Prologue: “I Don’t Recall David Coleman Doing a Lot of This”

By Steve Williams

First published February 2007

It’s always exciting to say, “I was there”. Where were you when Geoff Hurst completed his hat-trick, when Gazza cried, or when Maradona unleashed the hand of God? In 99% of cases, the answer is almost always “sitting at home, watching it on the telly”.

For 70 years, football and television have been inextricably linked. That’s why, whenever you think of the 1966 World Cup Final, you’re more likely to remember Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary before anything else. Gazza’s tears from the 1990 tournament will forever be accompanied in our mind’s eye with a fluttering CGI England flag and the legend “19 PAUL GASCOIGNE: Booked”, while it’s a fact that whenever Maradona’s performance in 1986 is hauled out of the archives, somebody somewhere will be wondering if that’s a giant spider casting such a weird shadow on the pitch.

Now, it seems as if something happens on any football pitch more prestigious than Hackney Marches, it’s filmed and broadcast on any number of channels all around the world. All we have to remember legendary names of the past like Herbert Chapman and Dixie Dean are the hazy recollections of elderly fans, plus the odd cigarette card or pen-and-ink etching. Meanwhile, the exploits of Neil Warnock and Robbie Savage are monitored seemingly 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Yet how has the relationship between football and television changed? In December 1979, Liverpool, top of the first division, played Manchester United, in second place, at Anfield, and there wasn’t a single television camera in the ground. In November 2005, Chasetown FC of the Midland Football Alliance had their FA Cup match against Oldham Athletic broadcast live on BBC1.

The one thing that has remained consistent over the decades is that, on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of May, the FA Cup Final has been broadcast. It had always been a showpiece event in the football calendar since it was established back in the 19th century, but for most fans, the Cup Final is special thanks to the influence of television, which has been present at the stadium, barring wartime, every year since 1938. The TV traditions that sprung from the big day – the feverish build-up, the shameless gimmickry – became equally as important as the 90 minutes of football. This was sport presented for the first time as television entertainment.

Apart from a handful of viewers near Crystal Palace who were able to enjoy such treats as an Arsenal training session or an Amateur Cup match between Barnet and Wealdstone, for most people, the 1953 FA Cup Final would have been the first time they would have seen football on television. The sets that had been purchased in eager anticipation of the Coronation would have been switched on a few weeks before to allow the family (and most of the street) to squint at a fuzzy image of Stanley Matthews winning the cup for Blackpool.

In these early days, the FA Cup Final was the one day of the year you were guaranteed to see football on television. All other football coverage at that time was a strictly ad hoc affair, with the BBC – at that point still the only broadcaster – limited as to what else they could cover by primitive technology, the lack of floodlights at most grounds and the football authorities’ reluctance to allow much coverage, fearing fans in Rochdale or Scunthorpe wouldn’t bother going out to see their local team scrap about in the mud while they could catch Bobby Charlton or Danny Blanchflower in their living room.

For the most part, in these pioneering days match coverage was fairly straightforward. There’d be a couple of cameras at Wembley Stadium switched on just prior to kick off, before Kenneth Wolstenholme – who hadn’t even seen any television when he got the job as the Corporation’s main commentator in 1948 – would talk viewers through it. After the cup was presented, that would be it.

In 1956, the BBC no longer had things their own way on the big day, as the new ITV network showed the final for the first time. Although they didn’t screen it in 1957, they were back in 1958, and continued to broadcast it every year after that. However ITV always suffered from the general public appearing to believe that for a big national event, only the BBC could deliver, so ratings were unexceptional. In 1968, meanwhile, the Cup Final was also screened on BBC2 at the same time so it could be shown in colour – meaning all three channels were now broadcasting the same thing at once; testament to the competition’s prestige and popularity.

Yet by this point, coverage of football was getting more and more regular – Anglia TV arranged to cover local teams in league action every week from 1962, followed by a number of other regions, while Match of the Day made its debut on BBC2 in 1964.

The first real battle for the nation’s hearts came in 1969. Unless you’re a Manchester City fan, their 1-0 victory over Leicester in that year’s final may not have lived long in the memory, but what went on off the pitch certainly made the headlines. The BBC now found themselves competing with rather different opposition in the form of the new ITV company LWT, whose Head of Sport was Jimmy Hill. Already having made waves as a player – being in charge of the players’ union when the maximum wage was finally lifted – and a manager, where he took Coventry City into the top flight for the first time ever, he was now looking at how to shake up coverage of football on television.

Of course, on Cup Final day, both the BBC and ITV would be showing the same pictures, so there had to be a reason to encourage viewers to switch to the young upstarts. Hence ITV pulled out all the stops to add an edge to their coverage. Manchester City manager Malcolm Allison had been banned from the touchline for the match, so ITV got him a seat, just coincidentally of course next to one of their reporters, to allow him to pass comment throughout, while another reporter hid under a carpet to get ever closer to the Leicester bench. Better yet, ITV had managed to get hold of a quantity of Manchester City tracksuits, in the hope of getting past the Wembley security guards to be first for interviews. When the BBC realised this, fists began to fly between the production teams and for the broadcasters, who won on the pitch took second place to who attracted the most attention off it.

Both broadcasters were reprimanded by the FA, but if the battle for viewers was never quite as violent as on their first meeting, they spent most of the 1970s and ’80s trying to trump each other’s ideas. In 1970, a boiler-suited Fred Dinenage found himself on ITV in charge of CEDRIC, a “computer” that was fed with acres of statistics before apparently being able to produce a completely accurate prediction of the result. Yet in time this could be considered one of the more sensible and relevant items on Cup Final day.

