Voices of Football: Hugh Johns – ITV’s Other Leading Man

by | Mar 16, 2021

It is a truth fairly universally acknowledged that the successful progression of a career in the media can be as much about who you know as what you know. Sometimes, though, the connections offered by an old school tie or a period in the armed services aren’t necessary. Sometimes, quality does show through, from the most unlikely of places. The career of Hugh Johns exists in a curious hinterland. One of the defining voices of football on the television in this country throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Johns is half-forgotten these days, but he commentated on four consecutive World Cup finals for ITV and was the voice of the region which threw up surprise success after surprise success in the Football League during his time there.

Johns’ television career started in about the most modest surroundings possible. Born in Berkshire in 1922, he’d served in the navy during the Second World War and then, after a having a brief go at acting – which didn’t lead to a career but did result in him meeting his wife – moved into journalism, initially writing match reports for his local newspaper in Surrey before moving to the Southend Standard as their sports editor, all the time continuing to provide match reports on a freelance basis for national newspapers such as the Daily Herald and the News Chronicle. In 1961, he moved to Wales, becoming the Sunday People’s Welsh sport correspondent.

The early 1960s, though, was a time of great change in football’s media landscape. ITV had led with a failed attempt at live Football League coverage in 1960, but a couple of regional ITV companies did manage to secure themselves regular highlights coverage in 1962, and in 1964 the BBC launched Match of the Day, a regular weekly show which allowed the corporation to refine its football coverage ahead of the technological challenges that the upcoming 1966 World Cup finals would bring. This tournament would be the first broadcast live around the world, and both the BBC and ITV would be covering it. The technological innovations of British broadcasters had been front and centre in the successful World Cup bid, and they couldn’t afford to get it wrong.

It was through the Sunday People that Johns got his break in television. One of his contemporaries there was Lloyd Lewis, who also wrote for the News of the World and was the editor of a local programme called Sports Preview in Wales. Commercial television had enjoyed a bumpy launch in Wales. The Independent Television Authority had given two franchises to broadcast in Wales, with Television Wales & West (TWW) launching in 1958 for the densely-populated south of the country and Teledu Cymru (known in English as Wales West & North Television, or WWN) following four years later.

North Wales had previously been covered by the North of England contractors, but pressure from businessmen pushed the ITA to start a new franchise in the region, albeit with the requirement to provide a not-insubstantial ten hours a week of Welsh language programming. The cost of producing these programmes for a relatively small audience coupled with delays in launching transmitters, however, were ruinous for WWN, and in January 1964 they collapsed altogether, with ownership passing to TWW instead.

Lewis recognised something in Johns that he liked as a possible broadcaster, and asked him to sit in for an interview. After impressing in this position, he became the regular host of Sports Preview, but when TWW agreed a deal to show FA Cup matches involving Welsh clubs in 1965, Johns stayed behind his desk rather than moving into the commentary gantry.

During this season, however, an opportunity came along that would alter the course of his career. ITV’s televised football coverage was so piecemeal at the time that the network bosses were auditioning for commentators for the forthcoming World Cup finals, and TWW’s Head of Light Entertainment sent a tape of Johns in for consideration. Following a successful audition held at Stamford Bridge, Johns was chosen as part of four commentary teams for the finals, alongside Gerry Loftus, John Camkin, and a very young Barry Davies.

Despite being the least experienced of the four, Johns was given matches to be played in London, and was paired with the former Wales manager Dave Bowen, who would act as his summariser. Of course, Johns’ involvement in the 1966 World Cup ended at Wembley on the 30th July, and he is now arguably best-remembered as the commentator that day who¬†wasn’t Kenneth Wolstenholme. Johns, however, never expressed any unhappiness at playing second fiddle to Wolstenholme in the nation’s memory bank – even ITV would use Wolstenholme’s clip for a sponsorship break, many years later – and, despite the extent to which he lived in the shadows of the Wolstenholme during that tournament, his performance overall was impressive enough for a new, considerably bigger, door to open.

Back when ITV had first gone on air a little over a decade earlier, the ITA had to allay a lot of fears about the effects that commercial broadcasting would have on the media in this country, and one of the policies that they would follow would be dual-franchising, offering weekday broadcasting to one company and weekend broadcasting. One of the first ITV companies on air was Associated Television (ATV), and their arrangements were arguably more complicated than anybody else’s broadcasting to the Midlands during the week and London at weekends.

