Part Five: “I Don’t Want to be a Pessimist”

By Steve Williams

First published July 2007

The 1978/79 season turned out to be pivotal in English football. The arrival of Argentinean stars Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles at Tottenham opened the floodgates for umpteen foreign imports into the game – although, curiously, neither the BBC nor ITV decided to televise their first match for Spurs. Aside from the action on the pitch, off the field there was plenty going on as well.

At this point, the BBC’s number one commentator was John Motson. 14 years earlier he’d been one of the few who’d watched the first ever episode of Match of the Day, and worked his way up through local newspapers and radio before landing a job at BBC network radio in 1969. In 1971, he was at the FA Cup Final to interview the players, when he met David Coleman for the first time, and the star commentator announced, “I’ve just recommended you to Sam Leitch” – the then editor of Match of the Day, who was looking for a replacement for the departing Kenneth Wolstenholme.

Hence, Motson made his debut on the show on 9 October 1971, commentating on a goalless draw between Liverpool and Chelsea. A few other unremarkable matches followed, until February 1972, when he travelled to Hereford to commentate on their FA Cup match with Newcastle United. This was seen by most as just a way to give the rookie a bit more experience, as Newcastle were sure to win easily and it would only justify five minutes at the end of the programme. However, the non-leaguers triumphed, with the pitch invasion of several hundred parka-clad kids becoming one of the most iconic moments of TV football. As a result, Motson found himself commentating on one of the biggest matches of the season, which rightly took top billing on that night’s Match of the Day.

From that point, Motson established himself as a talented commentator and received regular assignments. Initially these weren’t all football-related because – as with many young commentators – he was asked to join the team for the Olympic Games and fill in on some of the minority sports. So, in Munich in 1972, Motson covered canoeing and, eager to please, greeted the sight of a British competitor whirling round in the water and nearly drowning with, “I don’t want to be a pessimist, but I think British hopes are receding”. Four years later in Montreal, he was lumbered with Greco-Roman Wrestling, which seemed to be something of an initiation test for new arrivals. In 1964, a young Frank Bough had to cover it, and was so baffled by the sport he was completely unable to work out who’d won the bout. At least Motson was able to identify a winner – though unfortunately, he identified the wrong one, thanks to his incorrect assumption that a Soviet wrestler would be wearing red.

More Motson’s scene was tennis and boxing, both of which he covered for BBC Radio for several years in tandem with his television work. But unlike his colleague Barry Davies – who commentated with great distinction on tennis, gymnastics, skating, hockey and numerous other sports – Motson decided in the late ’70s that he would be better served concentrating on his first love of football.

When David Coleman was in dispute with the BBC in 1977, Motson was selected as the commentator on the Cup Final, and made his mark when he decided to count the number of steps to the Royal box, ensuring that when Manchester United’s captain went to collect the trophy at the end, he was able to announce, “How appropriate that a man named Buchan is the first to climb the 39 steps.” Such was the dearth of football on television, six years from his debut this was the first time he’d ever commentated live on TV.

Motson was present for some of the most memorable moments in televised football in the ’70s. He was there when Norman Hunter and Francis Lee had a fist fight in the middle of the pitch, and when play was held up at Derby while a man came on and repainted the penalty spot, which had been completely obliterated by mud. There was some classic commentary, too, most notably when Liam Brady’s stunning goal for Arsenal against Spurs in December 1978 was accompanied by an incredulous, “Look at that, look at that!”

The same year, though, Motson almost found himself unemployed when, on 17 November 1978, the front page of the Daily Express screamed, “SNATCH OF THE DAY”. It announced that, after over a decade of sharing coverage with the BBC, ITV had secretly offered the Football League £5 million – more than three times what the two companies were currently paying between them – for exclusive rights to all league matches for three years.

The prime mover behind the deal was LWT’s new Director of Programmes, Michael Grade. LWT was in a unique position within the ITV network in that they only had three days a week to pull in an audience, and Saturdays were considered the poorest night of the week for the commercial channel. From Doctor Who to Parkinson, the BBC had the evening sewn up with a formidable line-up of programmes. Grade had already managed to poach one of the central figures when he lured Bruce Forsyth over to host his ill-fated Big Night. Now it was time to take on Match of the Day.

For the past 10 years, the BBC had screened football highlights on a Saturday night while ITV were confined to Sunday afternoons. Here, ITV had enjoyed a loyal audience – particularly of children unable to stay up past 10pm – and, thanks to the immaculately observed alternation of picks, were able to cover matches of equal quality. However, 24 hours after the matches had been played, the chances viewers would not know the results were slim, so ITV’s offerings were never quite as compulsive viewing.

