Part One: “We’re in Beatleville”

By Steve Williams

First published March 2007

It seems ludicrous to think now, but for some four decades or more, almost everyone in football loathed the idea of being on television at all. The general feeling among the Football League and the clubs themselves was that if a football match was screened on television – even as highlights hours after it was played – nobody would bother going to see it at the stadium, or any other match that was being played at the same time.

The broadcasters, however, had a different take on it, thinking that televising football could only help to promote the sport to a wider audience, and that the match day experience was so special fans would continue to attend fixtures. Hence, almost as soon as the BBC began broadcasting again after the war, approaches were constantly made to the football authorities to cover some of their games.

The first organisation to agree was the Athenian Football League, who gave the BBC permission to televise the match between Barnet and Wealdstone on Saturday 19 October 1946. Edgar Keil commentated and the coverage was seen as a success, even though they had to stop the broadcast 15 minutes before the end due to bad light. Flushed with success, the BBC then asked the Football Association if they could broadcast selected FA Cup matches, although technical limitations meant they could only cover games played in the London area. The first such screened was Charlton’s encounter with Blackburn in February 1947.

The following year saw the arrival of a new voice for the BBC’s football coverage. Born near Salford in 1920, Bolton fan Kenneth Wolstenholme started as a journalist in Manchester before war intervened and he joined the RAF, flying 100 missions and receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar. After a spell back in newspapers having been demobbed, Wolstenholme wrote to the BBC for a job as a TV commentator – despite the fact he didn’t own a television and had never seen one switched on. Nevertheless, his attractive voice and knowledge of football, demonstrated during a trial run in a North vs South amateur match, saw him given the gig full-time.

Kenneth Wolstenholme is perhaps the only commentator who could correctly call himself the “voice of football”, as for the first 10 years or so he commentated on virtually every soccer match for the BBC, still the only television channel in the country. However coverage was very much arranged on an ad hoc basis, with only the occasional match televised – the FA Cup Final and the annual England vs Scotland match the only two guaranteed fixtures in the schedule.

In 1954, televised football finally got a regular space in the schedules with the launch of Saturday Sport Special. This weekly series was the first programme to regularly feature coverage from the Football League, and in 1955 the BBC were given the go-ahead to televise 75 matches over the season. Highlights had to be five minutes in duration and only shown after 10pm – although they could be extended to 10 minutes “in exceptional circumstances”. Wolstenholme presented the programme and invariably commentated on one of the matches, with others voiced by a number of colleagues, including Cliff Michelmore.

At this point, football coverage was still shot on film, which caused something of a problem as the reels lasted for less than 45 minutes so had to be changed during play – and if a goal was scored while they were doing that, tough luck. Indeed, Kenneth Wolstenholme recalled, “When Wales beat England 2-1 in Cardiff, both Welsh goals were scored while reels were being changed. The only goal we got was England’s. Try explaining that away.”

Although highlights were now a regular fixture, the broadcasters still wanted to screen live games – knowing these would obviously prove to be more exciting than five-minute snatches when most viewers already knew the result. There were now two channels on TV, and ITV were also interested in football. The commercial channel actually found themselves in a slightly stronger position with the Football League, as there was the ability to include an advertising campaign as part of any deal.

Finally, after many false starts, permission was given to screen a league match live on television. A deal was signed by ABC, on behalf of ITV, in the summer of 1960, for a fee of “in excess of £142,000″. The Times reported the agreement contained provision for all the clubs in the League to claim a share of the fee and compensation for any loss of gate money, while players also received an appearance fee.

The Football League gave permission to, in the words of Football League secretary Alan Hardaker, “arrest the alarming decline in football gates and extend the game’s popular appeal as a spectacle”. The money was to be used to pay for a publicity scheme “to present football and the League in the best possible light and give the public, including millions of women who watch television on Saturday nights, a taste of the excitement and spectacle of first class football.”

So, on Saturday 10 September 1960, the match between Blackpool and Bolton was screened live on ITV. The match kicked off at 6.50pm, so as to avoid a clash with any others, and the channel were able to screen the last 10 minutes of the first half and the entire second half. Blackpool had agreed to be the first club televised as they were confident of a good attendance thanks to the pull of the town’s illuminations. With a crushing inevitably, this example of “the excitement and spectacle of first class football” ended goalless.

