When we look back to try and trace the history of football on the television in Britain, there are several dates that stand out as being of significance. The twenty-second of August 1964, for example, saw the first episode of Match Of The Day, whilst the sixteenth of August 1992 saw Nottingham Forest beat Liverpool in the first live Premier League match on Sky Sports. One date that does escape most memories, however, is the second of August 1968. This was the day that London Weekend Television came on air for the first time and it is a significant date, because this brash -by the standards of the time, at least – new company would go on to revolutionise the way in which all sport – and especially football – was broadcast in this country, and the man that they chose as both their face and voice of football would go on to become a legend of British sports broadcasting.
The introduction of commercial broadcasting to Britain was very much a product of its time. Tightly regulated by the newly-formed Independent Broadcasting Authority, commercial television in Britain was divided into regional companies which opened across the country between 1955 and 1960. To ensure that no one commercial organisation would come to dominate the media landscape and with the London region – by some way the most populous and lucrative region of all – being divided into two in order to ensure that no one London-based company would come to dominate commercial broadcasting. Although in its early years Independent Television secured a significant share of the audience, its sports output was patchy, often inhibited by the relatively small size and limited resources of its constituent franchise holders.
This was an issue that London Weekend Television was keen to address upon taking up its contract in 1968, having realised that being a broadcaster confined to weekends, sport could help to answer the very unique challenges that it would face alone amongst the ITV companies. The company had taken on Jimmy Hill as its Head of Sport alongside John Bromley – who scored one of ITV’s rare sporting successes of the early 1960s with World Of Sport – to revamp its coverage and put it into competition with the BBC. Bromley favoured, as a face for this new coverage, an up and coming commentator by the name of Barry Davies, but Hill preferred a voice that he knew from BBC radio. Brian Moore had joined the BBC in 1961 and had already built a reputation as an accomplished radio commentator, with a portfolio of matches which already included the 1966 World Cup Final and Celtic’s European Cup Final win in Lisbon the following year. Moore would not only be London Weekend’s commentator, though – he would also host a lunchtime football preview segment on World Of Sport called On The Ball, as well as being the host for a new show for London viewers called The Big Match, which would provide direct competition to Match Of The Day for the first time.
The Big Match became the home for innovation in the television broadcasting of football over much of the next decade. Jimmy Hill joined the programme as its first analyst, but Moore became its public face, recognised beyond the London region because of his hosting of On The Ball and because London Weekend were happy sell their show on to other regions with more meagre resources. The facilities required for outside broadcasting were, at the time, expensive and Saturday afternoons were often a busy time for ITV companies with other sporting obligations – horce racing, an ITV staple throughout the 1970s on World Of Sport, could be a particularly great strain on outside broadcast resources – to meet. On the whole, The Big Match retained a less formal atmosphere than Match Of The Day, with guest hosts, a Christmas special and sections on “the funny side” of football. Throughout this period, however, Moore remained an authorative presence on the show, both as its anchor and main commentator, although he did confess in later years that he had to tone down his commentary style – “I had my foot down too hard on the pedal” was his own comment on the early days in his autobiography.
The show’s success was mirrored elsewhere. For the 1970 World Cup finals, Bromley introduced the idea of a panel to analyse the matches being played. The raffish, late night air of these nightly broadcasts (with a panel that featured, amongst others, Arsenal’s Bob McNab, Brian Clough and Malcolm Allison) was a hit with viewers, meaning that, for the first time, ITV beat the BBC in the ratings war for a major sporting event, but it also meant that Moore remained in London for the duration of the tournament. Indeed, he didn’t cover a World Cup final for ITV until 1986 (the 1970, 1974 and 1978 finals were covered by Hugh Johns, while the 1982 final was covered by Martin Tyler), when he was flown to Mexico City for the final, working only as the studio-based anchor until then. From 1990 until Moore’s last match before retiring – the 1998 World Cup final between France and Brazil – the job of hosting was entrusted elsewhere, and Moore himself retired at the top – after the 1998 World Cup final in Paris between France and Brazil.
As the game continued to change, Moore remained a calming presence with ITV. He was the commentator on the second of October 1983, when Tottenham Hotspur played Nottingham Forest in the first live Sunday afternoon match to be shown in this country and he continued to be the main anchor as ITV won the first exclusive rights for live Football League football in 1988. Probably his most celebrated moment came on the last evening of the 1988/89 season at Anfield, crying “It’s up for grabs now!” as Michael Thomas somewhat fortuitously danced through the Liverpool defence for Arsenal in stoppage time to send the league championship back to Highbury for the first time in eighteen years. He was, of course, as prone to gaffes as other commentators. In the heat of the moment, he accidentally called the 1980 European Cup for Malmo at the final whistle against Nottingham Forest and, at the very end of his career, he made the mistake of asking Kevin Keegan whether David Batty would score his penalty in the Second Round shoot-out between England and Argentina. Keegan’s answer quickly became part of football commentary folklore.
Brian Moore died on the first of September 2001, on the afternoon of one of the England national teams greatest results of recent years – a 5-1 win in Munich against Germany. In some respects, his retirement and subsequent death marked a significant point in a changing of the guard in terms of football broadcasting in Britain. In 1968, when he arrived on the South Bank in London, televised coverage of football in this country was not far from its infancy. London Weekend Television, for better or for worse, dragged it into its adolescence, modernising it and beginning the process of turning football into the media-friendly package that we recognise so immediately today. For all of this, though, Brian Moore gave commercial television’s coverage of the game a degree of gravitas which meant that, during its heyday, it could never be fully written off in opposition to the BBC’s coverage. Avuncular, good humoured and seldom overstated, Brian Moore was one of football’s most distinguished broadcasters.
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