The World Cup on UK TV, Part Three: England’s Dreaming

by | May 28, 2018

The story of the televsion broadcasting of the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany in the UK effectively began on the 17th of October 1973, when England played Poland in front of 100,000 people at Wembley. Defeat in Katowice the previous June had left England needing a win to qualify for the finals, and both the BBC and ITV wanted this match. By this time, a rota system for the live coverage of matches was reasonably well-established and the BBC had shown the previous fixture live, but this didn’t stop them from making a claim on this match as well. Their request was turned down, though they did also show highlights of the match after it had been played. The fighting never really ended, after this.

We all know what happened next, of course. Poland scored twelve minutes into the second half thanks to mistakes in turn from both Norman Hunter and Peter Shilton, and the Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski pulled off a string of outstanding – if occasionally unconventional – saves to keep Poland in , well, pole position, even after a penalty kick from Allan Clarke to bring England level six minutes after Poland’s goal. England had failed to qualify for a World Cup finals for the first time, and pundit Brian Clough’s criticism of the unusual style of the Polish goalkeeper resulted in the pundit being shouted down and contradicted by both fellow guest Derek Dougan and host Brian Moore. These arguments, of course, didn’t change the result. England were out. It was a result that would go on to have lasting ramifications for the game in this country.

The sniggering from the north of the border was likely audible in London, with Scotland having qualified for the finals for the first time in sixteen years. Not only was the failure of their southern neighbours a justifiable reason for laughter in its own right, but Scotland also had a decent team of their own at the time, with players such as Billy Bremner, Joe Jordan and Peter Lorimer making up the backbone of a Leeds United team that had just cantered to the First Division title off the back of a twenty-nine game unbeaten run. They had a tough group, alongside Brazil, Yugoslavia and Zaire, but there were grounds for confidence that they could progress in this tournament.

With familiar arguments on the subject of who would show which matches simmering in the background, what was clear was that coverage of this tournament would have to be different in terms of tone to different tournaments. ITV called their in-depth preview broadcast “World Cup 74: Can Scotland Do It?” (a question that sounds considerably more rhetorical now than it did at its precise time of broadcast, which was the night before the opening match of the tournament between Brazil and Yugoslavia) and right from the very start it was clear that Scotland would be hoovering up most of the space that England might have occupied had they qualified. You can see the entirety of that broadcast here.

Whether ITV had “won” the battle for viewers against the BBC in Mexico four years earlier or not (the answer to that question was largely a matter of perspective), they opted to stick to with the format that brought them such success in 1970. Malcolm Allison, Paddy Crerand and Derek Dougan were all retained from the 1970 panel, this time supplemented on a rota with Brian Clough, Jack Charlton and the Newcastle United captain Bobby Moncur, while Alf Ramsey, now resigned as the England manager, future England manager Ron Greenwood and referee Gordon Hill made guest appearances, with former Celtic captain and future Celtic manager Billy McNeill reporting from Glasgow.

The BBC, meanwhile, chose Frank Bough as their main anchor, with Jimmy Hill – recently poached from ITV – as their main analyst, with Bobby Charlton, Joe Mercer, Bill Shankly, the Celtic manager Jock Stein, former Scotland goalkeeper Bob Wilson, former Scotland international Frank McLintock and Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy offering their assistance on a rota. In the commentary box, David Coleman was their main choice (Kenneth Wolstenholme had left the corporation two years earlier), with John Motson making his World Cup commentary debut, Barry Davies and Alan Weeks. Brian Moore’s continuing confinement to the studio meant that Hugh Johns would be the main ITV commentator in West Germany, alongside Gerald Sinstadt, Gerry Harrison and Keith Macklin.

Coverage of the tournament was of a considerably higher technical quality than it had been four years earlier. The West German hosts used the same 625-line colour system as was used in the UK and the relatively close proximity of the hosts to this country meant that feeds were more reliable and of a considerably higher picture quality than those beamed back from Mexico. The final itself, though, was almost only shown on ITV. A technicians strike did for a highlights programme that the BBC had scheduled – ITV hastily broadcast one when it became apparent that the BBC wouldn’t be doing so – and it almost killed their live coverage of the match between West Germany and the Netherlands as well.

