Match of the Day; 50 Not Out

When starting something new you don’t normally look too far in the future. Thoughts rarely turn to how this might look in five years time. They never imagine it five decades on. From humble beginnings on 22nd August 1964, a brand new programme on a brand new channel launched. It was soon to become a firm favourite across all ages and go on to establish itself as a broadcasting institution. Match of the Day celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2014 and, in typical TV love-in self appraisal, it did so with much fanfare.

Kenneth Wolstenholme opened the very first show at Anfield as Liverpool hosted Arsenal in the First Division. Extended highlights of the home side’s one-nil win were broadcast to the small audience capable of tuning into the newly-arrived BBC Two. The apparent aim of the programme was to assist the public in catching what is now known as ‘World Cup fever’, with the tournament to be played in England two years later. Weekly highlights of a top game, indeed the match of the day if you will, were set to go out on Saturday nights for fans to obtain their football fix. So worried were the suits at the top division about attendances, they didn’t allow the BBC to announce which game it would be covering in advance in case fans didn’t bother to turn up, instead choosing to watch a shortened version later on at home. And so began a long mistrust and misunderstanding of the life and soul of the game, the supporter, by the authorities.

They had nothing to worry about. People turned up at the stadium, people watched on the gogglebox. Fifty years have passed and that’s still the case today. It will still be the case for the next few years at least as BBC Sport has just signed a new deal which will see Premier League highlights on MotD until at least 2019. In August 2014, a special anniversary edition of the show aired on BBC One which was pretty much the same as every other week but included a few montages and a very special one-off return. Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace, is an old-fashioned football ground with facilities that could easily pass for being untouched since the 70s. West Ham were accused by Jose Mourinho of going further back in time with their ’19th Century’ playing style. Appropriate then that for this celebratory reflectory show the bosses decided to jazz up Palace v the Hammers with retro graphics and the voice of one great man; Barry Davies.

He last commentated on the programme a whole 10 years previous but this was a very welcome return, albeit for just one week. Davies was, and indeed is, unique amongst his peers. His style, delivery and persona has always been to let the pictures do the talking, embrace silence and add words when necessary. A case of quality over quantity. His commentary was met with such a warm welcome in the few days leading up to the game as well as once the show had aired too. His memorable, understated lines live long in many a memory; during Olympic hockey “Where were the Germans? And frankly who cares?!’, Franny Lee’s wonder strike “Interesting… very interesting! Look at his face, just look at his face!” and on Maradona’s incredible goal against England in 86 “You have to say that’s magnificent’. In isolation these don’t read as much but when he delivered them, in his way, they were brilliant. He even managed another pearler during the anniversary game; West Ham’s Mark Noble scored from outside the box – “Noble… And so was that!” There will never be another Barry Davies.

With MotD’s simple format of goals and talking points from the weekend’s football the essentials of the show have remained a constant throughout the half-century. But there has been one significant adaptation which came in 2004 after re-gaining the Premier League rights from ITV. The change from selected match highlights plus a goals round-up of the other games, over to highlights with commentary of EVERY match has been both a positive and a negative. With all games being treated equally it makes it a lot easier for the running order to truly reflect the best games in the right order. For some reason lots of fans seem to believe in a perceived bias against their team and choose to ‘always be shown last on Match of the Day’. It is of course nonsense but don’t let that stop them believing in it. There are plenty of posts online about this elsewhere. However because they all have proper edits it means even matches as dull as Stoke 0-1 Hull sounds get a good few minutes of air-time, at the expense of a more entertaining match getting one or two minutes more. It was calculated that on a regular January edition of the show lasting 85 minutes and featuring 7 matches, 51 of those minutes were spent showing the actual match footage. This equates to an average of just over 7 minutes on each game, which is great for the smaller games but perhaps more could have been devoted to the bigger games. It’s a tough one to judge because nobody would like to go back to the old format but certainly there is room for improvement in the current state. Everyone seems to have a view on the show but personally I think it is currently in magnificent shape.

