Part Six: “Don’t Do It, Jimmy”

By Steve Williams

First published August 2007

As Match of the Day entered its third decade on air, for the first time live league football was a regular sight on British television. Throughout the 1983 – 84 season, ITV showed a number of live games on Sunday afternoons, while the BBC decided to experiment with Friday evening kick-offs.

Now, the chance to watch soccer as it happened seems the most obvious thing in the world, but at the time, it was considered one more step towards the complete collapse of the national game. Indeed, Vince Wright, writing in The Times in April 1984, was horrified to report, “In one recent 11-day period, no fewer than 15 matches were televised on sports programmes.”

Wright claimed that live matches were a disaster, saying, “In this situation, football cannot win. If the live match is substandard, the armchair viewer will be even more reluctant to pay at the turnstile; if the live match is a classic, then the armchair viewer is unlikely to settle for second best elsewhere, especially on a cold winter’s day.”

This sort of view seemed commonplace at the time. Indeed, Brian Moore, while previewing another fixture in TV Times, said, “I believe it’s important for the future of live football on television that it is a thriller. A number of critics are still looking to stick knives into live TV football; we started off well with the Spurs vs Nottingham Forest game, but every time we screen a match that doesn’t live up to expectations, the knockers are ready to write us off again.”

One side-effect of more live coverage was Brian Moore was often unable to combine the presenting and commentating roles as he had done during the highlights-only days. Hence, when The Big Match went live, he stayed out of vision on most occasions. Instead, two more recent recruits became the most familiar faces of ITV football.

During the 1960s, Ian St John was a hugely successful footballer with Liverpool and Scotland, before moving into management. Sadly, his career behind the scenes was much less distinguished than his playing days, and so “The Saint” – as he became known – decided to cross over into television. Even while still playing, he’d finished second behind Idwal Robling in the BBC’s commentator competition, and as a consolation prize, he’d been an analyst during the Corporation’s coverage of the 1970 World Cup.

In the mid-’70s, he joined Granada and – after a thorough grounding in broadcasting at a local level – was promoted to national television. In 1979, he replaced Brian Moore as host of On The Ball, the lunchtime preview as part of World of Sport. Here he found himself in competition with another footballer-turned-presenter, Bob Wilson, fronting Grandstand‘s Football Focus. Whereas now a move from the penalty box to the commentary box is a familiar one, St John and Wilson were among the first, and were certainly the bravest in heading straight for the anchor’s chair, where there was nobody to bail them out if they got into trouble.

The Saint proved himself to be a perfectly proficient television presenter, helped by the authority his playing career gave him. Hiring his future partner, however, was much more of a risk.

Like St John, Jimmy Greaves had enjoyed massive success as a professional in the ’60s, breaking goal-scoring records for Tottenham and England along the way. Yet when his playing days ended, Greaves found his sporting achievements overshadowed by a remarkable amount of drinking, and in 1979 announced to the nation that he was an alcoholic. Aiming to combat his demons, he wrote a successful autobiography, which was turned into an ITV documentary. The programme, This One’s On Me, largely eschewed narration in favour of lengthy sections where Greaves spoke directly to camera about his life. These scenes, where Greaves exhibited plenty of self-deprecating humour and personality, were highly acclaimed. Meanwhile the success of his book had led to an outspoken sporting column in The Sun.

Hence, in 1980, when ATV were looking for a new pundit for their football show Star Soccer, the name of Greaves came up in discussions. This was met with some scepticism, not just because of his turbulent private life, but also because Greaves had never lived or played in the Midlands, ATV’s region. Nevertheless, his opinionated and lively newspaper column and his apparent ease in front of the camera convinced producer Tony Flanagan to sign him up to appear alongside presenters Gary Newbon and Nick Owen every Saturday night.

After his first appearance, though, all the worries seemed to be justified. As Greaves himself said, “If there was a wrong camera to look at, I looked at it. If there was a time when not to speak, I spoke. If there was a piece of grammar what needed to be mangled, I mangled it.” He had attempted to model himself on the likes of Jimmy Hill, speaking knowledgeably about tactics, but was very clearly out of his depth and assumed he would be shown the door. However, a few weeks in, Greaves was asked his opinion on a blatantly offside goal, and told Newbon, “Blimey, if I was on the opposing team, I’d have told the linesman where to stick his flag” – to huge laughter in the studio. Finally, he felt at ease in front of the camera and had found his niche.

Alright, so the lines were hardly Wildean, but at a time when football was treated with the utmost seriousness, Greaves’ humorous approach to the game was very refreshing. He would speak honestly and simply about his views and, though some critics accused him of trivialising the sport, others felt this was just what was needed at a time when interest in football both on TV and in the stadia was declining fast.

Initially, Greaves’ telly work was confined only to the Midlands, but in 1982, he had caught the eye of the network and was invited to join the panel for that year’s World Cup. He immediately made an impact, picking up a TV Times award as one of the year’s brightest new television personalities. He worked particularly well with Ian St John, and so for the following season, Greaves was given a regular spot on On the Ball, where he appeared down the line from Birmingham giving his views on the week’s news and bantering with the Saint. The following season – when ITV’s football coverage was networked for the first time – they had been established as a familiar double-act. Greaves came down to London as a regular pundit on The Big Match, and joined Saint in the On the Ball studio every week.

