Televised Football In The Regions: The North-East
With the north-east of England being as fervent in its interest in football as it is, it is perhaps surprising that the football output of its local commercial television station should have always been done on a shoestring. This, however, was the reality of the marketplace. Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough may all be clubs who stir passions in their supporters that are difficult to match elsewhere in the country, but the reality of the media landscape in the United Kingdom was that these three clubs were served by one of the more perpetually cash-starved members of the patchwork quilt which used to make up the commercial television network in this country.
Independent television had begun in the UK in September 1955 in London only, spreading out over the rest of the country over the following seven years. It reached the north-east of England in January 1959 under the name of Tyne-Tees Television. The company’s early years were difficult. Not all ITV regions were created equal, and the north-east of England had neither the huge population of London nor the affluence of, say, the south of England region. The company had to be run on a hand to mouth basis, and was singled out for criticism in the government’s 1964 investigation into the state of the media in the UK, the Pilkington Report. By the end of the 1960s, the company was at the point of financial collapse and it ended up requiring a quasi-merger with the adjoining Yorkshire region in 1974 to keep Tyne-Tees afloat at all.
Against such a background, football coverage on Tyne-Tees was never going to have too many bells and whistles. Whilst coverage in London had aspirations of grandeur, special guests and Christmas episodes, the north-east’s regional football programme, Shoot, was somewhat rougher around the edges. Yet it was an innovator. When it launched on the eighth of September 1962, Shoot was ITV’s first regular regional highlights show, with twenty-five minutes per week set aside for the region’s clubs. It was hosted by George Taylor, as it would be until its final broadcast a little over two decades later, but in its early years Shoot struggled to completely find an identity.
Taylor also helped out with commentary duties, but the company did run through a number of different commentators during its earlier years. When he quit the microphone to focus on fronting the show, Taylor was replaced by George Bayley, and then by an Australian, Jeff Thomas, at the end of the 1960s. Upon leaving Tyne-Tees to return to Australia in 1973, Thomas was in turn replaced by David Taylor. Taylor was a somewhat unusual choice. Better recognised as a straight journalist – he’d later report for ITV’s legendary current affairs show, World In Action – Taylor had entered the BBC’s Find A Commentator competition in 1969 and lost out, but had subsequently been hired by Tyne-Tees as a summariser and reporter.
David Taylor lasted just the one season – his own description of his season subsequently relayed in an interview was that he “started poorly and got worse” – before being replaced by a legend. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Kenneth Wolstenholme had been the voice of football on the television in this country. When Hungary put six goals past England in 1953, he was there. When Real Madrid put seven past Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960, he was there. When Carlos Alberto almost ripped the goal posts from their moorings at the Azteca Stadium in 1970, he was there. He presented Match Of The Day from its 1964, and more often than not he was its main commentator, too.
By the beginning of the 1970s, however, the BBC’s football coverage needed an overhaul. The innovations of John Bromley at new company London Weekend Television at the end of the previous decade had reached their zenith with a completely revolutionary, pundit-led coverage of the 1970 World Cup finals on ITV. For the first time (and, as it would turn out, only), the commercial channel beat the BBC in the ratings war for the tournament. Whilst ITV had Malcolm Allison and Brian Clough slugging it out in the manner of bar-room brawlers, the BBC had the received pronunciation of the former RAF pilot Wolstenholme.
Something had to give, and at the start of the 1970/71 season had a new look, the familiar music that the show still uses to this day, hosted by David Coleman and with Wolstenholm now only on commentary duties. This would be his final season with the BBC, his final commentary being the 1971 European Cup final at Wembley between Ajax and Panathinaikos. His retirement, however, only lasted for three years. George Taylor later recounted that he was at an ITN network sports meeting in London when he saw a copy of the Evening Standard which asked the question of “Whatever happened to Kenneth Wolstenholme?” and decided to coax him out of retirement.
