Voices of Football: Kenneth Wolstenholme – The First Voice of Football

by | Mar 1, 2021

The use of received pronuciation in broadcasting is as old as broadcasting itself. When the BBC was granted its royal charter to become a corporation in 1926, it established an Advisory Committee on Spoken English to advise on the correct pronunciation and other aspects of broadcast language, and this would stay in place until the late 1940s. Its legacy of idiosyncracies, however, would remain a central part of its house style for a further four decades, and this extended into all corners of its output, including sport.

You would never believe that Kenneth Wolstenholme was born in Salford and grew up supporting Bolton Wanderers from the clipped tones that would become so familiar to audiences as the game expanded into television schedules throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Such was the style of the time. Wolstenholme, however, would go on to become Britain’s first true voice of football, commentating on five World Cups and dozens of FA Cup finals. For many, though, his entire career could be reduced to three sentences, probably the most famous ever uttered during a football match in this country, but we’ll come back to that.

Wolstenholme wasn’t quite the very first voice heard commentating on a televised football match in this country. That honour went to Edgar Kail, the former amateur footballer who was chosen by the BBC to commentate on their first ever lived televised match between Barnet and Wealdstone from the Athenian League in October 1946. It was a haphazard affair. The match was chosen because the BBC’s Outside Broadcast Unit had to stay within twenty miles of the Alexandra Palae transmitter, and the broadcast only went ahead after a local allotment holder had been paid off to allow scaffolding to be erected on his patch, while another local resident had allowed the use of a telephone line, and having started twenty minutes into the game and ended fifteen minutes from time due, at a time when grounds didn’t have floodlights, to bad light.

He’d already lived quite a life by the time of his appointment in 1948. Wolstenholme had started his career as a journalist after leaving school, but the outbreak of war ended that, with his membership of the Royal Airforce Volunteer Reserve earning him a call-up shortly afterwards. He certainly served with distinction, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944 after having completed more than 100 extremely hazardous sorties over Europe, and ended the war as an acting squadron leader. At the end of the war, he resumed his career in journalism – he’d maintained his interest in this during the war, working in the RAF’s public relations department – for the Empire News, before in 1948 earning himself a commentary trial for the BBC.

Those early days of football broadcasting were piecemeal, to say the least. The BBC’s OBU remained unable to broadcast matches from outside London until the start of 1951, but the cost meant that not many people had bought television sets anyway. This, however, would all change, two years later. The Queen’s coronation in 1953 finally provided the impetus that the public needed to embrace this new medium, and the BBC considered that year’s FA Cup final, which was scheduled for a month before the coronation, to be an opportunity to finesse their live broadcasting skills.

In addition to this, the 1953 FA Cup final came with added narrative. Blackpool winger Stanley Matthews had long since been English football’s first superstar player, but he’d lost six years of his career to the war, and at 38 years of age many considered this to be his last chance of picking up an FA Cup winners medal. It didn’t look as though this was going to happen, with Bolton Wanderers leading 3-1 with twenty minutes to play, but a hat-trick from Stan Mortensen and a scrambled last minute winner from Bill Perry – the first black player to play in an FA Cup final – won the game for Blackpool. Such was the power of the pre-match narrative, however, that the match became known as “The Matthews Final”, but if Wolstenholme was at all disappointed at his childhood team losing the match, he hid it well.

Slowly but surely, football began to work its way into the television schedules throughout the 1950s. In November 1953, Wolstenholme was at Wembley to see the Hungary team of Ferenc Puskas finally burst the illusion that the England national team was anything like the best in the world. The following year, Wolstenholme was in Switzerland as the World Cup finals were broadcast live across Europe for the first time, while in 1955 a contract was signed for (very brief – no more than five minutes per match) highlights of Football League matches to be shown for the first time on a new show called Saturday Sports Special. By the end of the decade, if the BBC were covering a match live, then audiences could be reasonably certain that Wolstenholme would be at the microphone.

The binding of football’s relationship with television came at the start of the following decade. The 1962 World Cup couldn’t be shown live on the television. Cans of film had to be flown back to London from Chile after matches, which were shown three days after they were played. Technological advances, however, would ensure that this was the last time that the World Cup would be broadcast in this way. The Telstar satellite launched shortly after the 1962 World Cup final, meaning that televised events could now be broadcast around the world, and England would be hosting the next World Cup. Both the BBC and ITV treated this tournament as an opportunity to showcast British broadcasting to the world.

First, though, there was another development to come. The BBC launched BBC2 in April 1964, but the new service wasn’t available to all. It was available only on 625-line UHF televisions rather than the 405-line VHF televisions that many people had, and at the time of its launch was only available in London. The BBC, however, had an ambitious Head of Sport in Bryan Cowgill, and Cowgill saw the launch of BBC2 as an opportunity to get regular League football back onto the television. The Football League, alarmed at a slump in attendances that had lasted since the early 1960s, was deeply suspicious of the influence of televised matches on attendances, but a contract was agreed for thirty-six matches per season in a 55 minute evening programme.

