British Football History: BBC & ITV, Commentators & Pundits

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British Football: Potted History of TV Coverage & Punditry

The more outspoken they were the more television valued them. The public would switch on not only because they liked what they saw. But also to hate what they heard. Television football coverage and punditry has changed dramatically with the times. It has developed through the need of audience, growth of technology and the mass increase in TV broadcasters with excessive amounts of airtime to fill. Here is a potted history of British Football TV Coverage & Punditry.

BBC ‘Match of the Day’

BBC’s ‘Match of the Day’ programme is recognised as the longest running football programme in the world (Guinness book of Records 2015). It was first aired on 22 August 1964 showing the highlights of the Liverpool v Arsenal league match. Originally shown on BBC2, which was enjoying its first year of broadcasting, alongside BBC1 & commercial rivals ITV.  Around 20,000 people viewed the televised match less than half the attendance at the game. ‘Match of the Day’ was introduced by Kenneth Wolstenholme (b1920-d2002). A former world war two pilot. He is seen by many as a pioneer of football commentary. Ken uttered those immortal words as England were about to win the World Cup at Wembley in 1966 – ‘Some people are on the pitch, they think its all over .. it is now’ as Geoff Hurst smashed in the winning goal.

In those days, television and football did not always sit comfortably together.  The new ‘Match of the Day’ was not universally welcomed in the football world; in 1965 several clubs attempted to block a renewed deal with the BBC in fear of a drop-in gate attendances at matches. An issue that was continually debated way into the 1980’s. Eventually, a compromise was reached where the BBC agreed not to reveal which match was to be shown until after the day’s matches had been concluded.

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MOTD: Development

‘Match of the Day’ moved to BBC1 in 1969. Becoming an important part of Saturday night TV. Broadcasting extended highlights of two league matches started in the 1970-71 season in a one-hour slot, with little time for interviews. In the same season, the current theme tune recognised even by those who have no interest in football was first broadcast. David Coleman (b1926-d2013) saying to viewers ‘we hope you like the new music.’ The first colour edition of ‘Match of the Day’ was shown on 2 November 1968 on BBC2 (Chelsea and Manchester City), however once the programme moved to BBC1 the audience had to wait until 15 November 1969 (Liverpool v West Ham United) for its first colour match, as colour TV was originally only shown on BBC2 programming.

Video: Match of the Day (Beginnings 1960’s)

MOTD: Early Technical Hiccups

The clumsy editing in the early days made for some amusing if not professional moments. Famously, in one match footballer Brian Kidd was seen throwing the ball to himself. Production assistant Roy Norton recalled a time when the editing staff, in a match that contained five goals played the wrong action reply to each of the goals that had just been shown. So the viewer would see the second goal, only to get a reply of the fourth goal not yet seen or the fifth goal, a reply of the first. Head of Sport Bryan Cowgill pinned Norton up against the wall in anger, only to find later he had nothing to do with it. A primitive slow-motion reply machine was first introduced in 1969.

The Slow Motion Revolution

It may seem strange to non-techies, but showing slow motion, or even still photographs, was for many years a real challenge. Put simply, analogue TV required a stable continuous signal flow and throughout the fifties and sixties most programmes had to be broadcast live. This included TV drama’s and soaps. The transition to videotape, allowed film to be pre-recorded, was a first step but it wasn’t until American company Ampex produced its HS100 instant slow motion machine in 1967 that sports broadcasters finally got their hands on a shiny new toy.

Even then it took time to roll out. In 1968 the BBC had just a single HS100, a heavy, boxy behemoth which lurked in the basement of Television Centre. It was ITV who made the initial running – with its ‘The Big Match’ programme with slow motion clips analysed by Brian Moore and Jimmy Hill. Three years later the Beeb caught up and ‘Match of the Day’ entered a new era of football controversy and debate.

