Televised Football In The Regions: The Midlands – In Colour

by | Nov 12, 2017

If, at the point that Associated Television (ATV) began their contract to broadcast seven days a week to the Midlands in 1968, one had asked a sample of football experts which parts of the country would come to dominate football in England over the duration of this contract, it’s entirely possible that the vast, sprawling band across the middle of the country wouldn’t have figured in that many people’s calculations. Such is the size of the Midlands that of course it had representation in the First Division, but this was largely concentrated in the bottom of the half of the division, with some traditionally large clubs, such as Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City, apparently in decline and England’s second biggest city, Birmingham, represented only by West Bromwich Albion. By the time this contract ended on New Year’s Eve 1981, however, Midlands clubs had claimed four First Division championships and two European Cups. The Midlands was perhaps English football’s surprise powerhouse of the 1970s.

Along with London and the North, the Midlands had been one of the first areas to start receiving commercial television broadcasts in 1956. As with the other regions, it was split, with ABC Television winning the contract to broadcast during the week whilst the weekend franchise went to… well… ABC Television. Two separate companies had applied with different versions of the same acronym. Associated Broadcasting Company had won the contract to broadcast to the Midlands during the week and London at the weekends, whilst the Associated British Corporation had won the weekend contracts for the Midlands and the North of England. The Independent Television Authority, the regulators, decided that the Midlands weekday franchise holders should change their name, and so it was that the Associated Broadcasting Company became Associated Television. They began broadcasting to the Midlands in February 1956, five months after they’d begun their weekend service to London.

As with Granada Television in the North of England, ATV were a weekday broadcaster in the Midlands and, as such, didn’t provide a great deal of sports coverage to the area for the first twelve years of their existence. London was a different matter, but as with ABC Television ATV were slightly slow off the blocks when it came to producing a regular football highlights show. This had begun on ITV in 1962 in the North-East of England and East Anglia, but it wasn’t until three years later, in October 1965, that viewers in London first saw ATV’s show, Star Soccer. Until 1968, the Midlands football coverage was provided by ABC Television under the World of Soccer name, and the Midlands had to share top billing with the clubs of the North-West of England and Yorkshire. However, the Pilkington Report into broadcasting in the UK of 1964 had not been particularly complimentary of ITV’s broadcasting standards, and so it was that the new contracts to broadcast, which would begin in July 1968, would focus more on the regions, with a seven day franchise being created for the Midlands. ATV, having looked at the possibility of applying for one of the London franchises and rejected it, won the new seven day franchise for the Midlands.

The transfer of ATV’s operations to the Midlands would turn out to be something of a bone of contention for the entirety of the remainder of the company’s existence. The company built a large new production centre at Broad Street in Birmingham in 1970 but its main studios remained in Elstree, on the northernmost outskirts of London. One thing that did move lock, stock and barrel to the Midlands, however, was Star Soccer. The company’s commentator was Hugh Johns, a former RAF pilot and newspaper journalist who’d been persuaded to join ATV by the company’s chairman Lew Grade in 1966. Johns’ distinctively rich, Welsh baritone immediately made him ITV’s main commentator and he commentated on the 1966 World Cup final for the entire ITV network, moving to the Midlands with the change of franchise two years later.

Until 1971, hosting the programme and interviews were left to the former England captain Billy Wright (who was ATV’s Head of Sport), but he was replaced in 1971 by Gary Newbon, who’d begun his career in journalism before going on to work for South-West of England contractors Westward TV during the 1960s and then for ATV’s daily local news programme, ATV Today, as a sports reporter. Newbon shared hosting responsibilities with Trevor East, who would go on to become a familiar face to children as one of Chris Tarrant’s stooges on another ATV production, the Saturday morning anarcho-fest Tiswas.

Johns, however, was the main attraction. During the dreadful “new lad” phase that this country went through during the 1990s, there was a brief spell when his 1966 World Cup commentary for ITV came up for a certain degree of ridicule in some circles. He couldn’t compare to the BBC’s Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous – and improvised – “they think it’s all over” line, but Johns did strike somewhat lucky in that London Weekend Television’s Brian Moore, who might otherwise have been considered the ITV network’s first choice commentator, was chosen to anchor ITV’s coverage of World Cup finals, meaning that Johns ended up being the voice of the 1970, 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals as well. His rich turn of phrase – “What a beautiful goal from Pelé! El Rey Pelé!” was his reaction to the first goal in the 1970 World Cup final – avuncular manner obvious passion for the game made him popular viewers, even if ATV itself wasn’t always terribly popular with viewers in the Midlands that much of the time.