The new deal was news to the BBC, but the Head of Football, Alec Weeks, told the press, “We are not downhearted and we are not beaten yet.” This turned out to be true as the Office of Fair Trading intervened and demanded the contract be ripped up – it was not felt in the public interest for one company to have a monopoly on all televised football. However, when the next four-year contract was eventually signed, ITV did get one aspect changed, and the two broadcasters would now alternate between Saturdays and Sundays each season.

For the first season of the deal, 1979/80, the BBC were still broadcasting on Saturday nights and things stayed much as they were. From August 1980, however, Jimmy Hill, John Motson and the team had to move to Sunday afternoons – swapping their suits for open-necked shirts along the way – while ITV took over the sacred Saturday night spot. As before, their programmes were still arranged regionally, with Brian Moore fronting The Big Match for London viewers and his local counterparts hosting their own shows.

However TV Times was quick to point out that all the companies were able to use the resources of the entire network and that of Independent Local Radio to cover the day’s events, and produced a very exciting timeline of how a typical programme would be put together (“Urgent phone call to Bristol to arrange interview with Notts County’s four-goal debutant … record feed of crowd trouble from Newcastle”). However, having to rearrange schedules every season was not ideal for either the broadcasters, or the fans.

Indeed, by the time the contract expired in 1983, things were very different. After all the lengths ITV had gone to, the much-prized Saturday night highlights were getting fairly unspectacular ratings that were no better than the films and imports they had replaced. Worse still, the quality of the product was declining, with attendances at grounds falling, while many of the 92 league clubs were suffering serious financial shortfalls. There was also an increasing presence of crowd trouble in the sport. In 1978, Millwall’s televised FA Cup tie with Ipswich was held up due to violent clashes between fans and the police. Motson, who was commentating on that occasion, later said that this was the first time he’d ever been really scared at a football match, yet in a few years this was becoming more and more common.

This meant that the 1982/83 season was introduced in the Radio Times, not with a breathless preview of the excitement to come, but with a rather depressing survey of the state of the game by John Motson. Here, he quoted Liverpool director Peter Robinson saying, “Every other form of professional entertainment has experienced some sort of shrinkage since the war. Theatres, cinemas and racetracks have had to close because there are no longer enough people who want to fill them. The same is true of football grounds.”

This gloomy air continued with ITV regularly scheduling their Saturday night highlights near midnight, and it was reported in January 1983 that the total audience for the two highlights programmes had, over the previous four years, fallen by around eight million viewers. So unexceptional were the figures that Gary Newbon, presenter and Head of Sport for Central, ATV’s successors, announced, “We don’t want Saturday night football ever again on ITV. Soccer on Sunday fits in better with the way we do programmes and television viewing.”

The BBC seemed happier with their Saturday night spot – Motson said in 1981 that, “Last season’s Sunday scheduling had its fans but, like Sunday football, it took a bit too much getting used to” – but ratings were falling here too. Hence, thought was turning towards something that had been off the agenda for many years – live football.

Sure enough, come February, the BBC and ITV offered £5.3 million to the Football League for two years, along with some radical new proposals. They were suggesting no coverage of domestic football at all until October, after which the two companies would take it in turns to cover one live match a week, either on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. There would be no other soccer, and only for the last six weeks of the season would any highlights programmes be considered. The League discussed their plans for an hour and promptly rejected them.

It seemed that the views of the League chairmen had barely changed since the ill-fated attempts to cover live football 20 years previously. Jack Dunnett MP, President of the League and Chairman of Notts County, announced, “In my opinion, TV has ruined football. I and my club would not be worried at all if soccer went off the screens next season.”

One of the major sticking points was the broadcasters’ refusal to allow shirt sponsorship to be seen on television. By this point, most clubs had agreed deals to feature advertising on their strip, but when they were featured on television these couldn’t be seen. There seemed little point in paying for the privilege if hardly anyone was going to see it, though. Meanwhile, the Football League themselves had just signed their first ever sponsorship deal, with the competition now being named after camera company Canon. Their chairman, Martin Walker, said, “If there is a significantly lower amount of football on television we would have to look at the situation again.”

The problem for the Football League was that the BBC and ITV were the only broadcasters around and – after the bad blood in 1978 – were committed to bidding together. Therefore if the League didn’t like what they were offering, there was no other option. However, shortly after, a Plan B appeared. A company called The London and Liverpool Trust offered the League £8 million to gain exclusive rights to matches, to be shown via Telejector – a channel broadcasting exclusively to some 2000 pubs.