MOTD: BBC Football Commentators

David Coleman (1967-1979), Barry Davies (1969-2004) and John Motson (1972-2018) became household names through the programme. Motson known for his statistics and fact finding during his commentary. David Coleman building a career infront of camera as main presenter, as well as commentator. Alongside working on other BBC sports programmes, as did Barry Davies.

John Motson & Barry Davies

It was John Motson and Barry Davies that dominated the commentary positions, for over twenty years. Particularly when David Coleman moved inside the BBC to sporting pastures new. Head of Sport Jonathan Martin said. ‘Barry commentates from the grandstand, John is talking from the terraces.’ The pair were seen as rivals. But their different styles complemented each other nicely.

MOTD: New Generation Commentators

The new generation of commentators such as Guy Mowbray, Simon Brotherton and Jonathan Pearce were all influenced by the earlier ones. But found their own style and interpretation of the football in front of them.

Video: Barry Davies

MOTD: BBC Main Football Presenters

The main MOTD presenters job, became one of the most converted in televised sport. The list reads like who’s who of sports broadcasters:

  • Kenneth Wolstenholme (1964–1967)
  • David Coleman (1967–1973)
  • Jimmy Hill (1973–1988)
  • Des Lynam (1988–1999)
  • Gary Lineker (1999–present)

In the eighties a short news round up of other matches was put into the programme, presented by Bob Wilson. This was slowly phased out as Alan Hansen (1992-2014) became an important studio pundit within the format as more time was given to the analysis of matches and player / manager interviews.

ITV Football Coverage Start

At the beginning ITV’s regional coverage expanded slowly. Each ITV area filmed a particular match in their region. The big five franchise areas covered Granada (North-West), ATV (Midlands) Southern TV (South of England), Yorkshire (Yorkshire’s area), Thames & London Weekend Television (London). But other parts of the country got in on coverage; Anglia (East of England), Tyne Tees (North East) providing their viewers with some local matches or taking the games from other ITV regions. ATV launched ‘Star Soccer’ in October 1965. Southern Television’s ‘Southern Soccer’, ABC’s ‘World of Soccer’, Anglia’s ‘Match of the Week’ (1962-1983) and Granada’s ‘Kick off Match’ (1969-1983) also began to appear regularly in the ‘TV Time’s Sunday schedules.

However it was when the new ITV franchises were sorted out in 1968, did soccer really begin to grow. Once London Weekend Television launched ‘The Big Match’ in (1968-1992), the competition between the BBC moved up a notch. Eventually the entire ITV network’s football coverage would be broadcast under its title. ‘The Big Match’ (1968-1992) was introduced by presenter & commentator Brian Moore (1968-1983) & Jimmy Hill (1968-1973). The action covering a main London game, followed by short coverage of a further two selected matches from the different ITV regions.

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ITV Football Commentators

The regular regional viewers became use to the various commentators voices. Often associated with the region they were working for at the time:

  • Gerald Sinstadt 1969-1981 & Martin Tyler 1981-1990 (Granada TV)
  • Gerry Harrison 1969-1983 (Anglia TV)
  • Hugh Johns 1965-1982 & Peter Brackley 1982-1988 (ATV & Central)
  • Brian Moore (London)

Even with such an output of highlights from both channels (BBC & ITV), not every first division match was covered. Under the agreement with the Football League, broadcasters needed to show some matches from the lower divisions. Many goals of the era were not caught on camera.

Video: Interview (1994) Hugh Johns (b1922-d2007)

Football manager Brian Clough (b1935-d2004) and coach Malcom Alison (b1927-d2010) found themselves a frequent guest on ‘The Big Match.’ Particularly when Hill moved to the BBC. Both considered outspoken and good value to the viewers.