While they were safe, however, the rest of World of Sport wasn’t. John Bromley, Head of Sport at ITV, said, “Society has changed and so have tastes in television sport. Viewers are no longer satisfied with recorded highlights when many of them already know the result and the element of surprise has gone. The trend now is towards the excitement of live actuality coverage, with viewers sharing the drama and despair, triumph and tears as they happen to the winners and losers in top-level sport.” Hence, in 1985, World of Sport came to an end after 20 years, the magazine format giving way to more flexible scheduling, with hours of uninterrupted live sport when it was happening, and alternative entertainment programmes when it wasn’t. On the Ball did, however, live on, but with a new name – Saint and Greavsie.

The trend towards live sport, and high quality live sport at that, meant, like it or not, live football was here to stay. Hence when contract negotiations with the Football League came around again in 1985, live matches were the BBC and ITV’s top priority. They offered £16 million over four years for 19 matches a season and the usual highlights programmes. The Football League – now with Oxford United chairman Robert Maxwell in charge of negotiation – met on 14 February and, as was becoming a familiar pattern, rejected it immediately, Maxwell referring to the offer as “mad, bad and sad”.

Most assumed that, as in previous years, the broadcasters might offer a bit more, or the League might demand a bit less coverage, and something would be sorted out in the end. However, the BBC and ITV were loathe to up their offer. The reasons were two-fold.

Firstly, the sport wasn’t that popular on television anymore. The average audience for the live matches on the BBC was around six or seven million viewers, which were below average for the Friday prime-time slot they occupied. Meanwhile, throughout 1984 and 1985, nearly 20 million people watched Barry McGuigan becoming World Featherweight Champion, Torvill and Dean grabbing Olympic Gold and, famously, Dennis Taylor winning the World Snooker Championships after midnight. Why spend most of the sports budget on soccer when it was no longer the main attraction?

Secondly, and more seriously, football was in a complete mess. Attendances, which had slowly but surely been declining, started to plummet. In one weekend in April 1984, only one match in the entire Football League was attended by more than 20,000 people, while average attendances for the season were the lowest since the war. Even famous First Division clubs like Spurs and Aston Villa were regularly welcoming less than 10,000 people through the turnstiles.

However the headlines about those who weren’t going to football were soon replaced by stories about those who were, as 1985 was clearly the nadir of the sport’s profile in Britain. The list of crowd incidents seemed to increase every week, most of which were captured on camera. Leicester City’s FA Cup match with Burton Albion was replayed behind closed doors after Burton’s goalkeeper was knocked unconscious by a plank thrown from the crowd. Chelsea fans invaded the pitch and started attacking players during their League Cup semi-final against Sunderland, with a policeman in the penalty area when the winning goal was scored. Violent Leeds fans managed to knock a wall down at Birmingham City and killed a child.

Even more horrifying was a full-blown riot by Millwall fans at Luton Town, the authorities asking the BBC for footage to identify a man seen on camera repeatedly kicking the head of a policeman. On the last day of the season, World of Sport crossed to Bradford City’s ground for live footage of the antiquated and completely unsafe main stand burning to the ground, thanks to a casually discarded match, killing dozens. It felt as if this carnage was unstoppable, and things reached a sickening climax with the last live match of the season on 29 May, where Liverpool vs Juventus in the European Cup Final at Heysel Stadium saw 39 people dead and more than 400 injured. Why would the broadcasters want to show football on telly if they were going to end up screening something like this?

One other effect of the Heysel disaster also helped to diminish the value of the game. After the incident, English clubs were indefinitely banned from taking part in European competition. This meant that, whereas before several clubs would be competing right up to the end of the season in the hope of claiming a place in Europe, there was now nothing to play for other than the title, so dozens of matches were rendered completely meaningless.

Hence there was no increased offer from the broadcasters to the League. In August, the BBC showed, as usual, highlights of the Charity Shield, as part of the broadcasters’ other deal with the FA for international and FA Cup matches. The following week, the season began – and the cameras stayed away.

Finally, the League had got what many of the club chairmen had wanted for many years – a complete moratorium on televised football. The two Saturday lunchtime programmes, Football Focus and Saint and Greavsie, stayed on air to discuss the game, but couldn’t show any of it. At teatime the football results were given out, and the news bulletins announced what had happened, but that was all you got. Apart from occasional World Cup qualifiers involving the home nations, TV viewers didn’t see a ball kicked at all.

This did not, however, lead to fans leaping off their armchairs and rushing back to the stadiums, as attendances dipped still further. With nothing much to play for, and plenty of scare stories about excessive violence, who would want to? For many, football had simply become an irrelevance. The best illustration of this came at West Ham where new signing Frank McAvennie was scoring goals by the truckload and had taken them to the top of the table, but as there were no cameras at the games, nobody knew what he looked like. On Saint and Greavsie, reporter Martin Tyler walked around outside Upton Park asking fans if they could recognise McAvennie, only to reveal that he was in fact standing right next to them.

