Part Nine: “I Don’t Know, I Can’t Speak Spanish”

By Steve Williams

First published November 2007

Immediately after signing the deal with the Premier League, the BBC and Sky then successfully renegotiated their contract with the Football Association for the FA Cup and England matches. The BBC were the lead partner in this deal, and again got first choice of Cup tie in each round, while Sky took the leftovers and also showed England live at Wembley, with the BBC screening highlights. This meant the two broadcasters both had guaranteed top-class football coverage every week of the season.

The BBC’s effort was hosted by Des Lynam, with Bob Wilson the ever-loyal deputy. A less familiar sight, however, was Jimmy Hill, who was, in the words of Match of the Day editor Brian Barwick, “Keeping his powder dry for the big occasions” – the Cup Final, the big England matches and the major tournaments. In his place on a weekly basis was a new breed of analyst. Former England star Trevor Brooking was a regular, while for the first half of the 1992/93 season, Gary Lineker was on hand before his move to Grampus 8 in Japan to see out his playing career. Soon to become the most famous, however, was Alan Hansen.

The Scottish international had spent the entire 1980s as one of the most decorated players of his generation in his role as captain of Liverpool. When he had to retire in 1991, he took it upon himself to get some media work and offered his services to Sky Sports who, still yet to acquire the Premier League, installed him as a regular pundit on their coverage of Italian football. In addition, he was also engaged on an ad hoc basis by the BBC for the odd live match.

Hansen enjoyed his role on Sky, but had some misgivings, as unlike his fellow pundits – Ray Wilkins and Trevor Francis – he had never played in Italy and was not a great fan of the style of play in that country. However he was extremely intelligent in his analysis, and things seemed to be going well. Producer Mark Schofield was concerned after one match, though, when Hansen had appeared extremely bored and uninterested, and had repeatedly checked his watch.

After challenging him, Hansen said his performance was due entirely to the fact he’d been watching the most tedious goalless draw he’d ever seen, while his frantic time checking was because he was still very nervous about being on TV. Although things seemed to be settled, the pundit was never very happy with the atmosphere at Sky and later said he thought his honest and plain-speaking approach was not a great fit for an operation such as this, where it was considered inappropriate to slag off poor matches lest subscribers think they’d been ripped off. The BBC were much more content with his performance, though, and were soon giving him more and more work. When the Corporation landed the Premier League, they offered him a full-time contract.

On Match of the Day, his incisive analysis became much acclaimed – although he was parodied as being gloomy and negative, taking the opportunity to criticise the defenders rather than praise the strikers when a goal was scored. But he was clearly passionate about football and always constructive. As with Andy Gray, Hansen was able to talk about the game in a more technical way than ever before, using diagrams and arrows to get his points across, but in a way that remained accessible to the wider audience.

But with Sky and the BBC having most of the worthwhile soccer under lock and key, what of ITV? At a stroke they had moved from being the principal football broadcaster in the UK to a distant third. They did still have the rights to the Football League – the three lower divisions that were left, after the top-flight clubs had gone their own way – and with it the League Cup, which the Premier League clubs still entered and thus provided ITV with their only definite chance to show the big teams.

It was up to the various ITV regions to decide how they would cover the newly shrunken Football League. Central, with dozens of clubs in the new division one, decided to make the most of it with a live match more or less every Sunday afternoon, to fill the gap where the top flight coverage had been. Other companies opted for only a handful of live games and showed the rest as highlights alone. Granada went for a different approach still, and launched Granada Sports World with Elton Welsby, a World of Sport-esque three hour Saturday afternoon marathon, which in between various low-rent imports also monitored the local football, screening goals from the likes of Stockport or Tranmere minutes after they were scored.

The only other guaranteed football on the third channel came from the World Cup Finals and European Championships. These were both listed events the government demanded be made available to the entire population, meaning the BBC and ITV were the only broadcasters who could cover them. The size of the events meant no one channel could cover the whole thing so the BBC and ITV continued to bid together and share the coverage.

To boost their rather second-rate football portfolio, ITV’s new policy was to basically buy up anything else that wasn’t nailed down. Although England’s home matches were on Sky, coverage of their overseas fixtures was arranged on a game-by-game basis with their opponent’s FAs. So ITV bought the rights to Poland and Holland’s matches meaning they could screen England’s World Cup qualifiers against them. European matches involving the top clubs were also sold individually by the teams involved – indeed, in 1991/92, ITV were planning to screen Atletico Madrid vs Manchester United in the UEFA Cup, but refused after Atletico demanded millions of pounds for the privilege. Nonethless the channel snapped up as many of the games as it could, with commentators Brian Moore and Alan Parry often swapping the luxury of Old Trafford or Anfield for a tiny stadium in the depths of Eastern Europe.

