Part Eleven: “He Can Sit There Playing With His Silly Machines”

By Steve Williams

First published January 2008

The departure of top flight league football from terrestrial screens to the new frontier of Sky Sports in 1992 was one of the most controversial decisions in the history of the game. It seems odd to think less than a decade had passed since it was seriously feared the sport would not be screened on any channel, but little generated as many column inches as the exile of football to satellite television.

One school of thought was the Premier League’s move to subscription broadcasting would have a huge effect on the game’s appeal. Trevor East, Head of Sport at ITV, said, “When we had the Premiership (sic), gates increased year by year. They’re still doing that, but for how long? Most children used to see top live domestic football on television. Now only those able to watch BSkyB can do that. I worry they’ll lose their appetite for the game.”

If Sky wasn’t being blamed for hiding football away, it was being blamed for putting too much soccer on screen and turning it into just another TV show. Sky’s Head of Sport David Hill countered this suggestion as the network started their Premier League coverage – “I think infotainment is a vital part of the whole package. I think the more you educate people to what’s happening, the more they enjoy it. And if a wife is so worried that her husband watching more football is going to destroy their marriage, I suggest they both have a hard look at their marriage contract.

“I do not believe that TV should run sport, but I do believe that it can make suggestions. For example, I’d like to see players wearing numbers on their shorts and names on the back of their shirts, but it’s up to the sport to say yes or no. We don’t have an iron rod to beat them over the head with.” In fact, soon after this idea was indeed introduced throughout the Premier League.

Of course, the arrival of Sky Sports meant the audiences for top-flight football plummeted. In 1993/94, the average Premier League match on the channel pulled in around 800,000 viewers – about a 10th of the audience they formerly enjoyed on ITV. Yet those who shelled out for a dish and the subscription were certainly receiving a better service than they ever got in the terrestrial days – two live matches a week, every week, as well of plenty of analysis and discussion, or as David Hill preferred to call it, “infotainment”.

As a dedicated sports channel, Sky could also provide a more in-depth service, aware that its audience were all football fans who had actively purchased the channel. This meant they could feature more technical and specialised chat, most obviously with Andy Gray’s blackboards and telestrators in his Boot Room. After the Sky Strikers had been quietly phased out, it was obvious Sky Sports were seriously committed to football.

Initially, live matches were accompanied by various magazine shows. Soccer Weekend on Fridays previewed the forthcoming fixtures, while Goals on Sunday offered a lunchtime look at the previous day’s highlights. Meanwhile The Footballers’ Football Show saw Richard Keys marshal a discussion between various pros on the latest issues, and Sports Centre was the channel’s regular news service.

As well as soccer, Sky Sports were also making great strides in buying up rights to other pursuits, such as cricket (including the England team’s overseas tours) and rugby union. After a number of Premier League matches in the 1993/94 season ended up being screened on Sky One due to scheduling clashes, Sky Sports 2 was launched that August, offering more space for live action. Two seasons later, Sky Sports 3 followed.

This rapid expansion followed Sky’s success in grabbing many more footballing contracts. Live Scottish Premier League football was the first arrival in 1995, with several games a season and accompanying highlights shows, including the imaginatively-though-stereotypically-named Tartan Extra. Then in 1996 came the Football League and the League Cup.

For the previous four seasons this had been ITV’s security blanket after the departure of the top flight, but their coverage had never managed to convince viewers this wasn’t a rather second-rate replacement for the big guns. As Giles Smith of the Daily Telegraph noted, “Remember poor Ian St John on ITV, who smiled until his facial muscles ached but never quite convinced us that his spirit wasn’t poised directly over a deep lake of disappointment and despair.” There was no such pining on Sky Sports, who offered two live matches a week on Friday nights and Sunday lunchtimes, and hence full coverage of all four professional divisions (although ITV kept highlights rights). As before, Sky had endless hours to devote to the deal and so for the first time a number of Division Two and Three matches were shown live on television, including Peter Shilton’s record-breaking 1000th league match during his brief spell at Leyton Orient.

