Part Twelve: “The Channel That Brings You England Goals”

By Steve Williams

First published February 2008

If anyone summed up the improved image of English football by the 1990s, it was Gary Lineker. In the early ’80s, the Leicester striker was happily telling Shoot! magazine his choice of reading was the Daily Star and his ambition in life was to become a bookmaker – the sort of answers you’d have received from 99 percent of footballers at the time. Whenever he appeared on television, meanwhile, he was just as inarticulate and prone to cliché as the rest of his team mates.

However as time went on, Lineker reinvented himself as one of the great ambassadors for the game, helping it get over some tough times. Famously he was never booked throughout his entire career, and during a spell at Barcelona he confirmed himself as a rather more thoughtful individual by learning to speak Catalan. By the time he joined the BBC as a pundit for a brief spell in 1992 – before he went off to wind down his career in Japan – he was more at ease in the camera and had wittier and more interesting things to say, most famously attracting the ire of Wimbledon by suggesting one of their matches was so dull, “you’d have been better off watching it on Ceefax”.

On his return from the Far East, he immediately returned to the pundit’s chair on Match of the Day. However this was only to be a temporary engagement. His pleasing personality – as well as his undoubted appeal to female viewers – saw the BBC start to groom him as a future presenter. He began by combining his punditry work with fronting sports shows on BBC Radio, taking voice training to improve what he considered to be “an East Midlands monotone”. In 1996 he went to the Olympic Games in Atlanta and fronted some off-peak slots to give him a bit more experience, and by the start of the 1996-97 season, he was firmly installed as Des Lynam’s deputy (Bob Wilson’s old role) moving from the analyst’s chair to the host’s chair on Football Focus and standing in on Match of the Day on regular occasions.

Initially Lineker’s presentational style, though professional enough, was rather stiff and unexciting. However in his early months as host he did undergo one notable initiation. In April 1997, Des Lynam was as usual presenting Grandstand from the Grand National, with Linekar preparing to stand in for him on Match of the Day that evening and watching the day’s football at Television Centre. However, a bomb warning led to the race being cancelled and Aintree evacuated … and the plug being pulled on the outside broadcast. Lineker was therefore handed a tie and asked to fill in for the rest of the afternoon, where, with only a few fillers from the archive in support, he had to talk about a very confusing and delicate situation while knowing very little, before tackling the teleprinter. He later admitted he was terrified throughout, and laughed at his somewhat desperate attempts to fill time. But as a way to sharpen his still rather limited broadcasting skills, it was an extremely valuable training session.

However Lineker’s big triumph was not the most talked about sports broadcast of 1997. On 30 March, Channel 5 began broadcasting, aiming at a “modern and mainstream” audience who had plenty of money to burn on upmarket products. Sport was an obvious way at attracting viewers, although their tiny programming budget meant there was little chance of ever obtaining the rights to the likes of the Premier League or other long-running contracts. Instead it came in two forms – imports like baseball and ice hockey, which would run through the night, and sporting chat. The latter was Turnstyle, a rather shambolic live magazine show on Saturday mornings and which turned into a dull round-table debate on Sunday nights.

However if they couldn’t afford any long-term commitment to sport – and specifically football, the most obvious box office draw – they were able to invest in the odd one-off event that, as well as livening up Channel 5′s rather dull “stripped and stranded” schedules, would prompt a few million people to actually find and watch their network for possibly the first time ever. Hence, they bought up the rights to England’s World Cup qualifier in Poland, to be played on Saturday 31 May, and heavily hyped up their purchase, with the promotion running virtually non-stop for the channel’s first two months on air. The channel also purchased rights to the England rugby team’s match in Argentina on the same day, although as both kicked off at the same time, the rugby had to be shown on a delay after the football.

Of course, the purchase meant Channel 5 had to set up a sports presentation team from scratch. The existing Turnstyle line-up – GamesMaster host Dominik Diamond, model-turned-presenter Gail McKenna and radio broadcaster Jeremy Nicholas – were all to play a role, but the network wanted a more authoritative figure, a la Des Lynam, to be main anchor. In the event, rather inexplicably, they went for Channel 4 Racing presenter Brough Scott, not a man renowned for his football knowledge.