The decision to award the 1978 World Cup finals to Argentina in 1968 was hardly controversial at the time. With Uruguay, Brazil, England, Italy and Germany having already hosted the tournament, this was one of international football’s few genuine powerhouses not to have hosted the competition at all. Political events in Argentina, however, would come to cast a pall over the tournament before it began. Political violence grew as the decade wore on, and a military coup in 1976 led to the murder of thousands of opponents of the new junta in charge of the country, while General Carlos Omar Actis, who’d been given the job of overseeing the tournament on behalf of the new government, was murdered by left-wing guerillas four months after the coup took place.

For a while, it looked as though the tournament might have to be held elsewhere. Belgium and the Netherlands confirmed that they could jointly host it if required, while Brazil was on standby in the closing weeks before things got under way in Buenos Aires. England had missed out for a second successive time, beaten to a place in the finals by Italy, but Scotland were there again, and this time their hopes were even higher than they had been four years earlier, with manager Ally McLeod gladly telling anybody who would listen that Scotland would win the entire tournament.

In the world of broadcasting, a degree of techiness was in the air. A new television studio would be showing matches in colour on a 625-line PAL system and new stadia had been built, but both Paul Breitner and Johan Cruyff refused to travel (Breitner explicitly for political reasons, Cruyff always denied that it was, but his retirement at that age was always treated as more than a coincidence), and it would later emerge that the junta’s heavy-handedness in ensuring order for the tournament itself had likely not been fully understood at the time. Even with the Montoneros (who’d been responsible for the murder of General Carlos Omar Actis) having declared a truce for duration of the World Cup, a few days before the tournament began a bomb was discovered in the Buenos Aires press centre which exploded, killing two policemen.

The tournament itself might ended up on one channel only. The Independent Broadcasting Authority had suggested that the BBC and ITV should spin a coin, with one showing the World Cup and the other showing the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. The BBC, unsurprisngly,wouldn’t agree to this. As such, both channels continued their slow evolution of a by now tried and tested format. Presentation continued to be dealt with in London. The BBC stuck with Frank Bough and Jimmy Hill, with Lawrie McMenemy, Jock Stein, Denis Law, Trevor Brooking, John Bond and Jack Taylor, who’d refereed the 1974 final, joining them to analyse. For the third tournament in a row, Brian Moore was confined ITV’s London studio, with Brian Clough, Kevin Keegan, Johann Cruyff, Jack Charlton, Ian St John, Paddy Crerand, Emlyn Hughes and Andy Gray (who many had expected to go to the finals with Scotland) on analysis duties. In the week before the tournament began, ITV showed three preview shows – World At Their Feet (which focused on the mood in Scotland), Bank Holiday Sport, and Action Argentina.

Matches kicked off at 5.15, 8.15 and 11.15, so timings could certainly have been less convenient for viewers and broadcasters, but what was automatically noticeable about this World Cup finals was that it was clearly being held in the middle of winter. The players’ shadows were long, and we could see how early it was getting dark, even during what was ostensibly sunshine. The three World Cups of this decade had all been played in distinctly different conditions. Mexico 1970 had been played in the blistering heat and altitude. West Germany 1974 was played in pouring rain, which led to the near abandonment of several games. Argentina 1978, however, was played in the sterile cold of a Southern Hemisphere winter. But audiences held up reasonably well, Scotland crashed under the weight of their own hubris, and Argentina won the World Cup by beating the Netherlands in the final. The following day was declared a national holidayin Argentina. The junta had won.

England had qualified for the finals of the 1980 European Championships, but supporters had ended up getting teargassed after rioting during a match against Belgium and they were out with a game to spare. Hooliganism was growing, crowds were starting to decline, and the interest certainly wasn’t growing as England edged past Hungary to qualify for the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain by the skin of their teeth. Even though they were joined this time by both Scotland and Northern Ireland, coverage of the 1982 finals seemed less comprehensive than it had done four years earlier. The BBC showed five fewer live matches than they had done in either 1974 or 1978 and the opening ceremony and the first match, between Argentina and Belgium, were not shown live at all. ITV claimed that they feared a backlash from the public over the then ongoing Falklands War, but some doubted the extent to which the commercial broadcasters even really believed this themselves.

