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Date published: Sunday 6th March 2022 7:43 – Ian King
In 1968, a new show called The Big Match changed the face of football broadcasting. Repeats of these shows offer a fascinating window into the past.
Considering England is so fond of describing itself as the ‘home of football’, it is somewhat surprising that so little of it was available to television viewers for so long. A combination of the institutional conservatism of the game’s power bases and a fear on the part of club chairmen that showing matches anywhere other than in a stadium at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon would have a ruinous effect on attendances, ensured that very little was ever seen.
The first live televised football match came in October 1946, when the BBC sent their Outside Broadcast Unit to Underhill to cover an Athenian League match between Barnet and Wealdstone. They didn’t start broadcasting until 20 minutes had been played and they had to finish the broadcast with 10 minutes left because light levels had become so low – this was, of course, before floodlighting became commonplace – that they couldn’t continue.
Throughout the 1950s, the experimentation continued. Floodlights started to be installed, with Southampton becoming the first Football League club to do so in 1950. An explosion in television ownership (or, more common due to their cost at the time, renting) for the 1953 coronation led to a live broadcast of that year’s FA Cup final being watched by an estimated audience of between 10 and 12 million. The following year, selected matches from the World Cup finals in Switzerland were broadcast live across Europe.
But Britain didn’t seem to want more televised football. There had been a post-war boom in attendances that peaked in 1950, yet crowds started to fall away again and quickly clubs became extremely nervous of allowing television cameras in for fear that they might further reduce them. In September 1960 came a breakthrough, when agreement was reached between the Football League and ITV to broadcast live matches for the first time. But when the first match between Blackpool and Bolton turned out to be a poor game played in front of a low crowd and for a lower than expected television audience, the experiment was abandoned.
#OnThisDay 1960: the first televised live Football League game, the second half of Blackpool vs Bolton Wanderers is shown on ABC and ATV. Intended as a season long scheme a much reduced attendance led other clubs to pull out and it remained the only live League game until 1983. pic.twitter.com/qMHgQorRKA
— UK TV On This Day (@UKTVOnThisDay) September 10, 2021
There was more significant movement in 1962, when regular highlights arrived for the first time. ITV was a patchwork of regional companies then and, emboldened by Ipswich Town’s First Division title win, local broadcaster Anglia Television signed an agreement worth £1,000 for the rights to show 30 local matches over the course of the year, while in the north-east of England, Tyne-Tees Television reached a similar deal. Their weekly shows, called Match of the Week and Shoot! respectively, began broadcasting in 1962. The BBC responded by launching Match of the Day two years later, although it could only initially be seen in London on the newly-launched BBC2.
England’s success at the 1966 World Cup increased interest still further, but it was in 1968 that televised football would take its great leap forward. The ITV companies had to periodically reapply for their licences and a big shake-up that year created a new broadcaster for London at weekends called, perhaps predictably, London Weekend Television. LWT was a consortium led by David Frost, who had made grandiose claims about increasing the quality of broadcasting on commercial television; the big shake-up had come about largely because of a government report in 1964 which had been scathing about the standard of their programming. As a weekend-only broadcaster, it would be responsible for the majority of ITV’s sports output.
Jimmy Hill had already made his mark on football by 1968. As the leader of the Professional Footballers Association, he’d managed to end the maximum wage rule in 1961, and as a manager at Coventry City, he’d overseen their transformation from a run-of-the-mill Third Division club into a top-flight side. But he’d also dabbled in broadcasting and he was poached by LWT to become their Head of Sport in 1967. Along with his assistant John Bromley, they set about creating a new type of football highlights show.
The Big Match first launched in London on August 24, 1968, with Brian Moore hosting and commentating and Hill offering analysis. By modern standards, it was fairly rudimentary, but this new type of show suddenly made Match of the Day, with its highlights from one match only accompanied by the plummy tones of Kenneth Wolstenholme, look rather staid. Between 1968 and 1971, Match of the Day would try several different styles before settling on the format that would serve it well for the next couple of decades.
