Gary Lineker will probably be wearing a party hat for it, but there isn’t a great deal else for the BBC’s venerable Saturday evening football programme to celebrate as it reaches its fiftieth birthday. This half-centenary has been treated as an excuse for a bit of a revamp, but part of the problem with these celebrations is that studying Match Of The Day for any period of time is more likely than not to lead one to the focus upon its position as something of an anachronism in the shiny, modern, twenty-four hour a day world of football media.
Half a century ago, of course, it was all very different. Matches had been sporadically shown live on the BBC since shortly before the start of the second world war, and the first contract to regularly show League football came in 1960 when ITV signed an agreement with the Football League worth £150,000 to show twenty-six live matches. It was not a conspicuous success. The first match, between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers, was one featuring two fading former giants of the previous decade and an injury to the main attraction, Stanley Matthews, had an appreciable effect on both the television audience and that at Bloomfield Road. After disputes with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur over being granted permission to broadcast matches and then with the Football League over appearance payments, the commercial broadcasters pulled out of the deal.
After two regional commercial stations – Anglia Television and Tyne Tees Television – had begun broadcasts of their own two years later the BBC – who, if nothing else, needed a training ground for those that would be undertaking the huge task of covering the World Cup in 1966 – finally followed suit with a regular broadcasts, starting in 1964 with extensive highlights of the First Division match between Liverpool and Arsenal at Anfield. It was not a particularly auspicious debut. The programme was broadcast on the brand new BBC2, which was only available at that time in the London area, and it attracted just 20,000 viewers – less than half the number that had turned out at Anfield earlier that day, and the show wouldn’t be available to a nationwide audience until it transferred to BBC1 two years later.
As the fabric of English football started to rot over the course of the two decades following the transient high of the 1966 World Cup finals, however, Match Of The Day entered its golden age. Offered meaningful competition in the form of ITV’s “The Big Match” in 1968, innovation came to slowly to the show, including the introduction of colour broadcasts and a short-lived period during which one of the matches was different for each region of the country, but as it entered the public conciousness as an institution, it’s conventions became as familar as an old pair of slippers. It’s annual Goal Of The Season competition became the de facto official award for the whole of English football, and the very best goals of this era that were captured by the BBC’s television cameras are now the shared memory of the era.
For those of you too young to remember, Match Of The Day was a different beast during those years to that with which we are familiar now. Consider, for example, the line-up from thirty years ago this weekend, which happened to be the first weekend of the 1983/84 season. Just two matches were selected for broadcast, the West Midlands derby between Asgton Villa and West Bromwich Albion as well as the match between Manchester United and the newly promoted Queens Park Rangers. Viewers that day were treated to eleven goals, but this high number was the exception rather than the rule. The BBC took its cameras – and its chances – to two pre-selected matches, and what happened in those matches was what the viewers got in the form of extended highlights, intersected by a brief new section which rounded up what had been going elsewhere in the country that day.
The beginning of the end of this format came with the introduction of regular live league football in the latter stages of 1983. While the highlights show would continue in its normal Saturday night slot, Match Of The Day Live became an occasional addition to the schedules, but the big change came in 1988, when ITV bagged the first exclusive television deal with the Football League. For the next four seasons, Match Of The Day became an FA Cup-only programme, showing highlights of the first two rounds of the competion and then a highlights show and one – just the one, initially – live match per round from the Third Round through to the final.
Four years after losing those rights, however, top flight league football returned to Match Of The Day when the Premier League signed its highlights package over to the BBC. It is, perhaps, a sign of the reverence with which the programme was held that this deal was considered something of a mitigation for the breakway in itself by many – hindsight, of course, has twenty-twenty vision – and over the course of the intervening twenty-three years the programme has, depending on your persepctive, either continued to involve to meet the wants of a constantly evolving football media market or moved away from the core values that made it so watchable in the first place. Gone are the extended highlights of matches, served in such a matter of fact fashion, and in have come briefer highlights of most if not all Premier League matches, a studio from the future and, of course, the nemesises of so many viewers, the pundits.
Punditry has been around for considerably longer than Match Of The Day has. Since the dawn of the broadcasting of the game in the first place, even before the start of the Second World War, the idea of the expert summariser has been part and parcel of the televised football experience, but in recent years the experts have come to be regarded as punchbags by the public, irritating and perplexing much of the viewing audience with their banality and matey jokiness. Still, though, they remain and there appear to be no signs that any future makeovers of the show will change that at all. The only face on the programme appears to be presenter Gary Lineker, who has settled comfortably into his role and finally seems comfortable in front of the cameras after several seasons at the start of his new career when he performed a passable impersonation of a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights.
After half a century, however, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that Match Of The Day in 2014 is something of an anachronism. The dedicated now has two live Premier League matches to choose from every weekend, and many now also take advantage of modern technology to stream their team’s match live at three o’clock, regardless of the legality of doing so. The truth of the matter is that the Match Of The Day audience is a product of its time and has tailored its taste accordingly. Gone are the days when millions would wait until five hours after the end of a Saturday afternoon’s football before tuning in to watch twenty minutes highlights late in the evening.
Similarly, the modern preference for exclusive television deals means that one of the more charming features of the old Match Of The Day is similarly lost forever. There was a time when the BBC’s contract with the Football League required it to broadcast a certain number of matches from the three other divisions of the League, but nowadays the lower divisions are represented by The Football League Show, which follows Match Of The Day and provides, if nothing else, a handy metaphorical reminder for the great divide that continues to run through professional football in this country. This coverage is in many ways preferable to the old way of doing it. No longer are the three divisions of the Football League given lip service in the form of a handful of broadcasts per season, and there can be little question that there is better coverage of the lower divisions than there ever used to be, no matter how infuriating the gurning Mark Clemmitt may be at times.
On the fiftieth anniversary edition of the show, however, a hint of the past did manage to waft through Match Of The Day. For the highlights of the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and West Ham United, viewers were treated to on-screen graphics straight from the 1970s and, still more significantly, to a cameo appearance from the legendary Barry Davies. Perhaps Davies’ style is out of sync with the modern game. There doesn’t often seem to be much place in modern football for the elegant and understated. At seventy-six years old, he veteran pulled an absolute masterclass out of the bag, though, substituting the technical for feel, a warm, reassuring voice for a surprisingly cold August evening. Yet for those of us of a slightly older vintage, this was something of a bittersweet moment. It is unlikely that we will hear Davies in the commentary box again, and this swansong was a reminder that the past is a foreign country, and that it isn’t going to be returning.
The future of Match Of The Day seems tied to the Premier League. Should the BBC lose the right to show Premier League highlights, the future of the show would again be cast into doubt and the unfortunate truth of the matter is that no-one can say with a great deal of certainty whether there would be a great deal of will within the corporation to keep the name alive. After all, there was a time when it felt as if the Grandstand name would live forever, but the BBC cut that from its schedules when it became apparent that this programme was no longer cost-effective to produce. For all the hubris of the last couple of weeks or so, Match Of The Day enters its second half-century looking over its shoulder somewhat, a fish out of water in the modern media environment in need of a makeover far bolder than anybody within the sports department of the BBC seems prepared to give it.
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