The fear that any more dull matches would turn the general public off the game for good was undoubtedly in Tottenham’s mind when they decided that match against Aston Villa two weeks later would now not, as agreed, be shown on television. A moratorium was then placed on further screenings while more negotiations between ITV and the Football League took place, with the suggestion that ITV should offer a £10 appearance fee to players, rather than the £2 the Blackpool and Bolton players received. However, mindful the ratings were not as spectacular as they had hoped, ITV were lukewarm about this, and perhaps inevitably, no further live matches were screened. Remarkably, the encounter at Blackpool remained the only league match transmitted live for the next 23 years.

Saturday Sport Special was axed in 1963 when it was felt the five-minute snippets were becoming old hat. A year later, though, a new approach was tried.

On 22 August 1964, Kenneth Wolstenholme stood on the side of the pitch at Anfield and announced, “As you can hear, we’re in Beatleville”, little knowing that over four decades later, the experimental programme he was hosting would still be running. Technology had improved to such an extent that matches could now be shot on videotape rather than film. This meant they could be ready for broadcasting much quicker than ever before, and in greater depth, with no worries a goal might be scored while the film was being changed. The BBC realised this was the ideal chance to go back to the Football League and suggest a new format of regular weekly highlight shows.

The great benefit was the BBC now had a second channel, BBC2, which was still only available to viewers in London who had purchased a new 625-line television set. With an extremely limited audience, the Corporation felt this was the ideal way to get more football on telly while easing the League’s fears supporters would stop going to matches if they could watch them at home. Eventually, less than a week before the start of the season, the go-ahead was given to cover one match a week, selected five weeks in advance and approved by the Football League, in 55 minutes of highlights and screened after 6.30pm on Saturday, in a programme called, obviously, Match of the Day.

The arrival of BBC2 had a further advantage, according to the programme’s first director, Alan Chivers. He said the 625 lines now available meant, “We’re no longer restricted mainly to the close-up. With 625′s greater definition, we can use wider shots without losing clarity, and so show much more of the overall pattern of a game.”

The first Match of the Day was about as straightforward a programme as you could get. Wolstenholme introduced the programme from the side of the pitch, accompanied by former Wales international Walley Barnes, who offered his views on the Liverpool and Arsenal line-ups. After the highlights of the match – which ended 3-2 to Liverpool – Wolstenholme and Barnes summed up what they’d seen, and that was it. 20,000 people watched the programme, far fewer than the number of spectators at Anfield – none of whom could see it in any case as BBC2 hadn’t reached the North West.

Although the programme was considered a success, there remained a constant battle with the Football League to actually get any soccer on television. The following season, there was no coverage of the first six weeks of matches as the BBC and the Football League failed to agree on what would be shown, when and for how much. Match of the Day returned in October, but now for 45 minutes in duration and not on air until after 10pm. The BBC were paying £25,000 a year to get the rights, but the League still had the absolute power to decide exactly what matches were shown.

In 1966/67, Match of the Day moved to BBC1. Part of the reason was due to the increased interest in football thanks to a certain trophy England had won a few weeks earlier, and as Wolstenholme confirmed at the start of the first programme that season, “In response to your many letters, yes, I will explain some of the more technical points of the game as we go on.” However, two more pragmatic reasons for the change of channel were that rumours abounded ITV were intending to launch their own networked highlights show (which never really came to fruition), and a further cut in the amount of football that could be shown over the course of a week, meaning the BBC were eager to make the most of what they had.

The following season saw one more attempt to get live league football on television, this time from the BBC, who offered £781,000 – the biggest amount ever lavished by the Beeb on a sporting contract – to show 35 live matches on Thursday nights. Yet again, the clubs rejected the deal, with Burnley’s chairman Bob Lord suggesting, “Television is a possible cancer on the game because it has the effect of keeping people away from the matches themselves.”

Surprisingly, another opponent to live coverage was ITV, who had changed their tune somewhat in the seven years since their aborted attempt at live soccer. They informed the League, “When the football authorities banned live televising of matches two years ago we were very concerned. However, it is now our opinion … that this decision has been in the best interests of the game. Investigations that we have made among viewers prove that live television unquestionably keeps spectators away from grounds.”