Other ITV companies started their own shows as well, but some couldn’t afford or didn’t have the technical resources to do so regularly, and many of them would take The Big Match on a Sunday afternoon – Match of the Day held the plum Saturday night slot – instead. In 1970, Bromley and Hill’s innovation would see ITV’s World Cup get considerable critical praise for introducing a panel of pundits who were encouraged to be combative with each other.
From 1968 until 1983, this was how things remained. The only club matches shown live throughout the season were the FA and European Cup finals. Each weekend, The Big Match would show three games – extended highlights of one, usually a match from London, then briefer highlights of another and the goals from a third – along with analysis, news and readers letters. The contract signed with the Football League also ensured that a certain number of games from all four divisions would be shown.
In 1978, ITV tried to get exclusivity over these highlights by signing a lucrative contract with the Football League, but this caused such outrage that it led to questions being asked in parliament and the tabloid name ‘Snatch of the Day’. The subsequent agreement alternated between ITV and the BBC on Saturday nights for the final four years before, in 1983, ITV dropped regional coverage in favour of networked highlights and, most importantly of all, the return of live matches. They re-commenced for the first time in 23 years with a match between Spurs and Nottingham Forest in October 1983.
But nostalgia can be a persuasive creature and in February 2008, ITV4 started showing repeats of The Big Match from the second half of the 1982/83 season. They’ve now broadcast shows from six different campaigns: 1974/75, 1977/78, 1978/79, 1979/80, 1980/81 and 1982/83. And the good news for both nostalgists and historians of the game is that four of these series, a total of 80 episodes, are available to watch on the ITV Hub. And a new (well, old) series of Match Time, the Granada Television – covering the north-west of England – equivalent during 1981/82, begins on April 5.
There is, of course, plenty of entertainment to be had from coming at these shows from a rose-tinted, nostalgist perspective. Some of the haircuts – particularly from the 1970s seasons – border on performance art. The kits are often glorious. You certainly get an idea of why the Proper Football Men are the way they are these days, and it can be instructive to watch matches while keeping a tally of how many tackles would result in instant red cards today. Similarly low humour can be found in guessing the age of random players and then searching Wikipedia to see how close you’ve got. It’s almost certain that, if you don’t have an inkling and are just guessing based on physical appearance, you’ll be at least five years out. Moustaches abound. Baldness is dealt with… indelicately.
But these broadcasts are also incredible time capsules, each one a record of a football world in conversation with itself, unfiltered. Hooliganism does warrant an occasional mention, as does racism. And the regional structure of ITV and requirement to show lower division games does make for some strange episodes to modern eyes, with Liverpool or Manchester United occasionally playing second billing to Charlton Athletic or Orient (no Leyton, in those days).
But 40 years was a long time ago and football was a very different game then. There are, essentially five big factors that have changed everything:
1. The introduction of the back-pass rule in 1992 fundamentally changed the nature of the game. By this time the back-pass was all too frequently being used as a time-wasting option, which looked all the more exaggerated by an increase in pace. In the 1970s the game was slower for a number of reasons and the back-pass fit the rhythm. But the backpass rule changed the nature of defending – especially the role of the goalkeeper, who was now required to be skilled with his feet – forever.
2. Pitch maintenance technology has evolved in leaps and bounds. When regional ITV football coverage ended in 1983 it looked as though artificial pitches would be the future, with QPR having installed one and immediately being rewarded with getting to the FA Cup final and then promoted. But that never quite came to pass. Current generation artificial surfaces are allowed in a hotch-potch of tournaments, but they haven’t become the norm.
