Voices of Football: Gerald Sinstadt – The Man Who Spoke Out

by | Feb 9, 2021

Racism, as has now become just about indisputable, has been on the rise again over the last three or four years, but the truth of the matter is that it’s always been with us, and that it never really went away. What has changed has been its method of delivery. Racist football supporters don’t need to sit in a stand and shout things that may end up in them being banned from the ground and perhaps arrested any more. Nowadays, they can target their abuse, and they can do it from the comfort of their own homes.

At the end of the 1970s, though, things were very different. As 1978 drew to a close, the Winter of Discontent was starting to bite, while the weather was continuing to deteriorate. On the 30th December, a blizzard hit the south and south-east of England. The following day was the coldest New Year’s Eve in forty years. For those who didn’t want to go out in that sort of weather on New Year’s Eve, there was football on the television. In the north-west of England, Granada Television was presenting The Kick Off Match.

It was a sparkling afternoon of football that they featured, a 5-3 win for West Bromwich Albion at Manchester United which remains one of the most fondly-remembered of the era. Albion’s three black players, Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, all shone in particular, assisted by similarly outstanding performances from Tony Brown and Len Cantello. There was, however, one blight on the afternoon. Throughout the match, Albion’s black players were booed almost every time they touched the ball.

At the time, it felt like there was a conspiracy of silence around the gales of racism that washed around British grounds every Saturday afternoon. It was simply never mentioned. But on this occasion, one man spoke out. Granada’s commentator was halfway through pointedly mentioning the abuse that Cunningham was receiving on West Brom’s left-wing before he was cut short in the perfect way possible, a through-pass from Cunningham to Tony Brown, who swept in an equalising goal for Albion. They came from behind twice, to win that match.

Gerald Sinstadt, who was both Granada’s anchor and commentator that day, was born in Folkestone in February 1930. He cut his radio teeth on the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS), and moved on from there to BBC Radio. Once there, he got in touch with a young Second Lieutenant that he’d first encountered while with the BFBS and helped him to get his first job in radio. Barry Davies would go on to become a legend of British sports broadcasting.

By the middle of the 1960s, though, the tide had turned against radio. Television was where the future of sport rested, and Gerald Sinstadt went to Anglia Television, making his television commentary debut for them in December 1966, for a match between Grimsby Town and Leyton Orient as previous commentator John Camkin laboured with recurring back problem that would see him retire from commentary in 1968. Sinstadt’s stay in East Anglia, however, would be relatively brief. A considerably bigger fish had come knocking.

When ITV launched in 1955, there was only the North of England, and it was run on a dual-franchise between Granada and ABC Television, who ran the weekends in the Midlands, as well. In some respects, this made sense. The weekends were the biggest ratings winners, and having a separate company focusing on that alone benefited the growing network, but by the time the ITV contracts were reissued for 1968, ABC had been squeezed into the brand new London company, Thames Television, while Granada saw their region split in two, with Yorkshire Television taking the other half. Their compensation for this would be a seven-day contract.

This new landscape left Granada at one particular disadvantage. As a weekday only company, they hadn’t covered much sport before, and the big new company, London Weekend, had gone big in appointing Jimmy Hill as their Head of Sport and introducing The Big Match, which turned out to be a revolution in the televised coverage of football in this country. Granada quickly signed Barry Davies, who’d only narrowly lost out to Brian Moore for the Big Match job, but after a year Davies was lured back to the BBC, where he’d remain until his retirement in 2004.

The appeal of a move to Granada to Gerald Sinstadt was obvious. Just a year earlier, Manchester had been the home of both the English and European champions, while forty miles up the road, Everton were looking stronger than they had for years and Liverpool under Shankly were still perennial title-challengers. If this had been factored into Sinstadt’s decision in 1969, it appeared thoroughly vindicated at the end of his first season, when Everton were crowned the champions of England.

The north-west of England would go on to claim five of the ten league titles awarded throughout the 1970s, with Liverpool winning the other four, in 1973, 1976, 1977 and 1979, after Everton’s 1970s triumph, and Sinstadt’s stock would improve accordingly. In 1970 he was part of ITV’s team for the World Cup finals, and he would end up covering four World Cups for the commercial broadcaster, but as ITV’s number three commentator after Brian Moore and Hugh Johns, most of the network’s biggest football occasions would pass him by.

None of this is to say, however, that he wasn’t kept busy. In 1972, he went to the Olympic Games in Munich and was replaced for two matches by loanee Gerry Harrison from Anglia TV and for one week – a match between Everton and West Bromwich Albion – by Bill Grundy, who’d later find fame – or infamy, depending on your perspective – as the man who inadvertently shot The Sex Pistols to fame several years later. And on the last day of the 1973/74 season, Sinstadt was at Old Trafford to report on Manchester United’s relegation from the First Division, an afternoon punctuated by violence and a Denis Law backheel for Manchester City that didn’t, as has been widely claimed since, “relegate United” (results elsewhere would have taken care of that without them kicking a ball).