ITV’s commentary and analysis team was a mixed bag. Brian Moore still couldn’t get out of London, and he was joined by Ian St John. Jim Rosenthal reported, occasionally bantertastically, from Spain. The commentators were Martin Tyler, whose first World Cup finals would end with him commentating on the final, Hugh Johns (who’d commentated on the last four World Cup finals but for whom this would be a last tournament), John Helm (for whom this was a first), Gerald Sinstadt (his last for ITV before returning with the BBC four years later), Gerry Harrison and Nick Owen (for whom this was his only World Cup finals). David Coleman was back in the studio as the BBC’s main anchor, with Jimmy Hill in Spain. John Motson and Barry Davies were joined in the commentary team by World Cup debutants Alan Parry, Tony Gubba and, possibly most surprisingly of all, Des Lynam, who covered six matches as a commentator and would only switch to anchoring after this.

England’s goalscoring record throughout their five matches in the tournament read like a countdown at Cape Canaveral. 3..2..1… and two goalless draws against Spain and West Germany saw them eliminated from the tournament, unbeaten overall but still some distance short of the best in the world. Scotland did what Scotland do in major tournaments, giving themselves a glimmer of hope before shutting the door on their own chances in their final match against the USSR. Northern Ireland caused one of the bigger surprises of the group stages, beating the hosts to top their group, before going out in the second group stage to France. By the end of the tournament, when Italy lifted the trophy after beating West Germany in Madrid, the combined audience for the final was just half what it had been just four years earlier. If attendances at matches were falling in the UK, then this was also being reflected in television audiences.

Further signs of this decline were evident two years later, when ITV opted out of the European Championship finals altogether after all of the home nations were knocked out in the qualifying stages. The BBC showed a couple of group matches and the final live, but even they didn’t even manage to show the semi-final matches live. The continuation of the decline of English football, however, would continue, reaching a nadir at Valley Parade in Bradford and at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels in May of 1985. Whether this would affect England in Mexico, however, was debatable. There had been outbreaks of trouble during the 1982 finals, but these hadn’t been quite as apocalyptic as many feared they might be, and with the 1986 finals being hosted considerably further away there didn’t seem much of a likelihood that many troublemakers would be making such a long and expensive trip.

Nine months before the 1986 World Cup finals were due to start, however, tragedy struck Mexico. At 7.17am on the 19th of September 1985, an earthquake ripped through Mexico City. At least 5,000 people were killed and more than four hundred buildings were completely destroyed. As the dust literally set over the city, questions started to be asked over whether the country even would be able to host a World Cup finals less than a year after such devastation. Somehow or other they did, though.

Global television rights contracts for the tournament had come close to being worth £200m, but there were significant technical issues during the first week of the tournament, with much of the blame placed upon the shoulders of the Mexican telecommunications company, Telemexico. Things did improve, off the pitch if not on it. England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all qualified from the home nations, with England getting to the quarter finals before losing, controversially, to Argentina. Scotland got knocked out of the group stages again, and Northern Ireland could only muster one point from three games, though they did at least come third in their group rather than bottom of it.

Again, the presentation all came from London, but something significant had changed on the BBC. David Coleman had stepped down and Jimmy Hill was this time in Mexico as a co-commentator – his presumably intended to be off mike reactions to England’s goals in their critical group match against Poland were one of the broadcasting highlights of the tournament – so Des Lynam, who’d commentated on those six games in Spain six years earlier, stepped up for the first time as anchor. He was joined by a panel of summarisers taken from a pool consisting of Terry Venables, Lawrie McMenemy, Denis Law, Alan Mullery, Martin O’Neill (who was drafted in at short notice after George Best, sadly but entirely predictably, failed to turn up) and Andy Gray.

With kick-off times being later, the BBC produced a magazine-style programme called World Cup Report on a daily basis, hosted by Bob Wilson and Emlyn Hughes. With a less formal air than the match coverage, there was little innovation going on here, just a shift in the presentation of highlights, analysis and the occasional bit of filler material. Perhaps it could be considered that it was successful, though. After all, the final was seen across the BBC and ITV by an audience of 21.5m people, which was moving back in the direction of the viewing audiences of the 1970s. ITV also increased their coverage of the finals, with Brian Moore being flown out to Mexico City to finally commentate on a final.

Coverage had been patchy in places, with some group matches only having the second half shown live as companies struggled to try and balance their schedules. However, all matches in the knockout stages were shown live – FIFA’s tinkering with the group stages meant that this was the first time that the entire knockout stage of a tournament was shown live – and Mexico, despite the tragedy that had caused so much damage to its capital city less than a year earlier, had gotten through it. It felt a little as though this was enough to ask for, at that point. Football’s next big leap forward would come four years later.