BBC ‘Football Focus’ & ITV ‘On the Ball’

In the sixties and seventies, BBC & ITV put out rival football magazine programmes as part of their Saturday afternoon sports coverage. These provided gossip, news and opinion from the domestic game. BBC’s ‘Grandstand’(1958-2007) featured ‘Football Preview’ with Sam Leitch. This being renamed as ‘Football Focus’ in 1974 with ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson (1974-1994) taking the helm for next twenty years. The show is still on our screens today in the trusted hands of Dan Walker.  ITV produced ‘On the Ball’ (1965-1985) presented by Brian Moore (b1932-d2001) as part of their ‘World of Sport’ (1965-1985) programme. Later ex-Liverpool player Ian St.John took over the anchor role only to be joined further on by Jimmy Greaves, before getting their own show – ‘Saint & Greavsie’ in 1985.

Video: ‘On the Ball’

Scheduling: ‘MOTD’ & ‘The Big Match’

Both TV stations scheduled ‘Football Focus’ and ‘On the Ball’ up against each other, with no means of home recording until the late seventies. Each previewed the main Saturday matches. These went out as highlighted games on BBC ‘Match of the Day’ Saturday evening (1964-1980, 1983-1988, 1992-2001, 2004-present) and on ITV Sunday afternoon, apart from a few years of acquired rights for the Saturday night slot (1980-1983, 1988-1992, 2001-2004). Relegating the BBC to Sunday lunchtime.

Brian Moore: Football Commentator

Moore presented ‘The Big Match’ and commented each week on a London game. After Hugh Johns, he became ITV’s lead football commentator, right up to his retirement in 1998. At the start of his television commentary career, Brian was rather loud. His voice shrieked with excitement as any goal hit the back of the net. An error of judgement he later embarrassingly acknowledged, as a more calm and considered tone entered our living rooms. One the viewers began to trust. By the middle of the 1970s he had become one of the game’s most authoritative voices, known nationwide for his annual FA Cup final commentary and his anchoring of ITV’s World Cup coverage, as well as the ‘The Big Match.’  Even after retirement, Moore presented an football interview programme of past players for Sky Sports in 1999, apply named ‘Brian Moore meets ….’

The FA Cup Final

The general public was staved of live football. Only a few of England international games, the odd European final and the FA Cup Final were shown live. The Cup final was covered live by both channels from 1969. This intensified the rivalry for viewing figures. The two broadcasters opened up early on Saturday ‘Cup Final’ morning highlighting various features, guests and analysis. All aimed to grab the audience on their channel as build up to the match itself.

Video: ITV Cup Final Day Coverage

Cup Final Punch Up

The 1969 Cup Final was between Manchester City v Leicester City. But the battle on the pitch was nothing compared to the fight off it, between BBC & ITV staff and technicians. ITV were the new kids on the block trying to establish themselves against the mighty BBC at the time. It boiled over on the Wembley turf with who would be first to interview the players as the teams came out to inspect the pitch. Deals had been done and both TV stations were up to all sorts of shenanigans with each other.

Brian Moore recalled. ‘Fists began to fly. One of our (ITV) floor managers had a tooth knocked out and men on both sides went away badly bruised. All this was played out in front of the guest of honour Princess Anne.’ The Football Association were livid calling both broadcasters in to a meeting at Lancaster Gate. After that the two TV companies didn’t exactly work in harmony with each other but things were discussed before each cup final.This included access to players, cameras on the pitch, all closely monitored by the Football Association. The Cup final was simultaneously broadcast between the two companies for a number of years, until 1989.

ITV Tries Harder

It was ITV’s inferiority complex in that era that helped push the innovation of football broadcasting further. It had already been the first to use successfully slow motion replays in it’s output. But further break throughs were on the way. ITV’s Sports Director/Producer Bob Gardam placed a camera behind the goal, for the first time to capture unique footage. Indeed it was this camera position that sorted out who had scored Arsenal’s equalising goal in the 1971 Cup Final against Liverpool. At the time it was credited to George Graham. However by the ITV camera view behind the goal it was seen Graham didn’t touch the ball.  Subsequently the goal was awarded to Eddie Kelly.