They also needed to find a commentator, and opted for Jonathan Pearce. Pearce worked for Capital Radio, and had become well-known – in London at least – for his energetic and raucous vocal style, which had seen him appear in dozens of adverts and TV shows whenever a generic excitable commentator was required. This was his first gig as a TV commentator, however, and his first in front of a national audience. In fact before then his most famous moment had been his introduction to England’s World Cup qualifier with San Marino, where the principality took the lead within 10 seconds, which summed up the creeping commercialisation of football – “Welcome to Bologna with Capital Gold to England vs San Marino, in association with Tennants Pilsner, brewed with Czechoslovakian yeast for that extra Pilsner taste, and England are one down!”

When the day finally arrived, Channel 5 went flat out. Kick-off was at 7pm but the coverage began at 4.30pm, to provide plenty of opportunity to hype up the match and, more importantly, Channel 5 and its programmes. Hence, the coverage was broadcast from a “sports bar”-esque set-up, filled with tables populated by various celebrities who, unsurprisingly, all had a C5 show to promote. Not only did the dozens of people swanning around tend to drown out Scott and his guests, but none had much to add to proceedings. As Giles Smith pointed out in The Daily Telegraph, “It seems to me that when a sports programme reaches the point where it is canvassing for an opinion someone who ‘used to be Scorpio in Gladiators’ (used to be) then it is no longer merely scraping the barrel; it is lying on it, flat on its back with its tongue hanging out.”

Pearce’s commentary debut also failed to impress, with Smith suggesting, “Pearce on the radio can be urgent and funny, but television is not an urgent medium”. What didn’t help was he’d clearly been told that describing what was going on in the match was of secondary importance to reminding viewers what channel they were watching. Hence when Alan Shearer scored, Pearce informed us we were privileged to be watching “the channel that brings you England goals” – a completely meaningless and idiotic statement.

Invariably, the coverage was heavily criticised (Giles Smith: “This was Channel 5′s first major sports purchase and I think we should organise a national whip-round so we can outbid them if they come near another”) but on the plus side for football fans, at least it wasn’t as bad as the following rugby match, which was without commentary for the opening 10 minutes, and then interrupted by adverts during the first half. Still, the channel didn’t really mind, as it had inevitably given them their highest ever audience – and one predominantly made up of the young men with disposable income advertisers were falling over themselves to reach.

Hence, from the following season – 1997/98 – Channel 5 decided to follow the ITV approach of a few years back and nab any football that hadn’t been nailed down. Invariably this meant European ties, still sold individually by the teams involved, and C5 signed deals with Chelsea, Arsenal and Aston Villa for their ties in the UEFA Cup and Cup Winners Cup. It’s notable, though, that after the farce of their first live match, Channel 5 decided to revert to much more conventional presentation, with a host – either Jeremy Nicholas or local news presenter Steve Scott – alone in the studio with one of two former footballers as guests. Jonathan Pearce was still involved, though, with the sporadic nature of their coverage meaning he could combine TV work with his day job at Capital, and he slowly but surely got used to letting the pictures do the talking.

None of C5′s matches were from the top drawer, but they normally pulled in a million or so viewers, which for the channel was just fine. Occasionally they’d stumble on something exciting, most obviously Chelsea’s unforgettable match against Tromso in Norway, which took place during a blizzard and had to be continually stopped to clear massive snowdrifts off the pitch. For some reason the referee refused to call the game off, despite the fact by the end of the match the viewers, the commentators and, presumably, most of the players could barely see what was going on.

If punters were unsure about Channel 5′s coverage, however, the BBC were particularly unimpressed with another broadcaster now bidding against them for football. The rise of Gary Lineker aside, the mid-’90s had proven to be tough times for BBC Sport, thanks to a question of money. As Will Wyatt, Managing Director of BBC Television, pointed out, “Between 1990 and 1997, [sports] contracts were to rise by between 10 and 17 per cent. From being one of the cheapest genres in cost per viewer hour, sport became much more expensive, with Match of the Day more expensive than drama series.”

With a duty to all licence fee payers, the BBC were unable to get into massive bidding wars for sports rights. In 1995, the rights for the FA Cup and the Premier League highlights came up for renewal at the same time and the BBC knew they probably wouldn’t be able to afford both. They decided the Premier League, thanks to its weekly presence in the schedule, was more important than the Cup, so made that their top priority. As Wyatt said, “We had a finite sum for football and so we were compelled to submit an FA Cup offer that we feared would lose and it did.”

