Epilogue: “All the Football, All of the Time, Forever”

By Steve Williams

First published June 2008

In 2008, ITV4 began screening The Big Match Revisited – a series of vintage Big Match programmes from 1983. Much of the footage seemed somewhat alien from a modern perspective, with Watford having to play a game with their shirt sponsors covered up by masking tape, and the rest of the day’s fixtures – outside the handful where the cameras were present – covered only by still photographs.

The original episodes were broadcast at the end of an era for football on television – the last season when no live league matches were permitted, and the last where shirt sponsors weren’t allowed to be seen. The sport itself was also in turmoil – one of the repeats remarking on Everton welcoming only 14,500 people through the turnstiles, their lowest attendance since the war – and there was no TV deal in place for the next season. The Football League suggested they would be happy with no coverage of their matches at all and the broadcasters were watching ratings plummet.

25 years on, things were very different. Viewers could, if they were prepared to shell out, watch at least four live Premiership games each weekend, as well as action from the three divisions of the Football League and the top non-league matches. Even with the five terrestrial channels alone, they could enjoy in-depth highlights and regular live action from the FA Cup and European competitions. All 92 clubs had cameras at all of their matches, and so you could count on more or less everything that took place on a football pitch to be recorded and there for you – if you wanted it. It was clear soccer was by some distance the top TV sport, with Sky becoming a major media player almost entirely off the back of its coverage.

Yet despite this exhaustive coverage, it seemed the portents of doom from the early days of TV football had not come true. The Premier League clubs were consistently breaking attendance records, while the Championship, in 2008, had become the fourth best-supported sports league in Europe, with the cumulative attendance beating Italy’s top division. Even clubs struggling at the bottom of the league had seen some improvement – attendances of 3000 or 4000 were usual, while in the 1980s they often struggled to get into four figures.

Not all the changes were welcome, however. Indeed, the growth in attendances often seemed to come about despite, rather than because of, TV coverage, as to ensure all the big games were covered live, fixtures were often shuffled about at the last minute. Chelsea fans, for example, made their feelings known in April 2008 when, after having bought tickets and arranged transport to the club’s match at Everton, they found it rescheduled from Saturday afternoon to Thursday evening at only two weeks’ notice so it could be screened on Sky Sports.

In addition, in recent seasons, the Premier League had become dominated by the “Big Four” – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Of course the idea of certain teams being more important than the others in the League was not a new one, most obviously 20 years ago when Greg Dyke approached what was then a “Big Five” to commit to ITV. However the current faction invariably filled the top four places in the Premier League, and therefore qualified for the Champions League where they would gain added income to allow them to become even more dominant in the next season’s Premier League, and so on. It was no surprise pundits, fans and even managers suggested the league had become boring.

Regardless, ratings for TV football remained buoyant. It’s perhaps surprising that, despite the massive changes, only four broadcasters have ever shown top-flight football on British television in 60 years, and one of those has, at the time of writing, only done so for one season. The BBC, ITV and Sky have dominated televised football – but who would be the definitive “voice of football”?

First, you’d have to look at the BBC. As the first company ever to broadcast the sport in the UK, their heritage of coverage is second to none, and in terms of ubiquity, you can look no further than Kenneth Wolstenholme. In the early 1950s, he was the only commentator for the only broadcaster in Britain, so by that regard he’s the only person who can ever be described as the voice of football, as whenever there was a match on TV, he was there. However only a handful of games a season were ever screened, so his workload was hardly exhausting.

When Wolstenholme left the BBC in 1971, his replacement was an up-and-coming radio broadcaster, John Motson. It’s somewhat appropriate, as Motson is perhaps the only man who can rival Wolstenholme as the definitive BBC commentator. Still going strong in 2008, Motson is now almost the only link with what many consider the golden age of football in the 1970s, as his former colleagues and peers – such as David Coleman, Barry Davies, Hugh Johns and Brian Moore – have all long since put down the microphone.

Given Motson is famous for his love of the statistic, it’s only right we should celebrate the man in numeric form – he has commentated on 34 FA Cup Finals (including replays), six World Cup finals and seven European Championship finals (with an eighth to follow in 2008), as well as numerous other big games. With the fragmentation of the broadcasting rights, it’s highly unlikely such records will ever be matched. Motson’s longevity makes him another strong contender to be named the true voice of football.

The BBC’s triumphs in the past will doubtless ensure they remain a major player in the world of televised football – whenever they go head to head with ITV when the major tournaments come around, they invariably enjoy complete supremacy in the ratings battle. However the 1990s onwards were not always happy times for the Corporation’s sports department as a seemingly endless procession of major events found new, more profitable homes on commercial and subscription television. The loss of the FA Cup in the latter part of the decade hit the BBC hard, and as we entered the new millennium, the broadcaster had no regular live football.

However the arrival of a new Director-General in Greg Dyke, as well as some of the sporting authorities not enjoying their new surroundings, saw a rally to such an extent that, by 2004, the BBC could boast their best ever football portfolio, with Premier League highlights, 16 live matches from the FA Cup a season (including all the first picks) and exclusive live coverage of the England team, as well as the major tournaments every other year.

To illustrate how quickly things can turn around, though, by 2008, the FA Cup and England went elsewhere, and Paul Hopwood in When Saturday Comes pointed out that, “The national broadcaster will be providing no significant live coverage of the national sport – and that can’t be right”. Probably not, although from 2009, it will be broadcasting a number of live matches from the Football League, bringing all four divisions back to the Corporation for the first time in over 20 years. However, as Will Wyatt, former Managing Director of BBC Television, pointed out, “If a new broadcaster came on the scene with such a list of top [sporting] events, jaws would drop in admiration. We were, of course, judged not on this but what we had in the easy years”, referring to the time when they were the only broadcaster in town.