It was not a conspicuous success. He may have been a big name, but Wolstenholme’s style sounded even more dated by 1974 than it had done three or four years earlier. To compound matters, he had little particular knowledge of the local football scene and chose to continue to live in London, travelling up to Newcastle only every Friday to record the programme the following day. On this occasion, however, there was something of a plan in place. Roger Tames had first joined Tyne-Tees in 1976 from a local newspaper in London to join the company’s regional show Sportstime as a trainee reporter, but by the end of the decade it was all change again on Shoot.
Kenneth Wolstenholme finally left Tyne-Tees Television during the summer of 1979. Towards the end of the previous season Tames had covered a couple of matches, and it has been reported that during the close season Wolstenholme was advised by the company that he would only now be needed as back-up to Tames, should he wish to continue his employment with the company. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wolstenholme baulked at this offer and opted to leave, leaving Roger Tames as the commentator with George Taylor hosting until the demise of Shoot in 1983. Roger Tames, however, was himself an unusual choice. Not a local to the area (he was famously an Arsenal supporter), his commentary felt too flat for critics and he was, but of course, frequently criticised by both sides of the Newcastle/Sunderland divide for being biased against their club. He did, however, have longevity. Tames would end up as Tyne-Tees’ face and voice of football until he finally left the company in 2005, covering Newcastle United Champions League matches during the 1990s when Tyne-Tees took advantage of a regional opt-out and hosting local sports coverage until the end of the era of independent ITV companies.
By the time of his arrival at the company, it was clear that there were going to be big changes in the relationship between television and football in the future, and regionalised highlights were going to fade from view. The arrival of live League football on the television from October 1983 was part of a new contract which also standardised highlights packages between the BBC and ITV, and Shoot had bitten the previous May. It went out with something of a bang rather than a whimper, with excitement on Tyneside rekindled by the arrival of Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United. For all of this, however, the last ever episode of Shoot, broadcast on the 7th May 1983, featured a low-key Fourth Division match between Hartlepool United and Rochdale. Throughout its lifespan, Tyne-Tees had been contractually required to feature a number of matches per season from all four divisions of the Football League. Those days were coming to an end, and perhaps the decision to make this Shoot’s last ever match was an acknowledgement on the part of the company that things could and would never be the same again. A decade later, the biggest twenty clubs would cast the rest asunder altogether in pursuit of their “whole new ball game”.
Throughout its lifespan, Shoot had always been a rough and ready affair. Tyne-Tees’ perpetually parlous financial state saw to that, if nothing else. The company only possessed one Outside Broadcast Unit and, with an occasional contractual requirement to send this to Newcastle, Redcar or elsewhere on Saturday afternoons to cover horse racing for the network’s flagship Saturday afternoon show World of Sport, there were plenty of weeks when Shoot wouldn’t even be shown. On such weeks, the company would usually just pick up one of the other ITV companies’ shows, preferably one featuring a north-east team or two playing away from home.
That rough and readiness, however, was apparent everywhere with Shoot. Until 1977, the show featured only one match a week and wasn’t even hosted from within a studio. Up to this point George Taylor would simply present it from the ground. These additions had been commonplace in the London area for the previous decade. Similarly familiar to viewers for a long-time had been the action replay machine. An American invention, the first one to arrive in the UK was with the BBC for the 1966 World Cup finals, but it took several years for Shoot to catch up with even these most basic of innovations. For many years, the only replays shown during matches from the north-east were single angle slow motion captures of the footage already shot by the main camera.
Regional football coverage in the north-east of England continued until the disappearance of the ITV regions altogether during the last decade. By this time, the rough edges had been planed down. When ITV returned briefly to the idea of regional football highlights at the end of the 1980s, Roger Tames was still in situ, but Shoot had been replaced by shows with considerably blander names, such as Soccer Special or The Tyne-Tees Match. The company would continue to show live Football League matches in the early to mid 1990s with Tames still occasionally at the microphone. But in October 2002 Tyne-Tees Television disappeared, subsumed into the monolith that ITV plc sought to become. Time marches on.
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.