Hence, from the 1997/98 season, the FA Cup was now live on Sky Sports and ITV. With it went the BBC’s regular live football, which meant, outside the major tournaments, almost all their output would be highlights. The only other available opportunities for live action – with live Premier League games out of the question, thanks to Sky’s bulging pockets – were the European ties, and now Channel 5 were sniffing around, even these were becoming tough to acquire.

For ITV, grabbing back the rights to the FA Cup and England matches for the first time in decade was good news – especially as it gave the commercial channel regular top-class football throughout the season. However, unlike the previous deal, where the BBC had always had first choice, Sky were now the lead partner and always had first dibs of the live tie in each round, with ITV getting second pick. At the same time, England matches stayed live on Sky with ITV only having highlights, while even the BBC retained the rights to Saturday night Cup highlights, meaning coverage of this competition was all over the place.

What this meant was ITV’s live Sunday afternoon FA Cup football was almost always of a rather second-rate nature. Indeed, during the four years of the contract, ITV were only able to show Manchester United – by some distance the biggest draw for the casual audience – exclusively live on just two occasions; as many times as they showed Tranmere Rovers and Wolves. It also didn’t help that the Old Trafford club pulled out of the competition completely in the 1999/2000 season after the FA requested they take part in the ill-fated World Club Championship instead, meaning ITV’s FA Cup coverage was not quite the coup it may have first appeared.

Far more successful for the channel was the Champions League. For the first few years, their coverage of the lucrative competition for Europe’s top teams had not been the triumph they were hoping for, as they watched England’s representatives – in various years Leeds, Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers – continually fall at the first hurdle. This was a major irritation, especially when UEFA demanded, from 1995/96, broadcasters covering the competition showed a live match from each round, regardless of whether their country’s teams were still in it. Attractive though the football played by the likes of Juventus, Real Madrid and Ajax may have been, having to reschedule Coronation Street to show them playing each other was unlikely to gain massive audiences for ITV.

Finally in 1996/97, Manchester United managed to make it through to the quarter finals, and from the following season, two British clubs were entered into the competition rather than one. However, with only one channel to play with, ITV could only show one of them on each match day, and much to the ire of fans of the other team, they would almost always choose Manchester United. Bob Wilson later said, “The reality is that when United are bring broadcast, they will attract a minimum of one million more viewers than any other club … Their Champions League qualifying games in the seasons when I was ITV’s main football presenter generally produced audience in excess of 10 million viewers. The later stages were watched by additional millions.”

These were heady times for ITV. In the 1998 World Cup, the way the bargaining between the BBC and ITV worked out meant the commercial channel had exclusive coverage of England’s second round match with Argentina, which pulled in an average audience of 23.7 million viewers – the network’s highest ratings ever.

This was some recovery from the despair of ITV’s World Cup coverage four years previously, when they were at their lowest ebb. However their broadcasts from France 98 were not without criticism. Bob Wilson and Jim Rosenthal fronted all ITV’s live matches from the grounds themselves, with the aim of getting closer to the action, although, as in 1990, often the presenters and pundits found themselves positioned under loudspeakers or between high-spirited fans, and hence the chat was somewhat uncomfortable. ITV made great play of poaching Ruud Gullit from the BBC, after he’d proven the star of their Euro 96 coverage, but the Dutchman’s unease with the English language meant, in the smaller gaps commercial TV provided, he could often barely get started before Bob Wilson had to cut him off.

Meanwhile, the BBC presented all their broadcasts from a studio in Paris. This was not, however, a repeat of the bad old days of Matthew Lorenzo’s Dallas dungeon. They were based right on the Champs Elysees, in the centre of Paris, with windows overlooking all the familiar sights of the city. This meant the BBC team could enjoy all the quality and familiarity of a studio while still bringing the visual splendour and sense of excitement of being there. The chat, marshalled by Des Lynam in the live matches and Gary Lineker on the highlights and magazine shows, was much more relaxed, with the likes of Robbie Williams dropping by and the panel of pundits feeling very much at home.

