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Football on TV: key moments in the history of televising the game

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In the latest blog from our partners The Blizzard, Scott Murray looks at eight key moments in football on TV from Issue Eight of the football quarterly…

Eight Bells: Football on television

1. Football at the Arsenal (1937)

Exactly how much effort the BBC put into television during the medium’s infant years is a moot point. Take the opening day of their regular service, on Monday, 2 November 1936. At 3pm, the curtain went up for pompous welcoming speeches by various BBC grandees, blowhards and windbags. After a whopping 25 minutes of programming, the station paused for its first interval. Another 35 minutes and it was time for closedown, followed by large G&Ts all round, then a siesta. Thanks, BBC, you pissed-up shower of indolent toffs!

Media historians today will tell you that the most memorable and spectacular performance put on by the BBC Television Service during the 1930s came on 1 September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and the entire department swung their boots up onto their desks in choreographed unison, having been presented with the perfect excuse to do bugger all for the next six years. Though in fairness, between 1936 and 1939, at least a little work had been undertaken to advance the cause of live televised sport.

On 14 April 1937, the BBC studios at Alexandra Palace played host to the first television demonstration of snooker, an exhibition of play by Horace Lindrum and Willie Smith. The programme lasted ten minutes, whereupon it made way for Daffodils (“a display of various types of daffodils from the Daffodil Show” — Radio Times). Another couple of months down the line, and the BBC were off to Wimbledon for the first time. And then, on Thursday 16 September, it was the turn of football, and the world’s first live televised match.

The game had admittedly limited appeal — George Allison’s Arsenal were taking on Arsenal reserves at Highbury — but then only a few hundred houses close to Ally Pally in north London could receive BBC pictures anyway. Arsenal were the natural choice for the BBC’s experiment anyway: Highbury was the closest ground to Ally Pally and had a bespoke gantry for telly cameras in its fancy new East Stand.

“The players will be introduced by Mr George F Allison, manager of the club,” began a breathless preview in the Manchester Guardian. “The television demonstrations will show tactics on the field, shooting in goal, dribbling and goalkeeping. Three cameras will be used, one being on the stands to give a comprehensive view of the ground and two others near the goalmouth to give close-ups of the play and players and visual interviews. No film will be used, transmission being by radio direct to Alexandra Palace which can actually be seen from the ground.”

Not much action was shown. The BBC were still persisting with their one-hour afternoon schedule, and, with most of it gobbled up by Fancy That! starring the camp comic Douglas Byng, the programme only lasted 15 minutes. But the BBC had proven that football could work on the small screen and within the year, an England-Scotland international and an FA Cup final had been shown live. It was certain football would become a fixture in the schedules, although first it was time for war, glasses of juniper juice and a nice long boozy snooze.

2. International Football (1957)

In late 1946, the folk at BBC Television yawned, scratched their arses, reluctantly put the crossword down and did some telly. Over the next decade, their memorable output would include a few FA Cup finals when they could be bothered, live coverage of a German aristocrat being given a shiny new hat, a potters wheel, a kitten playing with a ball of wool, and, er, that’s it!  (Note for the purposes of clarity: Er, That’s It! was not a vehicle for the camp comic Douglas Byng.)

But then ITV came along in late 1955 and shook the whole scene up. Within two months, they’d shown live coverage of floodlit friendlies between Hibernian and Manchester City, and Wolverhampton Wanderers and Dinamo Moscow. Another couple of months down the line, and live FA Cup ties between Bedford Town and Arsenal, Chelsea and Burnley, and West Ham and Spurs were under their belt. The coverage was live, exclusive and only of the second halves: ITV weren’t allowed to show domestic games in their entirety lest attendances be adversely affected.

But they were given free rein to transmit full coverage of ties in the new-fangled European Cup. The 1955 champions Chelsea had cravenly kow-towed to pressure from the xenophobic Football League chairman Alan Hardaker, who infamously didn’t want his clubs consorting with “wogs and dagoes”, but their successors at Manchester United were having none of Hardaker’s sorry shit. United were in the centre of a perfect televisual storm: their manager Matt Busby was effectively in control of a sleepy boardroom and insisted on participation in Europe; his Busby Babes side were fantastic to watch, perfect fodder for casual armchair viewing; the biggest and richest company in the new ITV was Granada, based in Manchester; and the owners of Granada, the Bernstein brothers, were, as the company name suggests, hispanophiles. Oh look, here come Real Madrid!

