As Match Of The Day turns 50, the key players tell Leo Moynihan about the life, death and rebirth of a British institution
It’s one of the immovable certainties of the schedule, but Match Of The Day began life clouded by uncertainty. English football had long feared the onrush of TV – an incredible fact given the ravenous manner in which the game suckles on its teat today – and they needed a lot of convincing that this shiny new highlights show wouldn’t hurt attendances. In the end, a proposal from the all-new BBC Two channel (and the opportunity to train cameramen ahead of the 1966 World Cup) prevailed and in August 1964, there they were, cameras at league games. Or at least one league game. Match of the day, indeed. Half a century on, ‘match’ is now matches and ‘day’ is now Saturday and Sunday, but the show remains as endearing and simple as the theme tune that ushers it in and out of our living rooms. It might lack the in-depth punditry and gadgetry of Sky, but it is still the nation’s season ticket. Ahead of a landmark 50th year, this is its story.
KICK OFF IN BEATLEVILLE
Saturday 22 August 1964 and Anfield is the venue for the first ever show as Liverpool take on Arsenal. Presenter and commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme stands pitchside and tells his audience, “Welcome to Match Of The Day, the first of a weekly series on BBC Two. This afternoon we are in Beatleville,” and it all begins.
Roger Hunt, Liverpool centre-forward, 1958-1969: "It wasn’t a big deal to us. We didn’t notice anything different. We had won the title the year before and had the odd TV show such as Panorama come up and do things on us and the Kop and The Beatles, so cameras weren’t totally new. Shanks [Bill Shankly] certainly didn’t mention it, so we got on with things. It’s nice to be the man who scored the first ever goal on the show, though. It wasn’t bad either. Ian Callaghan crossed and I volleyed over the Arsenal keeper."
John Motson, commentator, 1971-present: "I recall that first programme. I watched it with a pal. For a football fan it was very exciting, if a bit odd. I think it only got around 20,000 viewers."
TECHNICOLOR AND TECHNOLOGY
1969, and the moon landings were followed by a move to BBC One, more viewers and Match Of The Day games shown in colour.
Barry Davies, commentator, 1969-2004: "I had covered a World Cup and Olympics for ITV but always admired the young show from afar. In 1969 I joined the BBC and did my first Match Of The Day that summer. I was supposed to be covering northern games but Ken Wolstenholme got the flu and David Coleman got laryngitis, so they whisked me down to Crystal Palace without any preparation and I did the 2-2 draw with Manchester United. I then had to rush to the studio and co-present the show with Frank Bough."
Motson: "As we went into the Seventies the thing started to develop. Soon we had slow motion, replays and analysis. Also, we had Brian Clough and Malcolm Allison working. Cloughie could put you in your place, but it was up to you to get the interview. There were no press officers. I just hung around dressing rooms and hoped to get the nod."
A THEME FOR THE AGES
In 1970, composer Barry Stoller (who also created the Grandstand music) was asked to come up with a new theme for the show. His remit? “Make it good.”
Des Lynam, presenter, 1988-2001: "They tried to change it slightly once, didn’t they? People nearly burnt down Television Centre."
Guy Mowbray, commentator, 2004-present: "It reminds all of us of our childhoods, doesn’t it? I joined in 2004 and during my first season, I did a Liverpool vs Manchester United game, probably the biggest game I’d covered. My father was very ill in hospital and that night I went to visit him and he had the telly on and when the theme came on he told me how great it was that his son was working on the show. The next day, sadly, he died, so the tune means a lot."
Gary Lineker, player and presenter 2001-present: "What does the tune me to me? It means I’m about to go live on air."
JIMMY ADVISES A NATION
Jimmy Hill and his goateed chin join the show in 1973 alongside Bob Wilson. He brings playfulness, a meticulous eye and a slip of the tongue for the ages.
Davies: "Jimmy Hill was vital. He replaced [original host] David Coleman and was full of ideas. I was co-presenting with him once and Jimmy was supposed to remind the nation to put their clocks back, but said, “cocks” instead. Well, I lost it and ended up under the desk to hide my laughter. The producer was screaming at me but I’d gone. I don’t know how we got the show on air that night."
“JUST LOOK AT HIS FACE...”
Davies’s high-pitched excitement charmed a nation in a memorable 1974 match between Derby and Man City. He wouldn’t be the first, or last, commentator to memorably lose it.