Far more common are hybrid grass pitches, which combine natural grass with reinforced fibres. First introduced in the 1990s, they have dramatically changed durability of pitches, and this in turn has changed the way in which the game is played. It’s much easier to pass if you can guarantee the roll of the ball. This couldn’t be guaranteed 40 years ago, when clubs treated pitches as a problem to overcome. Mud too wet? Chuck some sand on it. Bit of ice? Thrown on some salt. And if it rained a lot, the only answer was get some poor unfortunate out onto the pitch to stab it with a garden fork in the hope of draining it. It is also notable that frozen and snow-bound pitches were commonly used in comparison to now, plausibly for reasons that are a combination of a greater concern for player welfare and global warming.
3. A foul is most definitely a foul. It’s difficult not to wince at some of the tackles that go in, and the lack of bookings or sendings off is noticeable. But this is counter-balanced – at least from the point of view of player safety – by the considerably slower pace. There may be considerably stronger tackles going in, but if anything, there aren’t as many serious injuries.
4. The other big influencer in slowing the pace of the game was probably the kits and equipment being used. Shirts were made of heavy cotton which held water. Leather match balls were often not as waterproof as advertising might have suggested, while the boots of the time were more like clogs than the slippers that modern players wear. Changes began in the early 1980s. FIFA started using balls manufactured from man-made materials after the 1982 World Cup finals, while kits became smaller and more lightweight.
5. The FA didn’t allow substitutions until 1965 and even then for the first two seasons they were only permitted for injuries and not tactical reasons. Even when the rules changed, many managers continued to replace players only if they were injured. This had started to change by the end of the 1970s, but purely tactical substitutions remained rare.
There’s also a plethora of match commentators. Brian Moore doubled as anchor and commentator for The Big Match from start to end, but other voices became familiar, too: the warm, mellifluous tones of ATV’s Hugh Johns in the Midlands, whose commentary still feels like watching a match in the company of your favourite uncle; the recently-deceased Gerald Sinstadt of Granada; ‘Roger de Courcey look-a-like’ (as he was once memorably described in When Saturday Comes) Roger Tames of Tyne-Tees; and the near-Sergeant Majorly Gerry Harrison of Anglia.
The last remaining link between those days and today is Martin Tyler, who started with Southern Television in Southampton in 1974 before going to work for Yorkshire Television and Granada, then eventually heading to Sky Sports in 1990. Some of these commentators were good, others were bad. Some were occasionally accused of being biased towards or against one club or another within their region. Plus ca change.
Televised coverage of football changed because it had to change, of course. Commercial pressures were growing and crowds were falling; the introduction of live matches became an inevitability. Regional highlights were an anachronism, though some companies did sporadically persist with them, especially in regions where there were no big name clubs.
From 1983 onwards, shirt sponsorship was allowed for televised matches – it had only been permitted for games that weren’t shown prior to this – and networked highlights, a single package, still under ‘The Big Match’ name, were shown across the country. After sharing the live TV rights with the BBC for five years, ITV finally got the exclusivity they’d so craved a decade earlier with a four-year exclusive contract with the Football League in 1988.
But ITV’s focus on the ‘big five’ clubs during this period proved to be their downfall in the television rights market. Not only were they ‘blown out of the water’ by Sky’s bid for Premier League rights, but their focus on the biggest clubs also lost them favour with the rest. The big five wanted to stick with ITV in the Premier League, but the rest out-voted them. Sky were offering more money and a more even distribution of live televised matches. The ITV regions ended up as an anachronism, too. A series of mergers following deregulation in 1992 led to them being abolished in 2002.
Unless you happened to support Liverpool, Nottingham Forest or Aston Villa, the late 1970s and early 1980s were not a particularly happy time to be watching football in England. Hooliganism was rife and still on the rise. The national team had just failed to qualify for two successive World Cups. Crowds had been falling for a long time and no-one was certain where they would bottom out. And football was a different experience then, played at a different pace and with different expectations. For 15 years The Big Match reflected that and its archive offers an extraordinary glimpse into a half-forgotten world. It is more than worth investigation.
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