The ’70s are considered a golden age in both television and football, and the Cup Final played a major part in this. That’s mostly because throughout the decade, it was one of only three matches allowed to be broadcast live throughout the season – alongside the European Cup Final and the annual England vs Scotland match. Indeed, when John Motson made his debut in the commentary box for the 1977 final, it was the first time he’d ever commentated on a live match despite being six years into his full-time television career.

This meant both channels made the most of the opportunity. Coverage would start hours in advance of the 3pm kick-off – both BBC and ITV aiming to get that crucial advantage on the opposition, beginning at noon, then the following year at 11.30am, then 11.15am, then 11am. Of course, this meant both broadcasters had to come up with endless gimmickry to fill the three or four hours before the match.

Inevitably, it was on ITV – for whom it was much more important to hook in the mass audience – where you could find the sillier ideas, hence Freddie Starr would be hired to check the Wembley goalmouths for Humphreys, or Jimmy Tarbuck would hold court behind a bar entertaining the star guests (ie. Kenny Lynch) attending the match. Indeed, John Bromley, Jimmy Hill’s deputy who became Head of Sport on his departure to the BBC in 1973, admitted, “We wanted to attract not just the soccer fan, but the average audience, mum, dad, kids, everyone.”

Perhaps ITV’s best idea, however, came in Hill’s last final for the commercial network in 1973, when they managed to convince Sunderland to let them put a reporter and camera on their coach travelling to the match. Brian Moore suggested the novelty of the cameras helped relax Sunderland to such an extent that it played a part in their eventual victory, but either way it was one of the first occasions where football worked around television, rather than the other way around, and the camera on the coach became a traditional aspect of Cup Final Saturday for a decade or more.

Despite this, ITV never managed to shake off the reputation of being that bit less interested in football for football’s sake, and no matter how well they performed before the teams got on the pitch, they did less impressively after kick-off. John Bromley claimed, “About 2.50pm, what I call the Sunningdale audience came in; the As and Bs, the heavy mob – ‘Chaps, it’s the Cup Final! Got to watch on BBC.’ Bang! So in rating terms for the actual match, we lost out about two to one most years.”

However the BBC weren’t averse to a bit of shameless silliness on the day, hosting special editions of It’s A Knockout between the two clubs, or quizzing superfans on their knowledge of the team in the Mastermind chair. From 1974, Jimmy Hill would also be dispatched to the hotel of the winners to helm the highlights of the final later in the evening.

It couldn’t last, however, and Cup Final Saturday began to decrease in importance in the 1980s. It was no longer out on its own as a live match, with a number of league games and cup matches now being broadcast live as well. Furthermore, football itself had begun to decline in popularity among the audience, and more importantly among the television executives, who were continually frustrated at its reluctance to allow innovations in coverage and their determination to strictly ration what could be shown. Indeed, in 1982, the centrepiece of ITV’s coverage of the Cup Final was a snooker challenge between Steve Davis and Terry Griffiths, while Yorkshire TV refused to screen the replay, suggesting that if local viewers wanted to see a match between two London teams, they could always watch it on the BBC.

An era ended in 1988 when the BBC and ITV went head-to-head for the last time. The following year, ITV had pulled out of the joint dealings for all worthwhile football, and nabbed the week-in, week-out coverage of the Football League, which they’d traditionally shared with the BBC, all for themselves. The BBC retaliated by buying up the FA Cup, in partnership with new satellite broadcastersBSB, who would get a share of live matches from the competition and highlights of the final.

This was both the first and last major football purchase by BSB, as within a few years they’d been swallowed up by Sky. Come 1992, you could see more live league matches on television than ever before – but only if you were prepared to stick a satellite dish on the side of your house and pay for them. The purchase of the Premier League undoubtedly brought respectability to Sky, giving them returning audiences week after week.

Even dishless viewers could still enjoy the Cup Final, however, thanks to government legislation requiring it to be shown on terrestrial television, after concerns were raised that all the major national sporting events would happily be flogged off to the highest bidder. Yet you could actually watch more live football in a week than in a season two decades before, and as such, the Cup Final began to play a much less important part in the national consciousness. Indeed, when Clive Tyldesley commentated on the Cup Final for the first time in 1999, he pointed out that, for his predecessors, the Cup Final was the biggest match of the season, while for him, it wasn’t even the biggest match of the week, as he was also commentating on the Champions League Final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich four days later.

Still, as the 1990s progressed, it was obvious football – any football – would be a surefire way to pull in an audience, and one made up of a substantial number of men who had money to spend. This meant that anything not nailed down was eagerly snapped up by commercial telly, and so in 1998, the BBC could only broadcast highlights of the Cup Final for the first time, with ITV and Sky hoping for increased advertising revenue to offset the inflated cost of buying the live rights.

In the present day, the Cup Final is back on the BBC, after erstwhile Director-General Greg Dyke pumped much more money into sports rights, claiming that a licence-funded broadcaster had a duty to broadcast events that brought the nation together. However, given the dizzying number of live football matches on TV now, it has nowhere near the same amount of impact as it did 20 or 30 years ago, when the likes of Bob Stokoe or Bobby Stokes embedded themselves in the national heritage. Ratings for the 2002 final were actually lower than those for the final of the World Snooker Championships two days later.

So how did we get here? Well, it’s a long story, and one that involves endless battles between football and the broadcasters, boardroom bust-ups, massive personalities both on and off-camera and some of the most memorable moments in television history …