Televised Football In The Regions: Yorkshire

by | Nov 7, 2017

It is, some might say, appropriate that the Yorkshire Television region’s football coverage should have been occasionally dotted with controversy. From Scarborough and Middlesbrough in the north down to the outer reaches of Norfolk and Humberside, the Yorkshire region was vast in its scope, covering a vast range of internecine grumbles of varying natures, some of which go back for hundreds of years. In the first place, however, the Yorkshire region didn’t exist. Coverage of that part of the world was part of “The North” region when that service first went on the air in May 1956, served during the week by Granada Television and at weekends by ABC Television, both of whom based their regional centres on the other side of the Pennines, in Manchester.

It’s easy to see how distrust could fester against that sort of arrangement, and after the Pilkington Report of 1964 savaged the network over its lacklustre programming, the decision was taken to put greater focus on the regional dimension of Independent Television. “The North”, as a region, would cease to exist. The north-west and Yorkshire would emerge from carving it down the middle, both seven day franchises, and with Granada taking the contract for the north-west. ABC had been responsible for the lion’s share of Yorkshire viewers’ sport since ITV began, and as we saw in our piece on the north-west, they were somewhat late to the party in terms of providing regular highlights coverage, failing to launch a show until “World of Soccer” in November 1965.

The problem with a region the size of “The North” can be seen from the coverage that Yorkshire clubs received once ABC finally got their regular football coverage going. Leeds United featured four times and Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford City once each in the first season of World of Soccer, while none of the smaller clubs in what would now be considered the Yorkshire region were shown at all. The following couple of seasons saw more of the same, as Yorkshire clubs jostled for position with clubs from the North-West as well as the Midlands for attention on ABC’s weekly show. Leeds United – who reached their first cup final and lifted their first major trophy in beating Arsenal at Wembley in the 1968 League Cup final, a match featured across the entire ITV network – dominated amongst the Yorkshire clubs, with cameras also visiting Hillsborough, Bramall Lane and Huddersfield Town’s Leeds Road over these two seasons.

In August 1968, however, came the biggest changes to the ITV network yet. There ended up being two winners in the race for the new Yorkshire contract. A company called Telefusion Yorkshire won the franchise, but did so on condition that they merged with one of the losing applicants, Yorkshire Independent Television. The new company chose the name Yorkshire Television (YTV) and selected a site in Kirkstall Road in Leeds to build Europe’s first purpose-built colour television studios. Significantly, the new company also significantly invested in new outside broadcast units. With football, both codes of rugby, cricket and horse racing all prevalent in the area, YTV was keen to demonstrate a commitment to sports broadcasting.

The company’s televised football debut came with a match between Sheffield United and Millwall on the twenty-fourth of August 1968, a date slightly delayed by industrial action that spread out across the ITV network from London following the beginning of the new contracts. The man chosen as their first commentator was already a familiar face, but the former Tottenham Hotspur captain Danny Blanchflower ‘s shortcomings as a commentator quickly became evident and he was relieved of his duties at the end of his first season with the new company. Fred Dinenage, who would go on to present the children’s show How and still presents the local ITV news in the south of England, was their anchor. Called “Football Special” for its first season, its transformative effect on the televised coverage of the region’s teams was immediately obvious. Every team in the region received at least some coverage over the course of the 1968/69 season, even Bradford (Park Avenue), whose sole appearance came with a match against Doncaster Rovers on the Saturday before Christmas.

Blanchflower’s replacement came from the journalistic end of the broadcasting spectrum. Keith Macklin had spent much of the decade working for the BBC, presenting an eclectic range of programmes (including Songs of Praise and Pot Black) and commentating on both rugby league and union, as well as reviving the fortunes of the BBC’s local news programme for the north-west, North at Six, upon moving from being the show’s sports reporter to being its main presenter. He may have been Lancastrian by birth, but Macklin was considered a more local accent that the Northern Irish lilt of Blanchflower to commentate on matches in the region and he would go on to stay with the company until 1976. The show was also renamed as Football Special, and later as “Soccer” – shades of Granada’s ultilitarianism, there – before reverting to Football Special, a name that it would eventually keep until the beginning of the 1980s.