ITV also grabbed the rights to a revamped version of the European Cup. Previously this competition had seen the winners of Europe’s leagues play each other in a straight knockout tournament, but it was now rebranded as the Champions League. The aim was to create more matches between the best and biggest teams in Europe, with the clubs arranged in a league format and playing each other home and away – meaning more guaranteed fixtures that would bring in bumper gate receipts and be much more attractive to television. The competition was sold in one big lump and all broadcasters were obliged to use the same branding and, importantly, the same sponsors.

ITV bought the rights to the competition only for the English hopefuls, Leeds, to go out in the qualifying rounds to Glasgow Rangers. Hence they followed the Scottish club into the league stages instead, which was inevitably much less attractive to the English audience and most games were only screened in late night highlights south of the border. The following season, Manchester United would also fall at the first hurdle, but eventually ITV’s investment in this competition would pay dividends.

One of the other provisos of buying the Champions League was the broadcasters mounted a regular preview show for each round, which in ITV’s case went out the preceding Saturday lunchtime. This at least provided more work for Saint and Greavsie who, on the departure of top-flight football from the channel, had found their weekly show summarily axed. Indeed, Ian St John was installed as the network’s main football anchor for the 1992/93 season after Elton Welsby returned to Granada full time.

Yet after the first season without the top flight, ITV’s football coverage underwent a massive shake-up. This coincided with LWT, after 25 years as the producer and co-ordinator of the network’s football output, being replaced in this role by Central, who worked in conjunction with independent producer Grand Slam Sports. This led to a clear-out of most of the on-screen regulars, with both Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves being shown the door after a decade together on screen. Deputy anchor Jim Rosenthal moved over to boxing and athletics full time and many of the other familiar pundits were let go. Only the team of Brian Moore, Alan Parry and regular co-commentator Ron Atkinson stayed in their roles.

The new host of ITV’s football was Matthew Lorenzo. His father, Peter, had previously worked for the channel in its early days as a distinguished reporter and producer, and Matthew had followed him, as a producer at the BBC. He then moved into onscreen work on Sky Sports, and the new London News Network which produced the regional bulletins for Carlton and LWT. When he ascended to the big chair, he was something of an unknown among the general public. Tony Francis, an existing ITV Sport reporter and Central producer, was his deputy, while the likes of Denis Law and Rodney Marsh arrived as analysts. One other new idea was the recruitment of Lee Chapman and Ray Wilkins, both still playing, as pitchside reporters to give their professional view on substitutions and injuries. However, after one appearance of Wilkins staring blankly at the camera struggling for words, this was quietly dropped.

The first big test for the new line-up would be the 1994 World Cup in the USA. This was unlikely to be as big a deal as the 1990 tournament, as of the home nations only the Republic of Ireland had qualified, and the time difference meant many of the matches would be played late at night, with several post-midnight kick-offs. Nevertheless, it was still likely to be the biggest sporting event of the year and watched by many millions.

The BBC covered the finals from London. Des Lynam was otherwise engaged for much of the first phase by Wimbledon, so Bob Wilson presented many of the early games, before Lynam played more of a role in the later stages, flying out with Alan Hansen and Jimmy Hill to the US for the Final.

ITV wanted to do something different. For the two previous major tournaments, the network had presented the games live from the grounds themselves, and indeed in the 1992 European Championships had eschewed a London base entirely, fronting everything – matches, highlights and magazine shows – on location in Sweden. Yet with the games in this tournament being played coast-to-coast, from New York to Los Angeles, it clearly wasn’t going to be possible to go to all the fixtures this time.

In the event, ITV settled for a rather ragged compromise. It would centre its coverage on a studio in Dallas. This was met with some scepticism by the opposition, with Des Lynam saying, “This made absolutely no sense to us at the BBC. If the studio had no outlook, what possible advantage would it give to the viewer? They might as well have had a studio in London like us.” Indeed, apart from the mushy NTSC picture quality and a sign on the wall saying “DALLAS”, for all the viewers knew they could indeed have been in London.

Even some of those at the channel were unimpressed. Brian Moore later said, “ITV made a dog’s breakfast of it by doing neither one thing nor the other. The programmes came from a dungeon-like studio in Dallas that had neither the visual, vibrant excitement of the stadium nor the comforts of home. The panel were far removed from the action and looked, and probably were, bored. These truly were ITV’s darkest sporting days.”

For Matthew Lorenzo, promoted as “the new Des Lynam”, it was something of a baptism of fire. While he was a perfectly proficient host, he seemed uncomfortable in the surroundings and was rather a dull and uninspiring presence on screen – not helped by the fact hardly anybody knew who he was. Tony Francis was no better, coming across as oily and insincere. The whole coverage was a weird transatlantic mish-mash with features such as “Play of the Day” and over-complicated replays, as well as contributions from one Dr Geek, who offered his opinions on the tournament in rap, sometimes making it look more like coverage of American Football than the Association kind.