Bob’s most famous break through was when he got permission from Wembley to dig a hole just outside the byline. Into which a camera could be placed on a normal tripod and be at low level for further interesting action shots. It became known as ‘The Gardam Pit.’  The BBC were not pleased. Further it was ITV who first put a camera on a Cup Final team bus making their way to Wembley. After much persuading Bob Stokoe manager of Sunderland allowed their presence on the journey from the team hotel to Wembley in 1973. In future years the BBC would cover one team bus and ITV the other.

Influence of Jimmy Hill (b1928-d2015)

Jimmy Hill had been a professional footballer with Fulham. But made his name as a successful manager at Coventry City (1961-1967), revitalising the club. Getting them from the third into the first division. When surprisingly, Hill quit Coventry, ITV snapped him up as Head of Sport at London Weekend Television. Using the latest technology such as action replay and slow-motion machines,  to a growing public in ‘The Big Match’ on Sunday afternoons. “He would take a couple of minutes to examine a passage of play, then explain why a move was important,” said his colleague and co-presenter Brian Moore. “People were saying, ‘I didn’t realise that’. In five minutes within the programme the old boy changed the whole emphasis of football on television.”

Hill was an excellent self-publicist and extrovert. In September 1972, while a spectator at the Arsenal v Liverpool game for ‘The Big Match’, the linesman got injured. Jimmy at a moments notice offered his services to replace him, so the match could continue. This heroic act made great TV coverage the next day on the programme and headlines in the newspapers. (full story)

ITV’s World Cup 1970 Panel

The 1970 World Cup was a watershed in football coverage. Not only were all the matches covered in colour for the first time, but John Bromley and Jimmy Hill put together an interesting and controversial studio panel. These were made up of current players and managers, sitting alongside himself & presenter Brian Moore. This format is taken for granted today, but in 1970 it was completely new and innovative. The original panel included Malcolm Allison (b1927-d2010), Derek Dougan (b1938-d2007), Pat Crerand and Bob McNab who argued amongst each other throughout the tournament. The panel adding even more colour to international football’s greatest ever jamboree. This gave ITV their only World Cup ratings victory over the BBC to date, changing the face of half-time telly forever.

1970 Panel: Success for ITV

Brian Moore realised they had a hit on their hands, ‘when early in the tournament, the panelists went shopping together close to the studios at Wembley. It was Saturday morning. They completely stopped the traffic as men and boys – but mostly excited women of all ages – mobbed them.’ The panel worked so well the BBC copied the idea. There’s nothing like opinion. The experts in the studio represented the same arguments going on in pubs and homes up and down the country.

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Jimmy Hill Joins BBC

Jimmy Hill, joined the BBC in September 1973 continuing to deconstruct the game on ‘Match of the Day’. The difference was Jimmy also hosted the show as well as analyse single handed. He was no longer just a pundit, but a presenter as well. Hill explained his move – ‘At ITV, the hugely popular ‘Big Match’ was still only a regional programme – the Midlands and North had scarcely heard of it – whereas ‘Match of The Day’ reached the whole nation.’  Also his his new BBC salary was reported in the press to be considerable.

Jimmy became an important part of BBC football coverage over the next twenty five years. His forceful opinions were always on display. Doing what good journalists should by annoying the powers that be. However, Hill himself became annoying and by the 1990’s this once respected innovator was looking a dinosaur. Particularly when matched against supreme football coach Terry Venables in the BBC studio. Jimmy eventually joining Sky Sports in 1999 with his our football discussion programme.

Hill made more than 600 appearances for ‘Match of the Day’ during a 26-year BBC career in which he covered every major domestic and international championship.

Video: (1998) Tribute to Jimmy Hill

Snatch of the Day (1978)

‘The Big Match’ traditionally screened match highlights on Sunday afternoons while ‘Match of the Day’ screened them on Saturday evenings. But in 1978, John Bromley & Michael Grade at London Weekend Television audaciously won exclusive rights to all league football coverage for ITV in a move termed “Snatch of the Day” by the tabloid newspapers. This cunning plot, left the BBC mortified, complaining to the Monopolies commission who referred it to the Office of Fair Trading who blocked the move.