The 1997/98 season, meanwhile, saw the start of a new deal to cover England and the FA Cup. Most of the headlines focused on the fact ITV had taken over from the BBC as the terrestrial broadcaster of these fixtures, but more significant for Sky was that they were now lead partner in this deal, and hence got first choice in every round of the Cup, as well as keeping exclusive live rights to England’s home matches.

What this all meant was between 1997 and 2001, the satellite broadcaster had a clean sweep of domestic football in England, with exclusive or first-choice live rights in every competition, and hence ensuring almost every football match of any importance would be broadcast on Sky Sports. Sure, most of it also appeared as highlights on the BBC and ITV, but less than a decade after their stumbling first steps as the BSB Sports Channel, Sky Sports enjoyed dominance of the market to an extent that hadn’t been seen since the 1950s when the BBC were the only broadcasters in existence. Only the Champions League – exclusive to ITV – and the listed World Cup and European Championship finals stayed out of their grasp.

In addition to the increasing amount of football matches on Sky Sports was an increasing amount of football programming. Yet ironically, one of the most popular and influential made a virtue of the fact it wasn’t allowed to show any football at all.

In the early days of Sky Sports, Saturday afternoons were devoted to Sports Saturday, a series referred to by one of its original presenters, Sue Barker, as “like Grandstand on drugs”. In fact, the programme it most resembled was World of Sport, with a rag-bag of imported minority sports, and it remained something of an irrelevance for most viewers. Saturday afternoons were always going to be tough for Sky to fill. No matter how much football they acquired the Football Association demanded no live matches were screened between 3pm and 5pm on Saturdays, fearful if this was allowed nobody would bother going to the dozens of lower league fixtures taking place at that time.

Sports Saturday did, as Grandstand and World of Sport had, end with a look at the teleprinter and live reports from all the matches taking place that day. Come 1995, the decision was taken to drop all other sports and instead extend this service to cover the entire afternoon, with continuous rolling football news and scores. Basically this was a radio show on TV, with no footage of balls being kicked but the emphasis on constant statistics and information. With this came a change of name to, inevitably, Soccer Saturday.

The presenter of this show was Jeff Stelling. He had started his broadcasting career on Radio Tees in his home town of Hartlepool before working as a reporter on TV-am and BBC Radio before joining the BSB Sports Channel. When it became Sky Sports he presented coverage of darts, snooker and horse racing, but football remained his favoured sport. At the point he became the full-time host of the scores service, Stelling spent plenty of time going through statistics to ensure he was fully briefed and could interpret any result the teleprinter threw at him. Indeed, he was extremely proud of his research and made it his duty to know the name of the current top scorer at every league club off by heart.

As well-prepared as Stelling was, however, watching one man simply read out scores for several hours was unlikely to make for thrilling television. To this end, he was joined in the studio by a number of former professional players who would watch one of the matches on a monitor in front of them and report on what was going on. For the first season, the pundits were actually offscreen during the matches – and would occasionally suggest they were at the game, even though they’d been in the studio before and after – but this charade soon ended.

The idea of watching somebody watching television seems ludicrous, but somehow Soccer Saturday seemed to work and quickly became cult viewing among football fans. Stelling’s quick wit and good humour undoubtedly played a part, while the production team also had the knack of picking the most outspoken and colourful pundits – the likes of Rodney Marsh and George Best – who would bounce off Stelling and get suitably excited by what they were seeing. This was never more the case than with Chris Kamara, who would be sent out to report from a ground (like most of Soccer Saturday‘s reporters, in-vision in the stands, but always positioned in such a way that you couldn’t see what was happening on the pitch) and would almost always suggest that was he was watching was “unbelievable, Jeff!”. The conventions of television were largely ignored with the pundits continually interrupting each other to pass on the latest news, while viewers became used to listening out for off-camera screams as the first indication a goal had been scored.

Throughout it all, Stelling remained unflappable, clearly relishing anchoring a huge slab of live, unscripted television. He tended to have a funny line for every occasion – when Scottish striker Kevin Webster scored, he would always remark, “Sally will be pleased!”, while wins for heavily sponsored Welsh league side Total Network Solutions would be greeted with, “They’ll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight”. Stelling was also as interested in the likes of Stockport and Grimsby as he was Liverpool and Arsenal, making sure the lower league results were always commented on, most obviously in his undisguised glee whenever Hartlepool scored.