Indeed, for all the hype over Gullit, the undoubted star of this World Cup was a previously unheralded BBC signing, the Leicester City manager Martin O’Neill, whose passionate but quirky approach was hugely appealing – most famously during the appearance of Robbie when O’Neill decided to quiz him on his career and express a preference for Gary Barlow instead. When the broadcasters went head to head for the final, the Beeb, as usual, enjoyed the lion’s share of the audience.

However good the BBC’s productions were, they were at the mercy of the broadcaster being able to afford the rights. ITV now seemed to be the terrestrial broadcaster in the ascendancy, and they celebrated this revival in 1998 with the symbolic return of the Saturday lunchtime preview programme. Last known as Saint and Greavsie, this was axed in 1992 when they lost the rights to the top flight, but it was now felt they had enough material to justify its return. The old On the Ball brand name was dusted off, and Gabby Yorath was lured over from Sky Sports to present – making her the first woman to regularly host a TV football show.

To continue their stroke of luck, during 1998/99, Manchester United went all the way in the Champions League, bringing ITV bumper audiences for their quarter final against Inter Milan, their semi-final against Juventus, and, of course, the final itself – which was watched by 20 million people. Indeed, of the 20 most watched sports programmes in 1998/99, ITV had broadcast 16 of them, 15 of which were live football matches.

Back at the BBC, Des Lynam was watching ITV’s triumphs with some disappointment. He felt the Corporation was less committed to sport than he would have liked. Why, for example, were Channel 5, with their even smaller budgets, able to acquire the rights to live England matches and the BBC not? In addition, he thought the scheduling of Match of the Day left a lot to be desired, with the programme now regularly edging towards midnight. Indeed he made this point in a number of interviews, and eventually got a commitment from the BBC that the programme would now start no later than 10.30pm nine times out of 10.

Nevertheless, the lack of live football continually rankled with Lynam, who felt he was getting somewhat stale at the Corporation. Yet he was surprised when he was asked to meet with ITV’s newly installed Head of Sport, Brian Barwick, who had recently moved over from the BBC, and the channel’s Director of Programmes, David Liddiment. Lynam agreed to speak to them, although he no idea as to what they wanted to talk about. He was taken aback when they asked him to become the channel’s new football presenter.

It seemed that, despite their success, ITV still felt something was missing in their football coverage. After the retirement of Brian Moore in 1998, ITV’s football coverage didn’t really have much in the way of personality or authority – Bob Wilson was a perfectly adept presenter but was still less than sparkling in front of the camera. Lynam was told ITV were prepared to make him the highest paid presenter on the channel. Lynam would not be involved in the wide range of sports he enjoyed at the BBC – he would just host football, and live football at that. He would therefore enjoy a massive hike in salary for much less work.

After mulling it over, Lynam decided to take up the offer – a move that proceeded to make the front pages of every single newspaper. By some distance he was the figurehead of BBC Sport, and indeed perhaps the most famous presenter on the BBC full stop, so his departure made headlines not seen since the departure of Morecambe and Wise 20 years previously.

Two other people – apart from Lynam’s bank manager – saw their lives changed by this move. Most obviously, Bob Wilson suddenly found himself playing second fiddle for the second time in his career. When told of Lynam’s arrival, Wilson was prepared to resign on the spot – in anger he suggested Lynam was “tired, lazy and past it” when he heard the news – before he remembered his contract actually stated he was “ITV’s principal football presenter”. This was news to Barwick and Liddiment, but eventually an agreement was worked out, with Wilson enjoying a massive pay rise and being assured there would be enough work for both; albeit for Wilson mostly in highlights form.

Meanwhile, after his apprenticeship, Gary Lineker found himself ascending to the main chair at the BBC rather earlier than anticipated. However, in the end, this proved to be a success. Lineker worked well with his fellow pundits like Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, and indeed his lighter touch helped the Corporation’s football output appear much younger and fresher than ITV. On the other side, Lynam found the arrival of adverts meant he perhaps failed to maintain the relaxed, laid-back tone he’d built his career on, and when he first found himself going head-to-head against his old employers, during Euro 2000, the Beeb continued to thrash ITV by at least two to one.

Nevertheless both presenters were happy with the way things worked out – Lineker was on screen every week, all the time learning his trade as a TV presenter, and Lynam was able to relax and concentrate on live matches. Little did they know that less than a year later, things would be turned upside down …

<Part Eleven