For a time, it looked as if this offer would be accepted. There would be no restrictions on shirt sponsorship, nor would there be worries over excessive exposure keeping fans at home instead of the games. However, just two months later, Telejector pulled out of negotiations, claiming it would not be financially viable, citing the League’s demands that the rights reverted back to them after one screening as a major stumbling block, and deciding to show films in pubs instead. Most analysts claimed that the deal was doomed to failure in any case, David Miller of The Times saying, “Perimeter advertising revenue would immediately drop for an uncertain saloon bar audience who are probably playing darts or watching the stripper anyway.”

This meant the BBC and ITV were back as the only option. Since the last deal was rejected, the broadcasters had come back with some new proposals – though not any more money. They would now allow shirt sponsorship but, crucially, at half the size of the League’s regulations. Jonathan Martin, the BBC’s Head of Sport, said, “We have to try and face the reality of sport as it is now. We have been trying to find a way of reflecting the sponsors in football but I don’t think we would like to see sportsmen walking about as advertising billboards.” This seemed rather disingenuous given that, in the ’70s, one of the most famous stars of the BBC’s sport output was showjumping’s Harvey Smith, on his horse Sanyo Music Centre.

In addition, if the Football League wanted less soccer on television, they could have it. The two sides were not exactly coming at it from the same angle, though. The League wanted less matches screened each weekend to encourage fans to attend. The broadcasters had found that the parochial coverage of the likes of Hartlepool and Rochdale was not pulling in the viewers and wanted to concentrate on the big names and the big games at the top of the First Division. This was already the case in Yorkshire where, thanks to Leeds’ relegation in 1982, they had no top flight clubs and so moved to covering local matches only once a month, taking The Big Match the rest of the time.

The Football League scrutinised the new plans … and rejected them again. John Bromley, ITV’s Head of Sport, said, “Football has got to recognise that it is no longer one of the great sports on television. It may be the number one sport in the country but, sadly, it has lost its way, it is all over the place and is gradually strangling itself to death.” By now the season was over and nobody knew what would happen come August.

Finally, on 15 July, a contract was finally signed. The big news was that live league football was back on the agenda – but the BBC and ITV, rather than the 30-plus live games they were initially angling for, were allowed just 10, to be shared equally between them. In the weeks when live matches weren’t scheduled, coverage would be more or less the same as before – Match of the Day would screen highlights on Saturday nights and ITV on Sunday afternoons.

For Motson, this didn’t lead to much upheaval, telling Radio Times, “That fact that the programme’s on Saturday again – other than the fact that’s its rightful home – doesn’t really affect me. I do my commentary and then I’m away.” Indeed, unlike his counterpart Brian Moore on ITV, Motson had always seemed incredibly ill-at-ease in front of the camera and, bar a few occasions sitting in for Bob Wilson on the Match of the Day results round-up in the ’70s, barely appeared as a presenter. For the rest of his ITV peers, however, there was a major change – all the ITV regions would now run a nationally networked Big Match, showing highlights from two games, rather than the six or so local games that had previously been the case.

The deal was worth £5.2 million over two years, of which £25,000 would be given to each of the 92 clubs every season, while the remaining £300,000 would go into a special fund to compensate clubs who claimed they lost revenue due to live television. Jimmy Hill said, “If a club can prove that attendance drops as a direct result of live TV coverage, then compensation is assured. But we all hope that attendances as a whole will pick up because of the interest generated. We can only wait and see.

“I was never worried, even when all the jokes about the dole queue were flying about. Football needs TV as much as the other way round. Common sense tells you that perimeter advertising, shirt advertising and sponsorship are crucially geared to television coverage. I didn’t doubt for a moment that we’d be back.”

The first live league match under the new deal saw Tottenham Hotspur take on Nottingham Forest on Sunday 2 October 1983, live on ITV. For a while, all seemed well, but then after all the efforts to keep football on television, fans were then without the sport for several weeks in any case, due to problems within the broadcasters themselves. Somewhat inevitably, ITV’s move from six locally-produced shows to one national broadcast each weekend brought about a union dispute among editing staff. While live matches were unaffected, there were no highlights shows from September until the New Year.

Then, in October, the BBC’s outside broadcast staff walked out, and there was no football at all on the BBC for five weeks – including their planned first live match, and John Motson, who was scheduled to commentate on the live coverage of Watford vs West Ham at the end of October, was left twiddling his thumbs.

Eventually everyone was back and made it to the end of the season in one piece. But there was still a shaky relationship between the broadcasters, the authorities and the fans – and things would get worse before they got better …

<Part Four