There are some creations in football that are so commonplace that we seldom stop to think where they came from, but without them, the game would be unrecognisable from the one that we know today. Without them, we’d still be using tape for crossbars and referees would still be wearing plus fours. The death of Bryan Cowgill earlier this week at the age of eighty-one sees the passing of a man who, for all of the less endearing aspects of his personality (which were nothing to do with football on the television and, as such, will not be discussed here), was genuine innovator in the field of televised sport, and was responsible for much of what we (at least in Britain) came to understand as the very landscape of football broadcasting.
Our older readers may remember the nascent days of football broadcasting on the television in Britain. Asides from the FA Cup final and the occasional England match, there was no live football on the television in this country and that which was shown was a haphazard mix of friendly matches and amateur matches. Cowgill had joined the BBC in 1995 as a production assistant, and was responsible for the production of “Sportsview” and “Grandstand”, programmes which, for the first time, set sport as a confirmed part of the weekly broadcasting schedule. His promotion to the position of Head of Sport at the BBC might seem peculiar to modern eyes, given that he had comparatively little experience within sports journalism, but this was not unusual at the time. As they widened the breadth of their coverage the BBC had to find people to fill positions with no experience, because it was impossible to find people with any experience. As late as 1962, there was no live television coverage of the World Cup.
In 1964, Cowgill came up with an innovation that would revolutionise the future of the game in ways that he could scarcely have imagined at the time. He negotiated at length with the Football League, who had been resistant to the televising of football because of the effect that they believed it would have upon attendances (a belief that was still widespread as recently as the late 1980s and still persists in some quarters today), and persuaded them to agree to allow the BBC to record one of their matches on a weekly basis. The result was “Match Of The Day”, and the first edition of this new programme was shown in 1964, featuring a First Division match between Liverpool and Arsenal. The programme was shown on the BBC’s new channel, BBC2, and was watched by an audience of 20,000 people.
To some extent, he was the right man in the right place at the right time. With the World Cup coming to England in 1966 and developments in satellite technology meaning that matches could be shown live in many parts of the world, the BBC were well aware of the need to innovate before a brand new, global audience. The 1966 World Cup saw Cowgill introduce instant replay technology to television coverage. The expense of the machinery required to use it meant that it was only used very sparingly, but Cowgill’s name for the innovation, the “action replay”, has become part of the English language itself. Action replays are now central to the game. They started being shown in slow motion in 1971, and the constant discussion that we now have over whether they should be used within matches by officials demonstrates neatly the extent to which football and television have become intertwined. It’s unlikely that his innovations would not have been thought up by someone else, but they certainly would have been delayed and quite possibly have come out looking very different indeed.
In addition to this, the (arguably somewhat less welcome) introduction of the co-commentator was introduced at the 1966 World Cup, but it is a measure of the comparative lack of integration of the game into the fabric of the country that when the BBC moved “Match Of The Day” to BBC1 in 1966, Kenneth Wolstenholme (the show’s presenter) advised viewers that he would be explaining the laws of the game to viewers as time went along. Cowgill was also aware of the importance of floodlighting in football. As recently as the late 1940s, the FA had banned clubs from playing under (or even installing) floodlights, but with the rapid expansion of midweek football through new competitions such as the European Cup and the League Cup, by the late 1960s midweek, floodlit football was commonplace. The BBC’s reaction to this was to introduce “Sportsnight” in 1968, a weekly midweek sports magazine programme that would stay in the screens for the next three decades. “Match Of The Day” was revamped in 1970, expanding to show the highlights of two matches (having been first shown in colour a year earlier) and with a studio format. Cowgill moved upstairs to become the head of BBC1 in 1974, before going over to Thames Television in 1977.
We take all of these things for granted nowadays, and there can be no question that such developments accelerated us away from the game that we knew and towards the game that we know today. As such, in football terms at least, Cowgill’s legacy to the game is a mixed one, even though his innovations were related to to the broadcasting of football rather than to football itself. No-one would have guessed in 1964 that “Match Of The Day” would become the institution that it has become, and it is a testimony to his abilitty as a sports producer that so many of the programmes that he was involved lasted for as long as they did.