However, the BBC were forced to allow ITV to take over the Saturday night slot in alternating seasons. This new arrangement meant ‘Match of the Day’ was moved to Sunday afternoons for the 1980–81 and 1982–83 seasons, reverting back at the start of the 1983-84 football season. ITV had given Auntie a bloody nose, as live league football began to be negotiated with the football league.

Live Televised Football

Negociations to get live league football on TV had proved long, hard and testy for broadcasters. The only regular live domestic football had been the FA and European Cup finals and some England matches. So when Canon (camera manufacturers) announced a £3 million sponsorship of the Football League beginning in August 1983, it seemed that at last the walls would come down. This was by far the largest sponsorship deal in British sporting history; the only caveat was that it must include TV coverage. It seemed cutting a deal would be straight forward. However it was not.

When the League rejected the broadcasters (BBC & ITV) offer of £5.4 million over two seasons, to include shirt advertising and four live matches each weekend, they both stormed out of talks in disgust. Their joint statement issued later stated that ‘… the Football League are strangling themselves to death. They have shown this with the Chester report (which covered the future of football finances 1983) and television negociations. They are in chaos.’

Despite this a deal was eventually struck. The BBC & ITV each got seven live matches a year, ITV opting for the Sunday afternoons, with the first live football league game ever being televised on 2 October 1983 on ITV, Tottenham v Nottingham Forest. The BBC tried a Friday evening experiment alongside its usual ‘Match of the Day’ Saturday night highlights. Although there was a frustrating twist when strike action led to the show’s cancellation for four weeks. John Motson eventually took the microphone for the first BBC live game on 16 December 1982 – a 4-2 home win for Manchester United over Spurs.

1985: TV’s Blackout on British Football

At the beginning of the 1985-86 season, there was no football on our eighty’s TV screens. Football club directors and the Football league were sceptical over TV’s coverage of the game and were asking for more revenue for another deal. The wrangle was over a £19m offer over four seasons, about £60m in today’s money, offered by the TV companies. The Football League chairmen felt that the true value was closer to £90m. The Football authorities felt at the time, BBC & ITV were holding hands under a negotiating table telling football how much it would pay for rights. A form of cartel.

There was no one else football could sell its rights to, they felt compromised and ripped off. At that time TV companies – not football clubs – held the upper hand, and when no agreement could be brokered (there was also a row about the split between live games and highlights) they had reached an impasse. Each side were entrenched within their positions, the Football League invoked FIFA regulations to prevent the BBC and ITV showing matches from abroad and rejected a BBC Radio contract for the live coverage of matches on BBC Radio Two. As a result, there was a total TV football blackout for the first half of the 1985-86 season.

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Decaying Sport

At the time the game itself was struggling with reduced attendances each season. Football violence was becoming highly organised and distasteful. Outdated crumbling stadiums were simply dangerous. John Bromley, the Head of ITV Sport, commented, “They have hooligans kicking each other on the terraces, lousy facilities and boring players and they say it’s television’s fault nobody goes to the game anymore… the crunch has come. I’m not talking idle threats, but the realities of life. Soccer has no God-given right to its slots on TV and if they don’t want to talk sensibly there are plenty of other things to take their place.” Bromley’s comment was made the day before the Heysel Stadium disaster. It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that a television executive seemed to have a better handle on the issues that the game faced at that time than the game’s own governing bodies themselves.

Stadium Disasters

On 11 May 1985, fifty-six people were killed in the Bradford stadium fire. On 29 May 1985, thirty-nine people (mostly Italian) died at the Heysel stadium disaster caused by hooliganism. As a result  English clubs were banned from playing in Europe. The game was at an all time low. Even when TV cameras were not present to record games, the fans never rushed back. Indeed gates took a further drop. Helping to support the argument, that TV coverage helps to promote the sport rather than hinder it. On 15 April 1989 the Hillsborough disaster occurred killing ninety-six Liverpool supporters. The government commissioned the Taylor report into the cause of the tragedy.