By the end of the 1970s, any excitement over Yorkshire receiving its own independent television service had been washed away by inter-city rivalries and YTV’s coverage of football was certainly perceived as feeding into this, leading to the dismissive nickname of “Leedshire Television” being adopted by the company’s detractors. The success of Leeds United throughout the first half of the decade as the two big Sheffield clubs declined fed into a perception that YTV had a bias towards its home city. Whether this was fair or not is not for us to comment upon – although, as we’ll see later, YTV certainly didn’t help itself in this regard at times – but, to take the 1973/74 season as an example, it’s worth pointing out that the company only featured two Leeds United matches from the second half of the club’s championship winning season, as many as York City and Hull City and one fewer than the regions other First Division representatives at the time, Sheffield United, over the same time period.

When Keith Macklin departed in 1976, however, football in Yorkshire was set to enter into a steep decline. The 1974 league title would turn out to be Leeds United’s last major trophy for almost two decades, whilst Sheffield Wednesday dropped into the Third Division in 1975 and Sheffield United would be relegated from the top flight a year later, finding themselves joining Wednesday in the third tier in 1979 and even spending a season in the Fourth Division in 1981/82. Martin Tyler joined the company as commentator to replace Macklin, but he would move on again in 1981 to join Granada. For the start of the 1980/81 season, though, to mark the new television contract putting ITV football on Saturday nights for the first time, Football Special was rebranded as “The Big Game”, hosted by the former Wolverhampton Wanderers player Derek Dougan.

Tyler’s replacement in the commentary box was a native Yorkshireman. John Helm had been born in Baildon, just outside of Bradford, and started his career in local newspapers before moving on to work for BBC Radio Leeds and then BBC Radio 2 before moving to YTV in 1981. With the relegation of Leeds United in 1982, however, YTV was left without top flight representation and this had a deleterious effect upon the company’s football coverage for the final season of truly regional highlights on ITV. For the whole of the 1982/83 season, YTV only produced five episodes of The Big Game, instead producing highlights for Granada’s Match Time, which they would show instead of their own show. The final episode of The Big Game featured a Yorkshire derby between Bradford City and Huddersfield Town in May 1983, but coverage of Yorkshire clubs would remain sporadic throughout the remainder of the decade as Yorkshire clubs continued to struggle to get back to their former positions in the top flight.

Helm would go on to be in the commentary box on one of Yorkshire football’s darkest days. The YTV cameras had gone to Valley Parade for the final day of the 1984/85 season to cover Bradford City’s Third Division match against Lincoln City for networked ITV coverage of what should have been a day of celebration for a promoted Bradford side. The fire that engulfed the main stand that day cost fifty-six lives and injured a further two hundred and sixty-five, and a match that should have been a small amount of celebration at the end of dismal season disrupted by hooliganism suddenly became a live disaster report as ITV’s World of Sport went across to cover the unfolding horror live. One can only imagine what John Helm, who was covering a match in his home town, must have gone through in order to report this terrible story.

By the start of the 1990s, the three biggest clubs in the region would be close to all achieving top flight football at the same time. Leeds United and Sheffield United (winning a second successive promotion) would return to the First Division in 1990, but they would be passed in the opposite direction by Sheffield Wednesday, who were relegated after having found their way back five years earlier. Towards the end of the following season, however, it was Wednesday who were making the headlines, having reached a League Cup final at Wembley against Manchester United. The match was shown live across the entire ITV network, but after Sheffield Wednesday caused a huge surprise by winning the match by a goal to nil, YTV took the highly controversial decision to break away from the post-match celebrations at five past five to show a programme called War Of The Monster Trucks, even though the rest of the ITV network stayed at Wembley for a further twenty-five minutes.

