasse Radio Times couldn’t name who’d be covering the big match. Perhaps fortunately, Peter Bonetti and Franz Beckenbauer ensured England didn’t reach the final, so it was Wolstenholme who got the plum job of describing Brazil’s “sheer delightful football”.

Wolstenholme left the BBC after the following season, meaning Coleman was now the undisputed number one. Wolstenholme’s final season, 1970-71, saw further changes to the Match of the Day format. Although the regional experiment had offered more flexibility, and had proven something of a success, it was really more trouble than it was worth. Instead, a simpler format was pioneered, with highlights from two matches screened nationwide. Another obvious change was the junking or the now rather archaic-sounding theme tune, Arnold Stock’s Drum Majorette, in favour of a more modern piece specially composed by Barry Stoller – one which is still being used nearly 40 years on.

With Wolstenholme gone – replaced in 1971 by a rookie radio commentator on trial called John Motson – Coleman was now the man behind the mike for the FA Cup Final, which was still one of the few matches allowed to be shown live on television. His first was the clash between Leeds and Arsenal in 1972, but perhaps his most famous came two years later, when Liverpool beat Newcastle 3-0, with Coleman announcing, “Goals pay the rent, and Keegan does his share”, before summing up proceedings with, “Keegan 2 Heighway 1, Liverpool 3, Newcastle none”. Almost everyone who worked with Coleman paid tribute to his almost minimalist approach to commentary. John Shrewsbury said, “David was probably the best sports broadcaster ever. He could crystallize what was going on in a single sentence. On his day he was the best ever.”

Coleman combined presenting and commentating for five years, but by 1973 moved to commentary full-time, as Jimmy Hill arrived from LWT to take over as presenter of Match of the Day. Alongside him was another former player hoping to make it into broadcasting. Former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson was hired by the BBC and, as well as introducing the lunchtime preview programme Football Focus, spent most Saturday nights alongside Hill, introducing a summary of what had happened in the day’s other matches where cameras weren’t present. This wasn’t perhaps the most thrilling piece of television, mostly involving a relentless procession of still photos and captions, but as the resources didn’t exist to film everything, it was the only way to do it.

With Hill and Wilson in front of the camera, and Coleman behind it, the BBC had a settled line-up in place, and one with enough personality and experience to take on its more glamorous ITV rivals. Indeed, while ITV attempted to recreate its winning formula from four years earlier for the 1974 World Cup, they suffered from the lack of Hill’s personality, and the status quo was restored when the BBC beat them in all the head-to-heads. The 1974 tournament was of less appeal to the mass audience, as England had failed to qualify, but it was still a massive television event. The limitations on live matches didn’t apply here, so viewers could see more live football in one day than they could for the rest of the year.

In fact, there was remarkably little change to the Match of the Day format throughout the 1970s – Hill and Wilson introducing two league matches, week in, week out. That was until 1976, when Coleman felt that, much as Wolstenholme had been pushed down the pecking order as his star shone brighter, so he too was being passed over in favour of younger names like John Motson and Barry Davies. He therefore decided to sue the BBC, and the resultant legal action kept him off the screen for over a year, with Motson taking over as Cup Final commentator in 1977.

Despite an inevitable approach from ITV, the dispute was settled by “amicable discussion”, and Coleman returned in early 1978, but he began to move away from football commentary. His final Cup Final came that year, and afterwards he moved back towards front-of-camera work – back in the Grandstand hotseat on a regular basis – and athletics commentary, covering his final football match in 1981. It certainly wasn’t the end of his television career, however, as he spent another two decades at the BBC before retiring in 2000.

Although David Coleman’s spell as the BBC’s main football commentator was actually fairly brief, it coincided with what many consider to be the greatest period for British football, with thirty- and fortysomethings nostalgically looking back at a time of muddy pitches and Charlie George. And if you weren’t allowed to stay up late on Saturday night, there was always Sunday afternoon …

<Part Two