Piss-takes and running gags abounded, but Stelling ensured the information came first, and if you couldn’t get to your team’s match, Soccer Saturday was the best way to stay in touch. Indeed, no less a figure than Des Lynam referred to Stelling as, “in my view [Sky's] best sports broadcaster by miles. I can see the buzz he gets out of the show”.

Another programme that soon became a regular part of a fan’s Saturday was Soccer AM. This first started in 1994 and, given its 7am start time, was clearly aimed at a slightly younger audience than the rest of Sky’s output, mixing goal clips with previews, competitions and phone-ins. Virgin Radio DJ Russ Williams was the first host, joined the following year by kids’ TV presenter Helen Chamberlain, headhunted after the producers noticed her constant references to Torquay United during her links on Nickelodeon. However it wasn’t until 1997, when producer Tim Lovejoy joined Chamberlain as host, and the show moved to the more civilised hour of 9am, that it really took off.

Lovejoy had previously worked for The Big Breakfast and remodelled the show as a cross between that programme and Cup Final Grandstand. It certainly caused a stir, as Lovejoy and Chamberlain were referred to as “the best TV pairing since Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin” and the show itself called “the new Tiswas“, as it mixed the usual fare of last week’s goals and previews of the day’s fixtures with daft sketches and features. Most popular of them all was Third Eye, where ludicrous moments in the background of live matches (mascots falling over, fans in silly hats) were spotted. Another favourite was Soccer Locker, where a previously innocuous guess-the-player-from-the-clues phone-in turned into complete chaos, with the clues becoming extremely loose impressions that nobody ever managed to identify, so much so all pretence of it actually being a competition was eventually dropped..

This Fantasy Football-esque approach was hugely popular, especially with players themselves who would invariably watch it in their hotel rooms before a match and hence often agree to appear, while some high-profile guests – such as Noel Gallagher – were inspired by the show’s credibility to make rare TV appearances on the sofa.

If these innovations to football coverage were largely welcomed, one controversial arrival was pay-per-view television. Even before Sky had begun, television writers were suggesting there would come a time when fans would be required to pay a fee for every match. Pay-per-view television had made its first appearance in the UK in 1996 when Sky Box Office opened for business and boxing fans were required to pay £9.99 for the privilege of watching Frank Bruno fight Mike Tyson from their armchair.

Several other big boxing matches were broadcast in this way, as well as a number of other live events, but the question was always when football would follow. Sky were, however, aware of the criticism they would face for demanding an extra fee from customers when they had already shelled out for a dish and a subscription. It was therefore imperative that any pay-per-view football would only be in addition to, rather than instead of, the live matches that came as part of the existing Sky contract.

Sky’s deal with the Premiership didn’t allow for any extra game to be offered, but the Football League agreed for some experimental transmissions in 1999. Sky were quick to point out that if fans didn’t want to pay extra then they would not suffer in any way as there was still going to be the same number of live matches on Sky Sports – these were matches that otherwise would not have been televised. The first was broadcast at 6pm on Saturday 27 February 1999, and saw Oxford United take on Sunderland. The choice of this match was not surprising – Sunderland had one of the biggest fanbases in the league and Oxford’s ground was notoriously tiny and ramshackle, so many away fans would be unable, or unwilling, to travel from the North East and would welcome the opportunity to watch in comfort. The same formula of a well-supported team at a small ground was repeated a month later when viewers were invited to pay for Manchester City’s trip to Colchester. No further matches followed, but the authorities, and Sky, studied the results of the experiment closely.

Despite this diversification, however, Sky Sports’ top priority remained live Premiership football. Richard Keys and Andy Gray continued as mainstays of the coverage, with Martin Tyler joining Gray in the commentary box on Sundays and Ian Darke on Mondays. For the first few years the Sunday coverage remained very much as it was, and the arrival of a second Sky Sports channel meant on the final day of the 1994/95 season they were, for the first time, able to cover two matches at once, showing Blackburn Rovers winning the title at Liverpool on one channel and Manchester United losing it against West Ham on the other.