Davies: "People talk about the 'look at his face' one a lot, but I do listen back and cringe at my voice cracking into a high pitch. It happened again once when West Brom scored a controversial goal against Leeds. I said something about how I thought that Leeds had every right to be aggrieved. Again, my voice went up an octave; those are the ones people seem to remember."
Motson: "My big break was at Hereford in a Cup game against Newcastle. It was the making of me. Non-league Hereford beat Newcastle and the game was bumped up as the main feature. Hereford’s Ronnie Radford scored an absolute screamer, and my, 'Oh what a goal' is a bit high-pitched, but that day was so important to my career."
RISE OF THE SMOOTHIE
The Eighties brought a temporary move to Sunday afternoons and an unflappable broadcasting colossus to the hosting chair.
Lynam: "I had worked in radio and loved that. I remember doing TV and thinking, 'What the hell is that camera?' I didn’t like it."
Lineker: "I learned from the don, Des Lynam. Des had such charm and I have tried to take bits from him. Things like making a stab at humour at the end, or adding gravitas when necessary."
Lynam: "Gary was a natural and even when playing, he was always keen to learn. With England, Gazza actually used to call him Des."
THE AGE OF ANALYSIS
Controversial, high-profile and scrutinised as much as the players they critiqued; the Nineties belonged to Hansen, Lawrenson and the other personalities of modern punditry.
Lineker: "Alan [Hansen who left this summer after 22 years] will be so missed. He changed things. He did more than just tell you what you’d seen. He’ll be remembered for his 'You can’t win anything with kids' comment, but he started real analysis and became an educator. He certainly educated me on the art of defending."
Mark Cole, lead executive at BBC Football, 2013-present: "Hansen changed the way punditry was seen and what the audience expected. He was the first to go deeper. Our pundits get more comments now than they ever did playing, but that’s the business they’re in. They can’t please everyone, but what social media says and what our audience does is very different. In our audience research Alan Shearer rates highly, but people criticise him on Twitter. It’s also important to have different styles. Danny Murphy is analytical, while Robbie Savage is all about opinions."
LOSING THE BALL
Early in the new millennium the BBC lost its league highlights contract, and Des Lynam, to ITV’s new show The Premiership and its infamous tactics truck.
Motson: "When we lost the rights in 2001 I almost left for ITV. I’d already turned down Sky in 1996 but I seriously considered the move. Des had gone but in the end, for me, it didn’t feel right."
Lineker: "I replaced Des and I think I was the only person in the country who was pleased he left."
THE BIG RETURN
After three years without a regular show, the BBC paid £105m for an expanded package and returned with more names and new faces including Alan Shearer.
Cole: "When we got the rights back in 2004, we made the decision to show every game. But you are aware of what an institution the show is. You don’t want to meddle with it but of course you make changes while trying not to alienate the core audience. We use social media now for votes and we do two-ways with Gary and the players or managers, but we know the action is the real star. If we did 10 minutes analysis on a game, people would be shouting at the telly, for the next one. We know people have walked home from a game and said to their mate,
'I can’t wait to see that on Match Of The Day tonight.' So that’s what we do, we show them the action."
Lineker: "I’m not envious of Sky at all. I do love doing live games, but Match Of The Day’s charm lies elsewhere. It has to be action-led. Our audience is not a geek audience that wants massive tactical insight. It’s a fix of football."
Alan Shearer, player and pundit, 2006-present: "I was more nervous doing Match Of The Day live than I ever was playing in front of 55,000 Geordies. We’re all chasing the adrenaline rush we had playing, and while we’re never going to get that, it isn’t far off. Players often struggle after they retire because a football dressing room is a very lively place and you miss the banter. At Match Of The Day, I get in early and I sit and wait to see what shirt Mark Lawrenson will be wearing. Laughter just follows that."
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The format of loud shirts and late-night football highlights is secure until the 2015-16 season. But they’re hoping to run even longer than that.
Davies: "I see no reason why it shouldn’t be on for another 50 years."
Cole: "We evolve without changing much. It’s great to have FA Cup action coming back, which gives us another dimension. We have six shows on over a weekend and Phil Neville, who impressed and laughed it off after a hard night in Manaus, is joining the team permanently. We’re really excited about the line-up."
The anniversary show MOTD@50 is on BBC One, 22 August at 10.35pm. Match Of The Day: 50 Years is out on 28 August (BBC Books) at £20
(Images: BBC; WENN; PA)