Yet Lorenzo wasn’t helped by his pundits. Denis Law didn’t seem to care less, and when asked what he thought the Spanish coach would be saying to his team after a poor performance replied, “I don’t know, I can’t speak Spanish”. Worst of the lot, though, was Don Howe. He was considered one of the most adept coaches in the game, but was abysmal as a pundit. Not only did his oversized glasses and bald pate make him an unlikely TV star, but his flat West Midlands accent, dour opinions and patronising manner made even the most serious-minded viewer hanker for the liveliness of Jimmy Greaves. One of his most notorious moments came when he was asked if any Saudi Arabian players would be worth signing by an English team. Howe suggested, “You’d have problems because of the praying all the time, you wouldn’t know if they’d turn up for training. I’m being serious”, addressing the final sentence at his fellow pundits roaring with laughter.

Ratings for ITV’s coverage were abysmal, not helped by their decision to take two of Ireland’s first round matches and then let the BBC have first choice in all the knockout rounds. So the Corporation selected all the big ties while ITV were left hyping up coverage of Switzerland vs Romania at 1am. The hapless Lorenzo seemed to be chosen as the scapegoat, and after the tournament it was no surprise to see the network searching for another new host. Their choice was rather surprising.

Bob Wilson had spent 20 years at the BBC since retiring from professional football. During the 1970s he’d been Jimmy Hill’s regular sidekick on Match of the Day and hosted Grandstand‘s Football Focus, while also managing to extend his talents to a number of other sports. He helmed the whole of Grandstand on a number of occasions – most notably on the afternoon of the Hillsborough disaster when he’d had to use all his broadcasting skills to hold the programme together and provide information during a very confusing and distressing situation.

Yet despite his skills, he never quite made it to the very top. He was said to be upset when Des Lynam was chosen as Jimmy Hill’s replacement on Match of the Day, but Lynam’s easy and charming manner seemed rather more appealing than Wilson’s somewhat intense and earnest approach. It was as if he was never able to really relax in front of the camera, and so he became stuck in the sidekick’s role, fronting the highlights while Lynam got to host the big live events.

After the disaster of Dallas, Wilson was approached by Trevor East, who was now ITV’s Head of Sport following the departure of Greg Dyke. ITV’s credibility had undergone a serious knock with their hopeless coverage, and wanted to counter this by hiring someone with stature and experience. For Wilson, this was the first time he’d ever been headhunted in his entire television career, and the chance to finally become number one was very tempting. The BBC were eager to keep hold of him and offered him an improved contract, but Wilson asked who would get to present the Cup Final, the World Cup Final and the other big games. He already knew what the answer would be, and when it was confirmed, he decided to make the leap. His wife, Megs, who oversaw the contractual side of things, made sure that his new contract referred to him as “ITV’s principal football presenter” – aware that commercial television would be less sentimental if the onscreen talent ever fell out of favour.

In addition to a new host, ITV also needed some new pundits to cast to one side the memories of Don Howe and his mates. Terry Venables had been a regular on the BBC during the major tournaments, and had become particularly noted for his spiky on-screen relationship with Jimmy Hill. The pair were great friends, but in front of the camera Hill seemed to take great pleasure in taking the opposite viewpoint to encourage arguments, which amused viewers greatly. After the failure to qualify for the World Cup, Venables was appointed England manager, but around the same time, the media became increasingly interested in his business adventures, and he was at one point disqualified from becoming a company director. This was the subject of a Panorama programme and Venables – unhappy at what he felt was unfair treatment – elected not to continue working with the BBC. ITV jumped at the chance to hire him instead.

Bob Wilson and Terry Venables therefore became the channel’s new faces of football, with Jim Rosenthal returning as the second-in-command, while the gimmicky approach of previous years by and large gave way to a much more straightforward and fuss-free presentation. It took some time for Wilson to get used to the new surroundings, though, as he revealed. “Soon after my arrival, I was being counted to the close of the show, overran by a second or two, and clipped the incoming commercial. [Head of Football] Jeff Farmer told me the company concerned might well object to the loss of a second or two’s airtime and claim thousands of pounds in compensation. I never made the same mistake again.”

Fortunately for Bob, and for ITV, his arrival at the network in 1994 coincided with Manchester United finally making it through to the group stages of the Champions League, and with it lucrative matches with the likes of Barcelona. Still very much the third force in televised football, though, ITV were perennially searching for more opportunities to show the top teams. This led to them offering Aston Villa the opportunity of live coverage, and the extra cash that came with it, of their UEFA Cup tie with Inter Milan as long as they were prepared to move it from Tuesday to Thursday to better fit in with their schedules and avoid a clash with the BBC’s live European match.

This fiddling with the fixture list would become an increasingly familiar sight in the years to come. It was clear the broadcasters would continue splashing the cash to get hold of the big names and the big games, played at a time when the big audiences were available. Less than a decade on from a TV blackout, football was fast becoming a sport nobody could do without.

<Part Eight