Match of the Day was born on the 22nd August 1964, with Wolstenholme both hosting and commentating on a First Division match between Liverpool and Arsenal. His introduction, “as you can hear we’re in Beatleville for this Liverpool versus Arsenal match” was a nod to other changing social events, and the BBC were probably fairly pleased that their first match was an entertaining one, won 3-2 by the home team. The television audience for this match, however, was limited by the fact that it could only be seen by people with UHF-compatible television sets living in London. The estimated audience of 20,000 was substantially less than the number of people who’d been at Anfield that afternoon.

The 1966 World Cup was the first to be broadcast live around the world, with 42 countries reached and an estimated global audience of 400m people for the final. In addition to this, the BBC decided to showcase the higher resolution of its UHF service by simulcasting their matches on BBC2 as well as BBC1, and borrowed a stop-motion machine from the American network CBS for what Cowgill named, reportedly off the top of his head, “action replays.”

The tournament brought another surge in television sales and rentals, and by the time England reached the final it was certain that the audience would be counted in the tens of millions rather than the tens of thousands that had seen the first episode of Match of the Day, less than two years earlier. In the end, more than 32m people watched the 1966 World Cup on the BBC and ITV – a record which, astonishingly, still stands to this day – and an estimated 58% of them watched it on the BBC.

Such was the impact of the Wolstenholme’s narration of England’s final goal that day that urban legends have sprung up around it. It was even rumoured that the final line was over-dubbed and included first on a replay of the match that was shown the following day. The commenator would become extremely protective of his place in sports broadcasting history in later years, frequently expressing his unhappiness as it being used elsewhere in the media, particularly in advertising. When the BBC repurposed the phrase “They think it’s all over” as the title for a sports quiz show in the 1990s, he threatened legal action, telling the Irish Times in 1996 that, “I hate to see it being trivialised in this way, not least because I suspect it doesn’t mean anything to the people involved.”

The pace of change in the wider world was starting to change the BBC, though. Received pronunciation was falling from favour, while the introduction of colour television in 1967 and ITV’s The Big Match the following year started to make the BBC’s coverage look a little dated. Match of the Day was given the first of several facelifts, but their commercial rivals stole a march which would lead to more people watching the 1970 World Cup on ITV than on the BBC, although some have come to doubt this claim. In addition to this, the BBC had been bringing in new commentators such as David Coleman and Barry Davies over the prevous couple of years.

By the start of the following decade, the writing was on the wall for Wolstenholme’s career with the BBC. David Coleman commentated on all of England’s matches at the 1970 World Cup, and it was only a contractual clause and a threat of legal action that led to Wolstenholme commentating on the final, although Coleman did drop out voluntarily after England lost to West Germany in the quarter-finals. The following year’s FA Cup final between Liverpool and Arsenal would be his 23rd for the BBC, but also his last. Wolstenholme’s experience of the previous year’s World Cup had left a sour taste in the mouth, and he left the corporation that summer after they refused to guarantee him future FA Cup or World Cup finals.

It took three years for him to return to the screens. Tyne Tees Television had become the first commercial channel to show regular Football League highlights in 1962 with their show Shoot, and when commentator David Taylor left the company at the end of the 1973/74 season Wolstenholme was chosen to replace him. He ended up staying with Tyne Tees until 1979, but history had a tendency to repeat itself over this time. Again, Wolstenholme’s commentary style was criticised as dated, and at the end of the 1978/79 season the company brought in another comentator, Roger Tames, to cover a few matches. That summer, Wolstenholme was told that he was now Tames’ deputy, expected to travel up from London every Friday merely to stand by in case their new man was indisposed. Wolstenholme baulked at this, and quit, this time going into semi-retirement.

However, even as late as the 1990s his voice became familiar to a new generation of supporters when he was hired to do voiceover work for Channel Four’s groundbreaking Italian football coverage. In 1998, when Electronic Arts decided to include classic World Cup matches for their series of FIFA World Cup video games, Wolstenholme was brought in to provide the commentary. He died on the 25th March 2002, at the age of 81.

Kenneth Wolstenholme was simultaneously a beneficiary and victim of the changing times of the 1950s and 1960s. In the immediate post-war years, he was able to resume a career in a journalism field that was far less competitive than it is today. But times changed very quickly throughout the next twenty years, and it is striking that by the time his style of commentary started to sound dated, he was barely fifty years old. His conversational, controlled style had little place in a game that was becoming an industry, and that was starting to treat major sporting events as though they were as important as life itself and, while he will be best-remembered for those three sentences uttered at the very end of the 1966 World Cup final, his true legacy was the creation of the role of the football commentator, the voice of football as we still basically understand it today.