Winds of Change

The tide of opinion was turning against the Football League and the FA (Football Association). They had been in favour of more recorded highlights than live fixtures. But it was clear, even in 1985, the future rested in live broadcasting, rather than in recycling matches for a television audience hours after they’d been played.  Especially with the first signs of television’s multi-channel starting to become clear.

Eventually the Football League capitulated in December 1985, accepting a pitiful £1.3m (£3.74m now) for nine First Division and League Cup games. A separate FA Cup deal was also signed for four games, only 13 English club games were shown live in what was left of the season. Football returned with a BBC Live FA cup match on 5 January 1986, Charlton v West Ham.  Jimmy Hill’s first words to camera, ‘We’re back .. play the music’ as the MOTD theme struck up to the relief of every football fan.

Video: (05/01/1986) BBC Jimmy Hill’s welcome back to TV football fans & ‘Match of the Day’

Saint & Greavsie ITV 1985-1992

‘Saint & Greavsie’ took over from ITV’s ‘On the Ball’ in a stand-alone show, when ‘World of Sport’ was discontinued in 1985. The show becoming the main football magazine programme previewing football league matches. ITV obtained exclusive Football League rights from 1988-1992, showing highlights in the coveted Saturday evening slot, along with live matches scheduled elsewhere. This deal costing £44 million over four years. The BBC having no league matches to show, covered exclusively and far more in depth than ever before the FA Cup games and final.

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Development of ‘Saint & Greavsie’

Ex-Liverpool player, Ian Saint John was presenting ‘On the Ball’, during which he linked up with Jimmy Greaves who was working for Central TV. The banter between them was funny as well as opinionated. John Bromley (Head of ITV Sport) brought the two ex-pros together in a new formatted programme. What was different was the humour. It was Greaves’s, Eric Morecambe to St John’s, Ernie Wise. Jimmy said. ‘We wanted to emphasise the fun element of football and we wanted to do that by speaking the same language as the supporters.’

Although the show predominantly dealt with football, it also covered sports such as cricket and boxing, with special features on up and coming major sporting events, which included interviews with Mike Tyson and Chris Eubank. In the 1991–92 season, the Rumbelows Cup (formerly the League cup) draw was broadcast on Saint and Greavsie. The away teams for the quarter-finals were drawn by Donald Trump, when the duo were in the United States to film a programme looking at how the country was preparing for the 1994 FIFA World Cup.

At Christmas 1990, Greaves fell ill. He was replaced by his ‘Spitting Image’ puppet which was comedically voiced by ITV commentator Peter Brackley (b1951-d2018). Football fans loved the new approach. The programme only ending when Sky obtained the rights to the new Premier League season 1992-93. BBC receiving the highlights package shown on ‘Match of the Day’ Saturday night. Sky & BBC also gained the exclusive FA Cup matches, leaving ITV with little football to promote.

VIDEO: Clip from ‘Saint & Greavsie’ show  13 May 1989 – (End season programme)

After Dinner Sports Speakers

Comicus provides several footballers, pundits & commentators such as Chris Kamara, Glenn Hoddle, Sir Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking, Harry Redknapp, Alan Mullery, Lou Macari, Kevin Keegan, Sammy McIlroy, Teddy Sheringham, Jim Rosenthal among many others for speaking engagements. All recall their playing careers, stories and the modern game, contact the office for more details 0344 800 0058 or email

Story of the MOTD Theme Tune

References & Material

For the next chapter of The History of British football: TV coverage & punditry click the link –  THE SKY REVOLUTION

One Response

  1. Mike Smith says:

    What a great article on sports broadcasting. Told me so much and brought back so many memories

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