The second leg of the 1957 semi-final between United and Real at Old Trafford thus became the first match to be transmitted live in its entirety on ITV. Well, almost. Only the second half of International Football [sic] was networked nationally; it was just lucky viewers in the north-western Granada region who were offered the full game. And even then it didn’t quite work out like that. The first four minutes of the match were lost to an advertising break. Unlike in later years, when the network regularly blocked out important goals through sheer incompetence — the Dan Gosling / Tic Tac affair, for example, or England’s one moment of glee at the 2010 World Cup — this wasn’t ITV’s fault. The referee had simply started the game early, as he couldn’t be bothered to hang around in the chilly Manchester air — and who could blame him.

3. The Big Game (1960)

ITV kept pestering the Football League for the right to show First Division action and in 1960 they wrote a large enough cheque — £150,000 — for football’s principles to be hoicked out of the window. A compromise was struck. Televised games wouldn’t kick off until 6.50 on a Saturday evening and ITV wouldn’t join the action until the last few minutes of the first half at 7.30pm, allowing supporters from the afternoon fixtures time to get back to their armchairs. ITV announced that on September 10, the First Division match between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers would be the first edition of the centrepiece of the network’s new Saturday evening schedule: The Big Game. “It’s viewing with a KICK!” promised Val Parnell, the guy who lent his name to the contemporary hit Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and one of the many magnificently entertaining cigar-toting chancers then running ITV.

Parnell, an impresario schooled in the ways of the theatre, was merely whipping up the public like a good showman should. But his act consisted solely of a man talking through his hat. Before The Big Game even kicked off, it had all, well, kicked off. Turns out the League had snaffled the cash greedily without considering the wishes of the clubs. The very thought!  Tottenham Hotspur — the runaway league leaders and sexiest team of the era — were hosting Aston Villa a fortnight after the opening show, and the fixture had been lined up as the third edition of The Big Game. But the Football League hadn’t banked on Spurs telling them to shove their agreement with ITV up their centre circle.

Arsenal quickly followed suit. They’d been pencilled in for the second edition, as hosts to Newcastle. And the other glamour clubs of the day — Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest — were all also expected to revolt.

With the whole affair threatening to descend into freeform farce, ITV crossed their fingers and hoped that the Blackpool-Bolton curtain-raiser would wow the nation and make a few recalcitrant clubs change their stance. Oh dear. Even that was doomed to failure before the get-go. “A leg injury keeps out Stanley Matthews,” reported the Daily Express, “the only player capable of putting £150,000 sparkle into a match which lacks crowd-pulling appeal.” ITV’s production staff placed the main camera behind one of the goals at Broomfield Road, which ensured that, according to an apoplectic Daily Mirror review, “the pitch looked 200 yards wide and only 50 yards long!”

That may or may not have been a bad thing, because it would have required psychedelic levels of distortion to maintain the viewer’s interest in a drab 1-0 win for Bolton. “There was no point in commentators Peter Lloyd and former England skipper Billy Wright trying to kid us that we were watching a smasher,” continued the empurpled man in the Mirror. “Mr Lloyd hadn’t checked his facts. He referred to the packed crowd — when there were 17,000 in a ground that can hold more than twice that. And his identification of the players was sometimes late and sometimes wrong. It all added up to an unnecessary irritation.” To add insult to injury, the Arsenal game which had been lined up for the following week but already blacked out, would subsequently be a five-goal spectacular.

Live football on British television would have to wait another 23 years. The first game, inevitably, would be at Spurs. On ITV. If only Val Parnell had still been around to talk it up.

4. This Is Your Life (1961)

And in a seamless segue, so to someone who made it his life’s mission to talk it down. Danny Blanchflower packed up playing in 1964 and having devoted his life to the glory, glory game as a player, decided to bring a little of his trademark vitality and honesty to the world of journalism. He was as singular in his new profession as he had been in his old one, telling it as it was, rather than how people might like to hear it. Which may explain why he wasn’t exactly a roaring success as a ‘color man’ for US network CBS, who snapped him up for the inaugural season of the National Professional Soccer League.

Blanchflower was tasked with the job of selling soccer to a new American audience. Sadly for CBS, the quality of the new league was piss-poor, and their color man was not of a mind to kid the audience that the fare on display was anything other than monochrome. “Blanchflower killed every soccer sportscast for us,” moaned CBS producer Bill Bergesch. “He pointed out all the bad things. He was so honest it hurt us. His job was to promote the sport. That’s what we were paying him to do.”