Still, if league matches were a no-go on television, this wasn’t the case for the World Cup, and the 1966 tournament was the first to really capture the nation’s attention.. For the 1962 tournament, played in Chile, films of the games had to be shipped in from South America and screened 48 hours later, “provided there is no fog en route”.

This was the first time ITV really worked alongside the BBC, with the two organisations collaborating to film and screen the matches. Hugh Johns was the commercial channel’s commentator for the final, and heralded the final goal by asking, “Here’s Hurst, can he make it four? He has, he has!”. ITV’s interest in covering football in great depth, however, could be seen by the fact they scheduled wrestling for 10 minutes after the final whistle.

Not that anyone remembers what ITV did, thanks to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous phrase when Geoff Hurst scored his hat-trick goal. In fact, Wolstenholme claimed , given the circumstances, nobody really paid attention to the line when he first said it, and it wasn’t until the game was repeated at Christmas people noticed how perfectly, “They think it’s all over … it is now!” fitted the action. Indeed, so memorable was the line, that ITV advertised their coverage of the 2006 World Cup with it – despite it emanating from their great rivals.

Yet despite the World Cup being undoubtedly Wolstenholme’s finest hour, it was in fact near the end of his BBC career. It was felt his style was becoming outdated, and from 1967, the BBC had a new younger commentator in David Coleman, who they were eager to install in the number one position. Wolstenholme still commentated on the FA Cup Final – one of the few live matches on television – and other big games throughout the season. However, from 1968 he was usurped as Match of the Day‘s presenter by Coleman.

He finally left the BBC in 1971. After commentating on his 23rd Cup Final in May, his final BBC assignment was, appropriately, at Wembley Stadium watching Ajax play Panathinaikos in the European Cup Final. He then went freelance, concentrating on writing, although as far as the general public were concerned, he’d basically disappeared from view. Indeed, by 1974, the London Evening Standard was moved to ask, “Whatever happened to Kenneth Wolstenholme?”

One man eager to find out was George Taylor, Head of Sport at Tyne Tees. He was after a new commentator and, after seeing the Standard’s headline while in London for an ITV meeting, decided Wolstenholme had the gravitas and experience he was after. He offered the broadcaster the job and, for the next five years, Wolstenholme commentated on a weekly basis on the North East clubs – from Newcastle to Hartlepool – for Tyne Tees and the ITV network.

Although Tyne Tees were happy with the profile he provided their rather shoestring football coverage, one problem was he didn’t live in the region, meaning he wasn’t perhaps as familiar with the players as they would have liked. Hence by 1979, with Wolstenholme now nearing retirement age, Tyne Tees looked towards grooming a new commentator in Roger Tames, who would base himself in the region full time (although ironically Tames’ Tyne Tees job interview was only the second time he’d ever been to Newcastle). Tyne Tees said there would still be a role for Wolstenholme, if he was prepared to travel from London to the North East every week and stand by in case Tames couldn’t commentate for whatever reason. The old timer, not surprisingly, found this an unappealing prospect and left Tyne Tees, marking an end to over 30 years of regular football commentary on TV.

Wolstenholme’s connections in the football world ensured that he wasn’t idle. Throughout the 1980s he popped up all over the place, commentating on the screening of a Liverpool vs Millwall match being beamed back to Millwall’s ground, reporting from a Freight Rover Trophy final for BBC Radio, introducing Tottenham’s official club phone line and even making an appearance fronting a spoof football show in an episode of The Goodies. Sadly, a spell as commentator for Metro Radio in Newcastle in 1993 was abandoned after one match – the station felt his style too old-fashioned. Not surprising, given he was unimpressed with many of the commentators who followed in his footsteps, claiming they used too many statistics and unnecessary words. He once summed up his approach to broadcasting by saying, “The picture tells a far better story than any amount of extra information, and there’s only one statistic that means anything in football – if you score five goals, and they get none, you’ve won.”

His final stint in broadcasting came in the 1990s, when he was hired to be the off-screen voice linking Channel 4′s coverage of Italian football, which he continued to do for several seasons. However, when he died in 2002, aged 81, all the obituaries concentrated on that afternoon in July 1966 – the first time television and football had become inextricably linked.