However it was Monday nights that saw the most changes. The fireworks and live bands of the early months were soon jettisoned, having failed to really rival Coronation Street in the hearts and minds of the casual viewer, and more traditional match coverage ensued. However this gave way in 1994 to a new approach, caused by merging Andy Gray’s Boot Room into the Monday Night Football line-up.

Gray therefore gave up his seat to Trevor Francis in the commentary box and instead joined Richard Keys in the studio, with the live match now being preceded by an hour of discussion and analysis of the weekend’s matches. Again the emphasis was on tactics, and hence Gray was accompanied by all the latest technology Sky could throw at him. To enable him to get his points across as simply as possible, he operated all the machines himself, scribbling all over the screen with an electronic pencil to illustrate a player’s choices and winding footage backwards and forwards to confirm whether a referee’s offside direction was correct.

Often, this was done very much on the hoof. Gray said, “The huge great touch screen we used that drew and highlighted everything was a fantastic device. My basic experience with that machine was that I walked in on Monday at two o’clock, the producer said, ‘That’s it. We’re using it tonight’, and I had an hour fiddling about with it before I was using it in front of millions of viewers.” Andy Melvin, Sky’s Head of Football, said it was all to the good if Gray wasn’t really sure how a machine worked sometimes because it at least proved he was doing it himself.

Sky Sports in general, and Monday Night Football in particular, really began to take off in the 1995/96 season. Ian Darke had given up full-time football commentary to concentrate on his specialist subject of boxing, so Rob Hawthorne joined from BBC Radio as commentator, though he only covered the Premiership for one season before being moved over to the newly-acquired Football League and replaced by ITV’s Alan Parry – making Parry the first person to have commentated for all three major football broadcasters. However it was in the studio where things really kicked off.

Perhaps the biggest splash came when Ruud Gullit, the former World Player of the Year then coming to the end of his playing days at Chelsea, came in as a pundit one Monday and amazed everyone with his erudition and knowledge of the game, leading Andy Gray, somewhat in jest, to request his bosses, “Don’t invite him on again – he knows too much about football.” In fact Gullit’s club commitments – he was about to become Chelsea’s manager – meant he was unable to appear on television very often, although the BBC were suitably impressed to hire him for their upcoming coverage of the European Championships.

Later in the season came an extremely intense post-match interview with Coventry manager Ron Atkinson after his team had lost a crucial bottom-of-the-table scrap with Southampton, where Richard Keys, a Coventry fan himself, suggested to Atkinson that Andy Gray – who had worked under Atkinson when he was Assistant Manager at Aston Villa – reckoned Coventry got what they deserved. A highly emotional Atkinson raged, “I don’t care what he thinks. He can sit there playing with his silly machines”, before storming out with his headphones springing back into the producer’s face.

Yet this was soon overshadowed by an even more extraordinary interview on Monday Night Football. The end of the season had seen Newcastle United contrive to throw away a healthy lead at the top of the table and let Manchester United overtake them. Sky’s cameras had followed the two teams all the way. Indeed, the final few weeks of the season saw staggered kick-offs and last minute reschedulings so the channel could broadcast every match featuring the two Uniteds – the first time the run-in to the title had been covered in such depth.

After Newcastle beat Leeds three games from the end on a Monday night, Keys quizzed the side’s boss, Kevin Keegan, about Alex Ferguson’s suggestion Manchester United’s opponents tried harder against them than Newcastle. Keegan seemed to virtually explode, hollering, “He went down in my estimation when he said that, I would love it if we beat them, just love it” into the microphone. This remarkable piece of television would later come to define the moment Keegan appeared to completely crack under the pressure and Newcastle lost the title.

Some wondered if such a moment illustrated Sky’s constant need for action and comment had gone too far, with John Motson saying, “Nowadays there is a trail of microphones and cameras ready to intercept [managers] the moment they leave the dressing room. Managers and players have to accept that this is very much part of the job, especially when television money is largely paying their wages, but you can understand it if they feel they should be allowed a cooling-off period before they speak.”

For good or ill, Sky Sports had confirmed themselves as a major player in televised football. But that’s not to say the terrestrial networks had given up, and now yet another channel was hoping to make a splash …

<Part Ten