With contracts coming up for renewal in 1968, however, the ITA considered dual-franchising by this time to be largely redundant. Only London would keep it after this point, and that contract was hotly sought-after, so ATV instead opted to become the seven day contractor to the Midlands, instead. This decision seemed vindicated when the ITA controversially gave the new London weekend contract to a new, upstart company called London Weekend.

ITV’s sporting coverage had started to coalesce in the year or two before the World Cup. ABC Television, the weekend broadcasters for the Midlands and the North, had launched a Saturday afternoon magazine show called World of Sport in 1965, and in the same year ATV London launched Star Soccer, its weekly football highlights show, with Peter Lorenzo – the father of later ITV anchor Matthew Lorenzo – in the commentary box. Change, however, was coming. From 1968, London Weekend would be taking on the lion’s share of responsibility for weekend sports coverage, and Johns had impressed ATV enough to be offered the commentary job, covering the 1968 European Cup final between Manchester United and Benfica at Wembley, for the network.

The new franchises came into effect in August 1968. As part of their application, London Weekend had promised a completely new suite of sports programming. With ABC Television merged into the newly-formed Thames Television, they took over the running of World of Sport and, having appointed Jimmy Hill as their Head of Sport, brought in Brian Moore from BBC Radio as their main anchor and commentator for a new weekly football show called The Big Match. Johns moved with ATV to the Midlands, where Star Soccer would continue as the weekly highlights show for that region, rather than London.

It’s not difficult to see how this might have been perceived as a something approaching a step down for Johns at the time, because in 1968 the Midlands football scene was a very depressed place indeed. Neither Aston Villa or Birmingham City were in the First Division at the time and, while the Midlands did have six top flight clubs for the 1968/69 season, only one finished that season in the top half of the table, whilst the others took up five of the bottom seven places in the division, with one of them – Leicester City – being relegated. And on top of this, The Big Match quickly became known for its innovative analysis and presentation style, while Star Soccer remained a somewhat more modest affair.

All of this, though, left ITV’s sports department in something of a bind. Brian Moore both commentated for and anchored The Big Match. He was the best known ITV football person, but he couldn’t be in two places at the same time and the 1970 World Cup would see ITV present its coverage from London rather than Mexico City. A decision was, therefore, taken that would prove very much to Hugh Johns’ benefit. For the 1970 World Cup finals, Moore would stay in London and anchor, while Johns would be ITV’s lead commentator. Brian Moore, it turned out, wouldn’t actually commentate on a World Cup final for ITV until 1986.

The tournament arguably marked the peak of Hugh Johns’ broadcasting career. His excitable “El Re! Pele!” exclamation upon Pele scoring the opening goal for Brazil in the final found its way into the lexicon of the game in this country, and his warm, conversational style seemed better suited to this new-fangled colour broadcasting than the now increasingly fusty-sounding Wolstenholme on the BBC. It has been said that the 1970 World Cup finals were the only time that ITV won their ratings war against the BBC, but this was really a little bit of exaggeration on the part of producer John Bromley. What the 1970 World Cup did prove, however, was that ITV should be – and furthermore deserved to be – taken seriously as a rival to the BBC in terms of their sports coverage.

Johns would stay with ATV for a further twelve years, but by the end of this time something rather surprising had happened. The 1970s and early 1980s would see four English champions – none of them expected – coming from the Midlands. In 1972 and 1975, Derby County became the champions. In 1978, they were followed by Nottingham Forest, and in 1981 came Aston Villa, who’d been in such a poor shape a decade earlier that they’d fallen as low as the Third Division. The latter two of these followed their domestic success by becoming the champions of Europe.

By the start of the decade, ITV’s football coverage was more or less mapped out. Every region would have its own weekly highlights show and commentator, with smaller regions (for whom there were a number of obstacles to more regular football highlights shows, such as the availability of Outside Broadcast Units and whether there were even any matches worth covering) importing shows from the bigger regions. And the warming, mellifluous baritone of Hugh Johns would become a familiar voice to millions throughout this period. His commentary style felt conversationalist and avuncular, like being taken to a match by a well-versed relative.