He was eventually hauled into the offices at CBS after going to town on a goalkeeper from St Louis who had dived over a dribbler from distance. “We think there are two truths, a positive truth and a negative truth,” they said to him. “You could have said it was a good shot. We want you to say it was a good play rather than bad.”

Blanchflower — who as a journalist would keep a resignation letter in his pocket to produce during arguments over articles which had been toned down by spineless editorial staff — was not going to take that lying down. “I had never met men before who worshiped two truths,” he wrote in Sports Illustrated a year later, after inevitably getting the boot. “Why had such inventive souls stopped at only two, I wondered? Why not four truths? Or 10? The philosophical winds of it swept through my mind. If they had two truths they must have two gods… But if there was no bad, how could there be good? What would their reactions have been if I had said of the goalkeeper at St Louis: Well, folks … that sure was good negative play on his part, making it easy for them to score that great goal.”

It all makes one wonder whether CBS had done much research into Blanchflower at all. The man, after all, was famous in Britain not just for captaining Spurs to the double, or hilariously berating Alf Ramsey throughout the sixties for his pulseless brand of football, but also for being the first celebrity to turn down an appearance on This Is Your Life in 1961. “Basically I did not want to expose myself to the public without the right to say yes or no,” he later explained. “You get shanghaied into this situation where you are suddenly exposed to something.” He declined a second BBC offer later in the year.

Viewers were not shortchanged, though. Instead of the planned Blanchflower programme, the makers of This Is Your Life had a spare in their back pocket, and the nation was treated to the story of Dr Robert Fawcus, a GP from Chard in Somerset, who pootled around the town on his “famous round-tank motor cycle” in order to get to “every emergency, whatever the time or weather”. Eamonn Andrews’s big red book went on to note that the kindly Dr Fawcus was “smiling and tolerant”, which if nothing else goes to show the BBC didn’t just lazily fill the Blanchflower-shaped hole like for like.

5. Match of the Day (1964)

Having viewed the freewheeling debacle of The Big Game with detached amusement, the BBC had steered clear of live football, major international set-pieces and FA Cup finals apart. The Football League was more trouble than it was worth. However, they didn’t shy away from highlights reels, and had shown short clips from Football League matches regularly of a Saturday evening since 1955, in programmes such as Sports Special and Saturday Sport. By 1962, a couple of regional ITV companies — Anglia and Tyne Tees — had started knocking together highlights programmes of their own. This clearly got the BBC thinking, and when they set up BBC2 in 1964, then quickly realised they had bugger all to put on it, they decided it was time for action.

And so, at 6.30pm on August 22, the opening day of the 1964-65 season, BBC2 transmitted the first edition of Match of the Day. The programme did exactly as it says on the film tin, consisting of one match, and one match alone, played earlier that day: reigning champions Liverpool playing host to Arsenal. That MotD, as it wasn’t yet known, could be out and over the airwaves in less than two hours of the final whistle was down to new-fangled video and editing facilities.

Less impressive was the fact that nobody who went to Anfield that day would have been able to see the programme: BBC2 had been on the air for a mere four months, and could only be received by a select few with expensive new 625-line sets in the London area. Viewers in Liverpool had a choice between The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, a western on BBC1, or another western on ITV, Sugarfoot. The Beeb’s generously rounded-up viewing figures: 20,000, less than half the match’s 47,620 attendance. Like 1937 all over again, then, albeit this time Arsenal got their arses felt in a 3-2 defeat.

Shame, because the programme was a good one. Kenneth Wolstenholme stood pitchside before the game to introduce the very first edition, with “She Loves You” and “Hippy Hippy Shake” hooting over the PA system. “As you can hear, we’re in Beatle-ville!” ran the commentator’s now-famous introduction. Liverpool flew into a two-goal lead through Roger Hunt and Gordon Wallace, Geoff Strong and Joe Baker levelled with two goals in 45 second-half seconds, and Wallace grabbed his second, Liverpool’s third, and the winner with three minutes to go. 

“Phew, well I’d call it the match of the century, I don’t know about Match of the Day,” quipped Wolstenholme after the game, pitchside once more. The colour analyst Walley Barnes — formerly of Arsenal, and more willing than Danny Blanchflower to do television’s bidding — stepped awkwardly into shot in Cholmondley-Warneresque fashion and agreed with the presenter that “match of the century is probably very right.”

