By Nick Harris
22 August 2014
When the first episode of Match of the Day was screened 50 years ago today, there were more than twice as many people inside Anfield watching Liverpool beat Arsenal 3-2 than there were watching on TV later.
MoTD was a one-game show then, screening whatever was deemed to be the match of the day. Just 20,000 souls tuned into the first broadcast to see extended highlights of a win for Bill Shankly’s men, played in front of a crowd of 47,620.
Nobody in Liverpool saw the programme. For most of its inaugural season, the show was only screened in the London area, although some people in the Midlands could pick up ‘sample viewings’ towards the end of that campaign.
MoTD was not an immediate hit with the clubs, even as the BBC began to sell it in Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Kenya. Some clubs feared that televised football, even though not live, would hurt gates. There was thus a two-month stand-off over the contract renewal for MoTD to broadcast in 1965-66, and the clubs only agreed to it after their collective fee for the year was doubled to £25,000.
That cash was split between the 92 clubs from likes of the high-flying Liverpool, Burnley and Northampton in the top division to the lowlier Southport, Barrow and Bradford Park Avenue in the fourth tier. Clubs from all divisions could theoretically feature on MoTD then. The money worked out, on average, at £271.74 per club in 1965-66, or double the £135.87 of the year before
This current season, 2014-15, the BBC are paying £59.9m to show highlights of the Premier League alone as part of the current £179.7m three-year MoTD deal. That’s £3m per club per season, give or take, or more than 22,000 times more per club than 50 years ago.
What hasn’t changed over five decades is the enduring appeal of what is, when it boils down to it, is a simple package of clips and talking heads. Up to five million people watch each Saturday, an astonishing figure in an age where live sport, not highlights, takes primacy.
Barry Davies, the doyen of British sports commentators, worked on MoTD from 1969 to 2004, commentating and sometimes presenting.
‘It wasn’t available to the whole country when it started and many people thought it would never catch on,’ he says. ‘The powers-that-be were certain that it would, and after England won the World Cup in 1966, it really took off.’
Having been on BBC2 from 1964 to 1966, MoTD made the leap to BBC1, and the mainstream, after the heroics of Alf Ramsey’s England team, even though league champions Liverpool and FA Cup holders Everton were among a minority of clubs still unhappy with it.
‘The viewers’ sense was they were watching the best football in the world, and England were the best having won the World Cup,’ Davies says. ‘Pubs would empty just before 10pm on Saturday so people could get home to watch. It sounds extraordinary now but it was true. I was in awe of it as a programme.’
Davies’ break came when producers decided to experiment with a new format for the 1969-70 season. Instead of just one game, MoTD would feature one ‘main’ match plus highlights of a second on each show, on a regional basis. Viewers in the north-west would get their ‘extra’ game from the north-west, for example, and Londoners a match from the capital, and so on.
Davies joined the BBC from ITV in summer 1969, a few months before his 32nd birthday, to commentate primarily on north-west matches. He would become part of a line of treasured household names associated with the show, from Kenneth Wolstenhome and David Coleman in the early years, to Jimmy Hill, John Motson, Des Lynam and latterly Gary Lineker.
Davies’s first assignment was supposed to be covering Leeds against Tottenham on 9 August 1969. But over breakfast in Leeds he was told Coleman had laryngitis and would miss his own match, Crystal Palace against Manchester United, for which Davies was now expected to stand in. He dashed to London. ‘My preparation was virtually nil,’ he says. He commentated on a 2-2 draw, Bobby Charlton scoring one of United’s goals, and then hurried to the BBC’s Lime Grove studios where he helped Frank Bough to present that night’s MoTD, as two Palace players, Roger Hynd and Gerry Queen, were studio guests.
The 1969-70 experiment of regional second matches did not work. The second match wasn’t always good quality; resources were thinner than now, cameras less common. By 1970-71, more resources were pushed into a two-match show each week, expanding over time to be highlights of multiple games.
‘The biggest change in football in 50 years is, I’d say, that it’s no longer the game of the man in the street,’ Davies says. ‘The general public, the working public, had a rapport with the players they no longer have. When I started, players didn’t turn up in swish coaches or even swisher cars. You had a chance to establish relationships, as did the supporters.
‘There were also so many less reporters, less microphones. It was much easier to be able to talk to people, not like the Fort Knox that Old Trafford and other grounds have become today.’
MoTD held clout in those early years to bring important matters to wide attention, even to influence the laws. A case in point was a 1970 game Davies commentated on between Coventry and Everton. From a free-kick Coventry’s Willie Carr sandwiched the ball between his ankles, jumped in the air and flicked it back to tee-up team-mate Ernie Hunt for a spectacular volleyed goal. Clips are available on YouTube (here). By season’s end any such manoeuvre was outlawed as it was deemed a ‘double touch’. MoTD had brought it to everyone’s attention.
Davies’s mellifluous, measured tones can still be found on archive footage accompanying classic clips, such as one from December 1974 when title rivals Manchester City and Derby met at Maine Road. Former City hero Franny Lee scored the winner for Dave Macaky’s Derby, who would go on to win the title. Davies’s prescient commentary summed up the importance.
‘Interesting,’ he said as Lee unleashed his shot. ‘Very interesting,’ he added as it screamed into the top corner. ‘Oh, look at his face, just look at his face,’ he added, telling viewers all they needed to know about the potential consequences.
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Every viewer will have their own favourite MoTD moments. Many will recall Alan Hansen, for example, on 19 August 1995, telling viewers, after a 3-1 win by Aston Villa over Manchester United: ‘You can’t win anything with kids.’ United went on to win the Double that season.
Davies recalls how, a few years later, in 2001, the BBC lost the rights to highlights. ‘I was among those who felt maybe the BBC’s highlights days were up for good then,’ he says. ‘But they came back. The audience was still there. And still is. Match of the Day is still something people want to see, and that says a lot about the football public, and the appeal of the straightforward simplicity of the programme.’
A version of this article appeared in the Mail on Sunday earlier this month, linked here.