At a network level, however, his career did stall a little. He would commentate on the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals for ITV, but in 1982 they chose Martin Tyler instead, whilst ITV’s annual FA Cup coverage was rolled into World of Sport, with Dickie Davis anchoring and Brian Moore in the commentary seat. Moore would also be the choice for ITV’s European Championship and networked European Cup coverage. Despite this, Moore and Johns would become close and firm friends rather than rivals, avoiding what had happened between Kenneth Wolstenholme and David Coleman at the BBC, when the corporation started grooming the latter to replace the former at the start of the 1970s.

Another round of new ITV franchises at the start of the 1980s, however, would come to change Johns’ career path again. Despite the relative success of Star Soccer, one constant criticism of ATV throughout the 1970s had been that, while they involved huge international success with their networked programming – The Prisoner, The Muppet Show and Jesus of Nazareth were all ATV productions – their regional output was criticised as being too patchy and centred too much on the West Midlands. When the new contracts were announced at the end of 1980, ATV were pushed into a shotgun merger with one of the losing bidders to form Central Independent Television. After more than a quarter of a century, the famous ATV “shadowed eye” logo would disappear from our screens forever, from New Years Day 1982.

It was, then, the right time for Hugh Johns to end his association with the company. He’d been the voice of ATV football for 17 years, had covered four World Cup finals and countless Football League and European matches, but by 1982 he was 60 years old. On top of this, ITV’s televised football coverage was changing. Live Football League matches were returning for the first time since 1960, and the decision to go with Martin Tyler rather than Johns for the 1982 World Cup final seemed to indicate that the network was moving on. With Moore and Tyler now assumed to be in the number one and number two positions and with regionalised coverage now curtailed, Hugh Johns saw out the second half of the 1981/82 season with Central.

Brian Moore commentated on Aston Villa’s 1982 European Cup win. His last major ITV duties came at the World Cup that year in Spain, where he covered the matches in group 2, featuring West Germany, Austria, Algeria, and Chile. Johns registered his disgust several times, during his commentary on the match between West Germany and Austria, where the teams contrived their passage through to the next phase, at the expense of Algeria. Peter Brackley replaced him at Central, and he moved instead to HTV, to take up an altogether more sedate pace of life instead, closer to the home that he’d never moved out of in Cardiff, upon taking up that original Sunday People position.

HTV had taken over the Wales and West ITV franchise from TWW in 1968, but their regional football coverage tended to be a little patchy. Run as a dual-franchise, the Bristolian Roger Malone had been both their anchor and commentator for HTV West while Bob Symmonds covered matches in Wales, but despite the ascent of Bristol City and Swansea City to the First Division in 1976 and 1981 respectively, with only seven Football League clubs across the entire HTV area there were times when the company didn’t consider it viable to produce their own show, usually importing The Big Match or Star Soccer instead.

By 1982, both Bristol City and Swansea City were in or starting declines which would see both in the Fourth Division. Johns, who’d covered a few Wales matches and had a connection to the region going back almost two decades, was a natural fit for HTV Wales, and he stayed there until he retired in 1996, finding himself back on the national airwaves from 1992, when ITV picked up Football League rights following the formation of the Premier League. In his later years, he admitted that he’d lost a lot of his love for the game because of the corrosive influence of money, and in this 1994 interview with ITV Sport’s Gabriel Clarke he ascribed his longevity to cigarettes, gin and beer. He died in 2007, at the age of 84.

In the early 1990s, when the veneration of the past started to go into overdrive, ITV called their nostalgic look back at football’s past There’s Only One Brian Moore. John Motson was similarly turned into an icon during his final years commentating for the BBC. But there’s only room for so many names to be come the voice or face of a network’s past, and Hugh Johns seems to been half-forgotten over the years, and as football’s past becomes grainier and increasingly remote, the chances are that this man, who described four World Cup finals and over a thousand matches altogether for the nation, will become more so as time passes.

Such a reassuring presence wouldn’t be considered part of the modus operandum of a sport which is now over-dependent on dramatic incidents and laser precision. If Hugh Johns started to fall out of love with football during the 1980s and 1990s because of the influence of money, goodness knows what he’d make of it now. But we should remember that his was one of football’s modernising voices, in an era when received pronunciation still ruled their airwaves. The modern football commentator, to say the very least, has a lot to thank him for.