6. Pay-TV (1966)

There are no new ideas. Sky Sports staged the biggest song and dance routine performed outside the MGM studios when they launched Premiership Plus in 2001. It was their first foray into pay-per-view, and as such was sold, to a myopic generation who only avert their gaze from their navels in order to have the occasional quick peek up their own fundaments, as a groundbreaking enterprise.

Which, in fairness, it was for the majority of the country. It was the UK’s first nationwide pay-per-view channel; the first game armchair viewers had to stump up ready money for was Chelsea versus Newcastle United. Boudewijn Zenden scored on eight minutes, Clarence Acuña equalised on 77. Can we have our £8 back, please?

However, it wasn’t the first PPV football match to be transmitted in the UK. Back in January 1966, 2,000 residents of Westminster and Southwark in London had their television sets fitted with slot boxes which allowed the transmission of non BBC and ITV programming in exchange for coin. Usually the programmes on offer were the sort of horror flicks which were nothing more than borderline bongo, but there were other treats: racing from Kempton, a bout between Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper, and a show from St Pancras Mortuary for the benefit of medical students at the Royal Free Hospital.

The experiment was then rolled out to Sheffield in October, and within a month the UK’s first-ever PPV game was transmitted: a friendly between Chelsea (see, nothing is new) and the newly crowned champions of Europe, Real Madrid. The star of the show was Ferenc Puskás — who the Guardian noted was “perpetually 39 to all his questioners these past four years, tubbier now, but with much of his old grace and a deal of his old skill” — but it was Chelsea who prevailed thanks to goals from Tony Hateley and John Hollins. Not bad for ten shillings.

Pay-TV was forced to close down less than two years later, pay television as a concept having made no serious advances into the national psyche. There had been one other live match, a 3-3 cracker between Burnley and Arsenal in the 1967-68 League Cup quarter finals, but the viewing figures were so low the entire enterprise has been almost completely forgotten today. Shame the same can’t be said for those excruciating PremPlus back and forths between Marcus Buckland and a brazenly disinterested George Graham.

 7. The Big Match Live (1983)

Just over 23 years after their first attempt, the ITV network finally got their wish: live league football. It was part of another experimental deal, a two-year agreement with the Football League, in tandem with the BBC, both stations getting five live matches a season. The BBC decided to put theirs out on Friday evenings, but ITV, who opted for Sunday afternoons, went first.

They picked Tottenham Hotspur versus Nottingham Forest at the start of October, moving the game to Sunday 2nd. Unlike the Blackpool-Bolton farce of 1960, the cameras were in the right position and they caught a minor classic, Colin Walsh giving Forest an early lead, Gary Stevens levelling with a bullet header midway through the second half and Steve Archibald grabbing the three points for Spurs with five minutes to go.

But the match — as Tottenham manager Keith Burkenshaw wryly noted, with reference to posters advertising the event with “the game a little item down the bottom of the bill” — was almost a secondary consideration. Spurs, as the aforementioned posters suggest, had sold the day as a family gala, worried that the TV cameras would seriously affect the attendance. As it was, the draw of 30,596 was the biggest First Division crowd of the weekend. Whether the size of it had anything to do with the pre-match entertainments on offer — skydivers, a stroll out for a man on world-record stilts and music from Chas ‘n’ Dave — is a point that will forever remain moot.

The best two moments of ITV’s transmission were down to their up-and-coming stars Saint and Greavsie, who weren’t half as bad as you remember them to be. Halfway through the first half, the co-commentator Ian St John announced that “it’s better to be here than sitting at home yelling at your TV.” Brian Moore, on the main mic, issued him an immediate bollocking: “I’m not sure you should be saying that.” Then at the end of the game, the studio pundit Jimmy Greaves told anchorman Jim Rosenthal that he was “going home to watch the Winds of War”, the Robert Mitchum vehicle on ITV later that evening. “And I already know what bloody happened in that. You never knew what was going to happen out there today.”

8. Soccer AM (1995)

So, football on television has never, ever been perfect. Still, something went wrong somewhere, didn’t it?

Available in both digital and hard-copy formats on a pay-what-you-like basis (digital copies are available for as little as 1p each), The Blizzard has fast established itself as must-read publication dealing with all manner of footballing topics from around the world. This article appeared in Issue Eight, which is available here.

Thanks to Hammersmith & Fulham Council for the image used in this blog. Reproduced here under CC licence.

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