Not only were fans staying away, but so were sponsors and advertisers, with companies beginning to question the value of their promotions if they were only being shown off to a handful of spectators. Nevertheless the dispute dragged on throughout the autumn and into the winter, much to the displeasure, particularly, of Manchester United fans, whose team had made a record-breaking start to the season with 10 consecutive wins, but not one of them was shown on television. By this point John Bromley was saying there probably wouldn’t be any football on TV that season apart from the Cup Final.

Eventually, Robert Maxwell was moved aside from the negotiating committee and the Football League waved the white flag. On Christmas Eve, they agreed to an offer of £1.3 million for television coverage of the rest of the season. Football returned to TV screens on Saturday 4 January 1986 when ITV scheduled highlights of three FA Cup third round matches, including a remarkable game at Blundell Park between Grimsby Town and Arsenal which ended 4-3 to the first division club, before the BBC showed the first live match the following day between Charlton Athletic and West Ham.

More live matches – now screened by both channels on Sunday afternoons, taking it in turns in what was considered the established slot for live football – and highlights shows ran for the rest of the season, and coverage of the 1986 World Cup, where England went out after an epic quarter-final match against Argentina, proved to be very successful. The BBC and ITV then paid £6.2 million (substantially less than the League had been holding out for 12 months previously) for the next two seasons.

However the increase in live matches – as well as the decent ratings the BBC had enjoyed on Saturday nights with films while Match of the Day was off the air – meant highlights were no longer a top priority for the broadcasters. Hence, the first weekend of the 1986 – 87 season, as the year before, saw no Match of the Day or Big Match. This time, though, it was the broadcasters who were responsible, as they decided to focus almost all their football coverage on their live games, only screening highlights as an absolute last resort. Of course, this meant the number of teams shown dipped substantially with most of the fixtures coming from the top of the First Division. Not only were most lower division teams never shown, nor were some of the less glamorous sides in the top flight.

This season, Match of the Day was shown in its familiar Saturday night spot on just two occasions, in January and March, while there were also 12 live matches on the BBC from the League, FA Cup and League Cup. On a few occasions football highlights would be served up as a supporting feature to other sports, so 10 minutes of a match between Portsmouth and Arsenal in August 1987 were shown on Saturday night BBC1 to fill a gap in a Sports Special between live boxing and live athletics.

The same emphasis on quality, rather than quantity, was apparent over on ITV. In July 1986, the commercial channel screened a charity match between South America and the Rest of the World – featuring Gary Lineker – live from Pasadena on a Sunday night. Games like this, with guaranteed big names, were much more appealing to their advertisers than a grim bottom-of-the-table scrap.

This new approach meant that, occasionally, there was a return to regional football coverage on ITV, if there was a particularly attractive match for a local audience that wasn’t being screened live. So in October 1986 LWT screened Saturday night highlights of an encounter between Wimbledon and Liverpool, which were also shown on Granada. Occasionally some lower division matches were covered – Tyne Tees sent their cameras to Sunderland vs Notts County at the top of Division Three in March 1988 for a Saturday night special, while Granada’s jaunt into the Second Division that season turned out to be a memorable one as Manchester City beat Huddersfield 10-1. 1988 also saw LWT cover Crystal Palace vs Blackburn Rovers in Division Two, but the lack of interest in highlights shows can be illustrated by the fact it was shown on Sunday at 9.30am.

In fact in 1986 – 87 there wasn’t even any coverage of the last day of the season, while a few weeks earlier, when Everton beat Norwich to claim the league title, all fans saw was the winning goal on the news. It also meant that, in many weeks, the only dedicated football shows on telly were Football Focus and Saint and Greavsie.

By this point the duo had established themselves as a familiar double act. Ian St John would take up the main role of presenting the show, linking the items and tackling the self-consciously “serious” bits, while Jimmy Greaves would pass comment on the reports, crack some gags and generally take the piss. For some, this relentless silliness could prove irritating – such as Greavsie’s continual jokes about the low standard of goalkeeping in “chilly Jocko-land”, always greeted by the Saint’s unconvincing chuckles – but others suggested it was what the sport needed at a low ebb.

The pair also argued they were prepared to take football seriously when they needed to and represent the fan’s view, although this seemed to manifest itself as such items as Greaves – always considered something of a loose cannon – bringing in the Spitting Image puppet of Sports Minister Colin Moynihan and ramming an “ID card” (which the government was making noises about bringing in for football supporters) up its backside, while Saint shouted, “Don’t do it, Jimmy!” Indeed, that other ’80s institution, Spitting Image, was responsible for a number of features on the show, most notably when Greaves was replaced by his puppet when he was off sick one week.

Still, by Christmas 1987, the game had turned itself around so much that Radio Times was greeting a rare highlights show by announcing that “the good news for the New Year is that the crowds are coming back to football”. It looked like the concentration on live action had proved a successful rebranding, and after the broadcasters had previously not wanted to touch it, football was becoming a hot property again …

<Part Five