The vast reach of the Midlands region, from the Potteries in the north to the Welsh border in the west and Oxfordshire and the Home Counties in the south, always meant that keeping football supporters happy would be difficult for any broadcaster in the area. This, however, was further accentuated by the fact that there was a perception of a bias on ATV’s part towards the West Midlands in its regional broadcasting anyway, and this was further complicated by the fact that it was Derby County and Nottingham Forest who won three Football League championships between them in the six years between 1972 and 1978.

Whether through bias or not, Derby County supporters certainly had grounds to feel a little hard done by during their 1971/72 championship season. Their team only featured on Star Soccer once from the end of January on, whilst Birmingham City – who ended the season getting promoted from the Second Division – featured five times. The irony of this perceived West Midlands bias was all the more ironic because of Gary Newbon and Trevor East’s well-known support for Leicester City and Derby County respectively. It was at least a lesson that ATV seemed to learn. When Derby won the league title for the second time in four years in 1975, their cameras were present for the last two Saturday home matches of the season. The same applied three years later, when Nottingham Forest won the First Division title.

By the end of the decade, football in the Midlands appeared to be in rude health. The 1979/80 season saw clubs from the region – Nottingham Forest, Wolverhampton Wanderers, a newly-resurgent Aston Villa, who would receive extensive coverage the following year when they lifted the First Division title for the first time in seventy-one years, and West Bromwich Albion – finish in the top half of the First Division, whilst Leicester City and Birmingham City were both promoted from the Second Division. Hugh Johns was still in the commentary box with Gary Newbon presenting Star Soccer, and they were supplemented with a young reporter by the name of Nick Owen, who would, of course, go on to find considerably greater fame as one of the faces of breakfast television during the 1980s, and the somewhat contentious choice of the untried Jimmy Greaves as an analyst.

Greaves would go on to form an enduring television  partnership with the former Liverpool striker Ian St John, but his early appearances on Star Soccer were not conspicuous by their success, with Greaves himself later noting in his autobiography that “The cardinal sin I committed in those early programmes was trying to be a clever dick when asked about tactics and technique.” When Greaves was savaged by a football journalist – who wrote “Why doesn’t Jimmy Greaves go the whole way and put on a clown’s suit?” – one of Star Soccer’s directors took this advice to heart and encouraged Greaves to be less formal and more humorous in his approach, leading to the persona that would become familiar nationwide over the course of the 1980s. ATV had built its reputation as the light entertainment arm of the ITV network, so perhaps such a sideways step shouldn’t have been too surprising.

The start of the 1980s, however, was to bring a shock to the system for ATV. The company had been responsible for much of the truly great television of the 1970s and 1980s – Thunderbirds, The Muppet Show and Jesus of Nazareth, for example, were all ATV productions – but it also spent much of the 1970s fighting fires at home. There was the ongoing rumble of discontent in the East Midlands over a perceived Birmingham bias, for one thing, whilst even in Birmingham itself the company seemed to be in perpetual dispute with the city council, in particular over a proposed theatre in the city which the company had stated that it would build. When the new contracts for ITV franchises were announced in 1980, the company held onto its licence, but only by the skin of its teeth.

ATV had clearly taken the criticism that it received from all sides over its regional coverage to heart, setting up a new company called ATV Midlands to apply for the new contract and promising in its application to stop using the Elstree studios and build a replacement in Nottingham, but when the new franchises were announced, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (which had superceded the ITA with the commencement of commercial radio in the early 1970s) insisted that the ATV’s parent company, Associated Communications Corporation, would have to divest 49% of its shareholding to local shareholders, that the new franchise would be a dual-franchise, providing local news from both Birmingham and Nottingham, and that the company would have to change its name in line with the change in shareholding.

So it was that, on New Year’s Day 1982, a new name arrived on the screens of viewers in the Midlands. Central Independent Television wasn’t as such a new company, though, and their broadcasting of football across the region didn’t change very much initially. At the end of the 1981/82 season, there was one big change when Hugh Johns, who’d slowly been pushed down ITV’s pecking order over the previous three or four years – Martin Tyler had commentated on the 1982 World Cup final rather than Johns, for example – left the company to return to his native Wales to work for HTV, and was replaced by a completely new voice to television. Peter Brackley had started his career by working for BBC Radio in Brighton, but had progressed to Radio 2, where he commentated on football and athletics as well as hosting both Sport on Two and Sports Report.