But what of ITV? Across the years they enjoyed some significant victories over the BBC, such as when they landed exclusive rights to the Football League in 1988, the FA Cup in 1997 and the Premier League highlights in 2001. Now they seem to be in the ascendancy again thanks to the return of the FA Cup and England. Yet none of the previous coups had managed to lead to consistent success for the network, and in all instances they failed to retain the rights after the initial contract.

Des Lynam said, “Once, when asked by a reporter why I thought the BBC did sport better than ITV, I had replied that the BBC was in the business of broadcasting, while ITV were in the business of business. Their record of flirting with sports only to discard them when they didn’t pay their way produced a long list.” Certainly, in the case of the Premiership highlights, it had become clear the audience for non-live sport was not as huge as was anticipated, and regardless of the quality of the programming, the balance sheet was going to be the most important judge of success. Come 2008, ITV1 elected not to broadcast live coverage of the European Championship final, leaving it to the BBC alone, considering the inevitable defeat in the head-to-head not worth the bother anymore, and their exclusive matches earlier in the competition more important.

However ITV were well aware that live, exclusive football was an excellent way of pulling in large audiences. Indeed, in 2008, the channel was prepared to drop its highly acclaimed coverage of Formula One motor racing, even when Lewis Hamilton looked to be bringing Britain success for the first time in a decade, so they could spend more money on keeping hold of Champions League football instead.

Despite all their triumphs, however, ITV has never really managed to endear itself to the football-watching public. This has been the case ever since the ’60s and ’70s, where its coverage was often considered gimmicky and less authoritative than the BBC’s. In addition, they were never able to find much in the way of consistency. Since 1986, ITV has used a different main presenter for every World Cup, and changing host on average every four years suggests a continual attempt to find a winning formula. And so it was that just two years after Steve Rider was poached from the BBC to become ITV’s new football host, it was reported they’d already been looking elsewhere and approached the BBC’s Adrian Chiles, although he decided not to make the move.

This inconsistency is one reason why you could argue Brian Moore, ITV’s most familiar voice, may not qualify as a definitive voice of football. Certainly he enjoyed a long and distinguished career – and is surely the only commentator to lend his name to a footballing cliché (“Over the moon, Brian!”) – but thanks to ITV’s regional structure, much of it was only heard by London viewers alone, while his big day at the Cup Final inevitably saw him overshadowed by the BBC. In addition, his presenting duties for most of the time meant he was often in the studio, rather than the commentary box, for the biggest games.

However ITV’s main commentator, Clive Tyldesley, might be considered for the title were we to judge it on ratings alone. The 1998/99 season saw 15 of ITV’s live matches from the Champions League and FA Cup make the list of the top 20 sports programmes of the year, and Tyldesley commentated on all of them, climaxing with Manchester United’s dramatic victory in the Champions League Final. Coming only four days after they also won the FA Cup Final – again commentated on by Tyldesley – it’s hard to imagine any other commentator enjoying such a high profile week, and being heard by so many people, again.

Back in 1996, John Motson commentated on his 1000th match for BBC Television, but said that, “The way Sky are going, the likes of Martin Tyler and Rob Hawthorne will soon be covering a 1000 matches a season, never mind in a career.” Certainly Sky Sports have been the major success story of television football in the past two decades and, despite Motson’s comment being very much in jest, it hasn’t been unusual in recent seasons to hear Martin Tyler commentate on two or three live matches a week for Sky, and another one or two for overseas viewers as well.

Tyler could well be another name added to our list of definitive voices, as he’s been in the commentary box for a dizzying array of live matches. Certainly, in the late ’90s the satellite channel enjoyed a dominance of football on TV not seen since the ’50s, as they had exclusive live rights to almost every competition. The rise of Setanta Sports – as well as some football bodies, most obviously the FA, deciding that they preferred free-to-air television – means they no longer enjoyed such a hold over the sport, but still broadcast more live matches than any other broadcaster.

It seems a long time since Sky Sports were the brash young upstarts of television football coverage. Now, their technical innovations and commitment to quality journalism has seen them considered almost the established name in football coverage, the broadcaster everyone else seems to aspire to. There’s still much to find annoying in Sky’s programming – the constant hype (most recently in a top-of-the-table Premiership clash being billed as “Grand Slam Sunday” and subject to weeks of feverish build-up) and their continual attempt to accentuate the positive lest viewers get fed up and unsubscribe, a condition of pay TV from day one – but the days when a satellite dish on the side of your house was considered as vulgar as stone cladding have long gone.

So, to sum up, the four people who could perhaps legitimately be described as the voices of football are Kenneth Wolstenholme, the only man who, in his time, could actually commentate on all televised football; John Motson, who’s been at the very top of his profession for longer than anyone; Clive Tyldesley, who has probably been heard by more people than any of his peers in recent years; and Martin Tyler, who over the course of a season will doubtless attend more matches than most players, managers or referees.

Of course, over the past 60 years, numerous other people, both on air and behind the scenes, have been involved in the presentation of football on television. And, despite the depths of despair in the ’80s, the sport remains hugely important to TV. Indeed, as viewing becomes more fragmented, with audiences fleeing to both hundreds of other channels and numerous other ways of watching, live football is about the only thing that can get the nation viewing together at the same time. That’s why every new rights deal will make the front pages of newspapers, not just the back, and why the broadcasters will continue to fall over themselves to cover absolutely any match that might be of any interest to anyone at all.

It’s certainly not all over.

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