Established Premier League names from yesteryear have jumped at the chance to be associated with the programme. Danny Murphy, Philip Neville, Jermaine Jenas and Ruud Gullit are all excellent studio analysts that are tasked with a small amount of time to cram in what the goal was, why the goal was scored and what this means for the wider perspective. It isn’t easy but on their day they are all excellent. In between the forensics, the match commentators come from a very talented pool of around 15 or so voices. Guy Mowbray, Steve Wilson, Simon Brotherton and Jonathan Pearce have been BBC staff for a long time, over a decade, and have established themselves as very solid, if sometimes unspectacular,       broadcasters. All four could lay claims to be number one, but for live games it was Mowbray who took over from John Motson in 2010. Motty still appears regularly on highlights edits along with the likes of Martin Fisher, Steve Bower, John Roder, Dan O’Hagan and Alistair Mann. The freelancers ably support a very good bunch and, given the format, regularly get their chance to shine first on the programme straight after the news. Few may struggle to tell them apart but they each have their little quirks and phrases which make them all a pleasure to listen to. And isn’t that just splendid, Jonathan Pearce?

The man in the hot seat since 1999 has been striker-turned-pundit-turned-presenter Gary Lineker. He’s grown into a likeable, professional and able host with a dash of humour and an ounce of humility. It’s hard to imagine the show now without him, which is a testament to how good he is. This is just another in a series of first-rate anchors. Preceding Lineker was, amongst others, Des Lynam, David Coleman and Jimmy Hill. I saw the MotD host likened to the Doctor Who role; everyone has ‘their’ generation’s host. Mine was Lynam. It also helped that he’s a big Brighton fan, I’ve met him and he is very much a local hero. He was seen by many as the best host; warm, personable, witty and authoritative. He involved the viewer without the need for social media gimmicks. Ever prepared with the right line for the right occasion; like in the 1998 World Cup when England v Tunisia was an afternoon kick off – “Shouldn’t you be at work?” – a great opening line.

Alongside the host there’s been many a former pro in the pundits seat. Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer most recently, back through Mark Lawrenson and Trevor Brooking of yesteryear and all the way back to Jimmy Hill (him again) and Terry Venables before them. I’m too young to recall any prior to this. The pundit’s role on the show is a very difficult one to judge. Viewers tune in for the goals and highlights, not for the chat in between. With on-demand content and PVRs readily available many aren’t watching the programme live, they just skip through the analysis to get to the match action. Many of those that do watch in full are left unsatisfied, either through too much waffle or not enough insight. My take has changed over the years.

Match of the Day has nearly always managed to remain a popular and relevant part of a football fan’s weekend. I say nearly because there have been times when it’s been left behind the rest. It’s faced several challenges to its crown as the biggest footy show on the box. The recent documentary on BBC One – MotD at 50 – understandably blew smoke up the show and featured many a showbiz name drooling over clips they’ve been told how to remember just moments before. Many an article has also inflated the ego and massaged the importance of a mere 90 minutes of football. There’s no doubting it was vital to the sustained success of televised football pre-Sky. Along with The Big Match on ITV, the show was the home of domestic football week in week out during an age when live football was rarer than a law-abiding Radio 1 DJ. With football now televised every single day from somewhere in the world, the iconic brand of Match of the Day is arguably more important than ever before. It is vital that this remains on free-to-air terrestrial television to give everybody the opportunity to watch. It has a regular slot and a loyal and demanding audience. Our national game should never go the way of other sports by having it all on pay TV.

Sure, there are other outlets for football. Dedicated sports channels have helped the game and its coverage improve dramatically in the past 25 years. MotD’s big task now is remaining the place to go to for the best match action. We already know it’ll make it to 55 years not out with the new contract. If they carry on the way they are and manage to keep improving there’s no reason why we wont be seeing a similarly affectionate tribute to welcome in the 75th and 100th anniversaries in years to come. Saturday nights just wouldn’t be the same without it.

About Mark O'MEARA
I am Mark O'MEARA.

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