The complaints from South Yorkshire were unsurprising and justified. Would, critics argued, YTV have made the same decision had it been Leeds United in a League Cup final? In its editorial the following week, local newspaper the Sheffield Star summarised this criticism by commenting that, “Many will suspect that if Leeds had been the victors, those Monster Trucks would have been pushed quickly off the roads”, whilst YTV’s response – “Other regions were showing cartoons which they could easily replace. We were showing an hour-long programme which we could not scrap.” – only inflamed the matter further. A year later, the whole of the ITV network was in Leeds striker Lee Chapman’s living room as the last top flight match to be shown on free-to-air television saw Liverpool beat Manchester United to take the First Division title to Elland Road for the first time in eighteen years. To this day, Sheffield Wednesday’s best known fanzine goes by the name of War Of The Monster Trucks.

Regional highlights had returned to Yorkshire, as they did in several other ITV regions, in 1989 with Goals On Sunday, a thirty minute lunchtime show which commonly featured fairly brief highlights of one match followed by the goals only for every other Football League club in the region. Commentary on the main match would come from John Helm and the show was presented by Nick Powell, who had arrived at the company from Pennine Radio, stayed with YTV until 1996 before leaving to join Sky News in 1996, becoming the sports editor for Sky Sports News in 2000, where he remains today. Midweek highlights were also shown under the name of “Your Match”, but this arrangement only stayed in place for as long as ITV Sport had the rights to broadcast top flight football, although they did make a brief reappearance in the mid-1990s and again from 2000 on, before finally being shelved for good in 2004.

With ITV Sport relegated to coverage of the Football League only from 1992 on, football coverage on YTV started to fade away, a little. Throughout the years of their live coverage from what was then called the First, Second and Third Divisions, Yorkshire was occasionally treated to a show Your Match Live, but with only Barnsley and Grimsby Town in the second tier, YTV opted to skip most weeks, showing only a small number of live matches per season with commentary still coming from John Helm. The last match to be shown on Yorkshire was coverage of a match between Watford and Grimsby Town in February 2002. By this time, however, the removal of restrictions on the ownership of ITV companies meant that YTV was just a subsidiary of Granada Television, who’d brought them five years earlier, and on the twenty-eighth of October 2002 Yorkshire Television was rebranded as ITV1 Yorkshire.

Possibly Yorkshire Television’s finest moment of sports broadcasting, however, came from those Kirkstall Road studios rather than from one of their outside broadcast units. With the appointment of Brian Clough following the departure of Don Revie for the England job in 1974, YTV’s local news programme Calendar produced two special episodes that ended up bookending Clough’s forty-four days in charge at Elland Road. In the first episode, “Clough Comes To Leeds“, the new manager was cross-questioned by three journalists (Keith Macklin, John Sadler of The Sun and Peter Cooper of The Daily Mirror), primarily on the subject of comments that Clough made made about Leeds United and Don Revie prior to his accepting the job. As if that wasn’t good enough, when Clough was sacked after just forty-four days in charge of Leeds, the now former manager was enticed back to Kirkstall Road for a second Calendar Special, this time entitled “Goodbye Mister Clough“, in which presenter (and later Labour MP) Austin Mitchell, who hosted both shows, quizzed Clough about where it all went wrong with the spiky accompaniment of Revie himself. This broadcast, thirty minutes of two sons of Middlesbrough verbally sparring live on the television, remains perhaps one of the most extraordinary football broadcasts ever seen in this country.

Unlike much else of the infrastructure of the ITV network, such as the Granada’s Quay Street Studios in Manchester, the South Bank studios in London or the Broad Street Studios in Birmingham (the latter two of which were built at around the same time as the Kirkstall Road complex), traces of Yorkshire Television remain to this day. The studios were due to close in 2009, but a change of heart on the part of ITV saw them refitted for high definition production and they remain in use to this day under the name of The Leeds Studios. Similarly, Calendar, the local news programme that debuted on YTV’s first day on air in July 1968, remains the name of the region’s local daily news programme on ITV1. Like Brian Clough and Don Revie, however, the name of Yorkshire TV is now reserved for the history books only. 

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.