Brackley’s arrival at Central came in time for Star Soccer’s final season. The regional broadcasting of football highlights was to be supplanted by a combination of nationally networked highlights and live matches from the start of the 1983/84 season, but football in the Midlands was in decline by this time as well. Aston Villa won the European Cup in 1982 but would never recover the verve that swept the club to the league title a year prior to that. Wolverhampton Wanderers would fall all the way to the Fourth Division, almost going out of business on the way. Derby County, twice champions of England during the 1970s, began the 1980s in the Second Division and only avoided a further relegation in 1983 by the skin of their teeth. Still, at least Star Soccer’s final broadcast saw a Midlands celebration, as Leicester City grabbed the third promotion spot with a point from a home match against Burnley after a tussle with Fulham.

From 1983 until 1988, ITV shared rights for broadcasting both highlights and live matches with the BBC, but such was the decline of fortunes of clubs in the Midlands that the only ITV coverage of them during the 1985/86 season was highlights of Aston Villa’s trip to Portsmouth in the Third Round of the FA Cup, Birmingham City getting five goals put past them at Anfield, a goalless draw for Nottingham Forest against Everton, a narrow defeat for Oxford United at Ipswich Town, along with Oxford’s win against Queens Park Rangers in the League Cup final. From 1988 on, ITV had exclusive coverage of the Football League and this at least coincided with the last half-successful Nottingham Forest team and Aston Villa’s resurgence, although when ITV companies reintroduced highlights programmes in 1990 it’s worth bearing in mind that Central opted not to do this, preferring instead to show a ten minute long goal round-up on Saturday tea times called Central Goals Extra rather than a full highlights programme on Sunday mornings.

It might, however, be argued that Central was the only ITV region to actually benefit from the huge change that took place in the summer of 1992, when top flight football moved behind the Sky Sports paywall for good. ITV Sport consoled itself with a new contract with the Football League, and for the start of the 1992/93 season no fewer than eight clubs – Notts County, Derby County, Leicester City, Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Oxford United, Swindon Town and Peterborough United; a third of the division – fell under their remit to some extent or another. Peter Brackley had by this time moved on to work as the voice of Channel Four’s Football Italia coverage, but his place was taken in the commentary box by Alan Parry, with Tony Francis hosting and Gary Newbon carrying out interviews at the matches themselves. These matches went out under the name of The Central Match Live, and live Sunday afternoon football was enthusiastically embraced by Central until the 1996/97 season, when it cut its live coverage to just nine matches. A brief return during the 2001/02 season saw a further ten matches shown, the last being a one-all draw between Birmingham City in April 2002.

By this time, though, the Central name had gone as well, a victim of its own success, in some respects. The 1990 Broadcasting Act changed the way in which franchises were allocated, requiring each company to bid for it through paying an annual retainer whilst reaching a vague “quality threshold” with regard to its programming. Central was so convinced of its place at the centre of the ITV network that the company’s directors gambled that no-one else would bother bidding for it and bid £2,000 per year to retain their franchise (Yorkshire TV, by way of contrast, had to bid and then pay £37.7m per year for theirs). They gambled correctly, in one respect. Paying practically no annual fee was good for the company’s bank balance. However, the 1990 Broadcasting Act also allowed ITV companies to start buying each other and the suddenly very affluent Central were now the most attractive prey for competitors. The company was purchased by Carlton Communications in 1994, and in 1999 Carlton did away with the Central name altogether, keeping it only for local news, a name which it retains to this day, under the name ITV1 Central.

Hugh Johns died in June 2007 at the age of eighty-four. Quite what a man who considered his preparation for a television commentary to be a couple of pints of Brains and a fistful of cigarettes would have made of both modern football and the modern media is just about anybody’s guess. And football in the Midlands continues to fluctuate, with only three of the old region’s clubs in the Premier League this season. Can the Midlands rise again? Well, now that it’s under foreign ownership, perhaps anything is possible. It seems unlikely, however, that this part of the country will ever again taste the thrill of Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa all being the champions of England within a seven year period, or of its clubs being the champions of Europe for three years out of four, as happened from 1979 to 1982. They think it’s all over, indeed.

You see the opening titles to Star Soccer from 1977 right here

There’s a rather wonderful interview with Hugh Johns from 1994 right here

None of this would have been possible without the absolute treasure trove that is this glorious history of football broadcasting on ITV. Show them some love by wading into their vast wealth of information.