Granada’s first attempts at football coverage were as perfunctory as they could be. For its first six years it was simply called “Football” – no studio host, just straight to the ground and straight into the game – but in 1974 their sports coverage underwent a revamp, with a new Friday evening local preview show called Kick Off, which was hosted by Sinstadt, and in 1977 “Football” was renamed as “The Kick Off Match”, featuring probably the most mind-melting music ever selected to accompany televised football coverage in this country. The arrival of Elton Welsby from Liverpool’s Radio City in January 1978 would, however, ensure that Sinstadt’s time in the studio was limited. As an aside, Welsby’s replacement Radio City would be Clive Tyldesley, who would go on to claim his own place in British football’s landscape.

By the end of the 1970s, football’s relationship with television was being pulled simultaneously in two different directions. On the one hand, the game’s reputation had been plummetting throughout the decade, with highlights regularly being interrupted by crowd violence. On the other, though, the promotion of Michael Grade to be LWT’s Director of Programmes in 1977 signalled a more aggressive stance from ITV towards the Saturday night audience. The whole of Saturday evenings was briefly given over the Bruce Forsyth, and just a few weeks before the Manchester United vs West Bromwich Albion match ITV attempted, for the first time, to wrest exclusive football rights with a set of private negotiations which, when leaked into the public domain, became known as “Snatch Of The Day.”

At the start of 1979, the Office of Fair Trading resolved that this deal should be considered “null and void” as the details of the contract had not been “furnished before restrictions came into effect”, but fresh negotiations would come to benefit ITV considerably. They had long only held a Sunday afternoon slot for highlights, with the BBC showing Match of The Day on Saturday nights, but the new contract insisted on the two broadcasters taking alternate seasons on Sundays. Granada accordingly updated their show, renaming it as “Match Night” from the start of the 1980/81 season.

This would turn out to be Sinstadt’s last season with Granada. At the end of the 1980/81 season he went freelance, with Martin Tyler replacing him. A new contractor for ITV in the south and south-east of England called Television South was coming in from the end of 1981, and Sinstadt would work as the commentator for them, whilst also indulging one of his other passions, producing opera programmes. When the next football contract came up for renewal in 1983, though, he would find his football opportunities further diminished. This was the end of regional coverage of football on ITV, and the first half of the 1980s saw him move into other sports again, including golf, for the newly-formed Channel Four.

By 1987, his football commentary work for TVS had all but dried up, and he returned to the BBC for the first time since 1969. His initial role was more related to reporting, for Football Focus and Match of The Day, and he was the pitch-side reporter on the day of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. In the early 1990s, he also started to work on the BBC’s rowing coverage, including the Varsity Boat Race, and his voice again became familiar to a nationwide audience again as a commentator when the BBC acquired the rights to Premier League highlights in 1992.

Throughout the 1990s, he would continue to provide commentary and reportage for the BBC, but again he would also find work elsewhere. In 1996, he appeared as himself in Jimmy McGovern’s transformative drama Hillsborough, and in the same year he presented episodes of Football Fussball Voetbal, a superb BBC series about the history of European club and international football, which was produced as part of their build up to Euro 96 but hasn’t, so far as we’re aware, been repeated since (there is one episode on YouTube here). He would continue to report for the BBC, on Final Score and Football Focus, until 2014, and even after his retirement from broadcasting would continue to write a weekly column for the Stoke Sentinel, finally ending that in October 2019, three months shy of his 90th birthday. Having settled in the Potteries, he was also Staffordshire FA’s representative on the FA Council for thirteen years.

In 1958, two years after its launch, Kenneth Clark of the Independent Television Authority noted that, “We did not quite foresee how much Granada Television would develop a character which distinguishes it most markedly from the other programmes companies and from the BBC.” It would be a further decade before the company produced much football coverage, but when it did Gerald Sinstadt became part of that distinctive character. For more than a decade, he was the voice of football in arguably England’s most powerful footballing region, and his lengthy career demonstrated a versatility that few others could match.

And he spoke out. Racism in football is everywhere at the moment, and the pattern of media coverage is very clear: outrage, hand-wringing, silence until it happens again. The world was a very different place at the end of 1978, though, and on the 30th December that year Gerald Sinstadt had no lexicon for calling out racist behaviour during matches. Other commentators would continue to avoid the subject for years afterwards but he wouldn’t let it slide, and that meant something. The growth in the number of black players coming into the game from the mid-1970s on would change the game in this country. The attitude of of a not-inconsiderable number of fans, though, would appear to have remained firmly rooted in 1978.

(For those amongst you who are wondering – yes, yes. I know all about the details of his private life, but I don’t really think that this piece here is necessarily the appropriate place for them.)