The news that the BBC has secured a further three years of Premier League highlights makes for a potentially intriguing situation. In August 2014, a year after their next contract ends, the BBC’s flagship (and, it’s probably fair to say now, only) football show will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, but the new contract will expire in May 2013. Will “Match Of The Day” live to see its golden jubilee? The BBC makes much of the programme’s heritage. Whilst other long running BBC shows such as “Grandstand” and “Top Of The Pops” have been axed in the name of modernisation, the BBC has stuck by the “Match Of The Day” name – a name that harks back to a forgotten era of grainy black and white footage, terraces and rattles. The game has moved on a long way since those days, and “Match Of The Day” has moved on with it. As with the modernisation of the game, it’s an open question whether all of these changes have been for the best.
Certainly, the programme is unrecognisable from the “Match Of The Day” of the 1970s and 1980s. In an age in which every single match seems to be recorded for posterity, it’s worth remembering that, for many years, the Football League’s fear of television cameras meant that not even every match was recorded. Under the television rights package that was dominant during these days, the BBC had the rights to cover two matches every week, with each ITV region having the right to cover one match each (which, due to the limited availiability and cost of Outside Broadcast units, they wouldn’t usually take up, sending cameras to about five or six matches). Whilst this meant that we missed out on what would have been a fantastic archive of the era, it did at least mean that “Match Of The Day” covered matches in detail.
The programme followed a very basic format during this era. Jimmy Hill would present extended highlights of two matches (usually from the First Division, though contractual obligations meant that they had to cover a certain number of matches from the others as well). There would be a brief interview with one person from each side afterwards, and the matches would be broken up with a round-up of what had gone elsewhere that day, with Bob Wilson telling you (usually with the assistance of black & white photographs or mugshots of the key protagonists of the day’s events) what had unfolded. Once a month, they would round up the best goals for “Goal Of The Month” (which, because of the scarcity of goals in the programme, took on a rarity value which blew the competition out of all proportion in terms of its importance). And that was it.
The thing about this format was that it worked. The programme would, occasionally, be crushingly dull. On one famous occasion in 1983, Barry Davies sighed and tutted his way through a 0-0 draw between Everton and Coventry City. A wretched game played in front of a scarcely believable 11,000 people at Goodison Park. Still, though, you would sit through it. As a child, this was one of the most important rites of passage that I learned. Football can be achingly terrible as well as spell-bindingly brilliant, and you never know which games are going to be great matches until the final whistle blows. The BBC, of course, weren’t doing this as a charitable exercise. They were doing it because they had no choice. They had to pick their two matches in advance (and had to share who got first choice of the day’s matches with ITV), and then they were stuck with them. This meant that all football life was there on view. A season’s worth of “Match Of The Day” was as good a snapshot of English football as you could get.
The important thing to remember about this that when the BBC stumbled upon great matches, those matches went on to live in the memory for many years to come. The BBC were there when Jeff Astle’s second goal for West Bromwich Albion saw the referee correctly over-rule the linesman (Colin Suggett may have the first touch of a traction engine at the start of that clip, but he is ultimately dribbling the ball rather than passing it to Tony Brown, and Jeff Astle stops running to bring himself back onside before starting to run again to score a perfectly legitimate goal – the Leeds supporters comments on that YouTube link are almost uniformly wrong). They were there when Spurs beat Bristol Rovers 9-0 in 1977, and they were there when Luton Town relegated Manchester City on the last day of the season in 1983 and David Pleat performed an impromptu version of the hokey cokey that was all “in” and no “shake it all about”.
Such rarity value doesn’t exist any more, of course. Nowadays, “Match Of The Day” shoehorns in every match shown in the Premier League and, of course, it’s only the Premier League because of the carving up of the rights to show matches. Each match is limited to ten or fifteen minutes of highlights, and they rush through it all at breakneck pace, in order to cram it all into just over an hour. Even the famous title music has been crushed below a torrent of whooshes and booms which make it sound like a harrier jump jet taking off. Maybe it’s a reflection on our shorter concentration spans. It’s possible that the BBC are simply reacting to the times. Whatever the causes of this change in the styling of “Match Of The Day”, one thing is definite. With the rest of their football coverage lying in tatters after a series of raids by ITV and Setanta, they cannot afford to lose any more football. ITV didn’t even bother bidding for the Premier League highlights package this time – if the BBC wants it to live to see its fiftieth anniversary, they can’t afford any mistakes with “Match Of The Day”.