Thursday 23 January 2020

The heart of Saturday night: BBC's 'Match of the Day' turns 50

The iconic soccer show has survived many setbacks and is still going strong

Match of the Day last season with, from left, Alan Shearer, Mark Lawrenson, Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen
Match of the Day last season with, from left, Alan Shearer, Mark Lawrenson, Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

It was a rite of passage for any boy who grew up in the 1970s - the moment when your father decided you were old enough to stay up for Match of the Day. Broadcast late on Saturday nights, the show was, in those glorious days, a nocturnal feast of goals and tackles, sendings-off and action replays, chiselled chins, tight shorts and preposterously earnest post-match reviews.

Crucially, it was the only show in town, and older Britons still remember the pubs emptying out at ten on a Saturday night as the men rushed home to see it. Match of the Day has survived cancellation threats and controversy but has trundled on since 1964, and this week celebrates its 50th birthday. A special documentary will air on BBC1 this Friday night.

MOTD reaches this anniversary in anything but rude health: dark mutterings about its intractable blandness have rumbled on for years. But for all the slickness of the show's rivals, there's something comforting about Match of the Day's unchanging format: the show feels a bit like a pair of old slippers that once belonged to your dad but have now been passed to you.

Match of the Day began with little fuss or fanfare on Saturday, August 22, 1964, and the opening match was Liverpool versus Arsenal at Anfield. Host Kenneth Wolstenholme introduced the show standing on the pitch, and the broadcast was only available to people in the London area.

Match of the Day caught on pretty fast, but some of the clubs were not initially thrilled about it. Fearing that the new show would reduce gates at matches, a group of clubs banded together in 1965 to demand more money for TV rights.

The BBC eventually agreed to double the clubs' collective fee to £25,000. This season, Match of the Day will pay out £60m for Premier League highlights.

England's triumph in the 1966 World Cup turned that country football crazy, and the show switched from BBC2 to BBC1 to capitalise on the sport's popularity. Colour broadcasts arrived in 1969, and a year later the show's producers introduced a new theme tune by Barry Stoller that quickly became synonymous with football, and Saturday night.

Early commentators like Barry Davies and John 'Motty' Motson had to earn their corn. "In my first decade," Motson recently recalled, "the BBC only had one machine to replay action and that was used for racing. So when a goal was scored, Barry [Davies] or I had to retrace it as best we could as the players ran back to the centre circle."

When Jimmy Hill was brought over from ITV in 1973, he quickly made the show his own. It was Hill who created the modern format for football broadcasts, with 
in-depth analysis, panels of 
ex-players and endless slow-motion replays. Hill clocked up more than 600 appearances on the show before eventually being replaced in 1988 by Ennis-born Des Lynam.

Lynam's style was more affable than Hill's, and his example has been followed by Match of the Day's current host, Gary Lineker.

In 1986, the BBC lost its rights to show league games, and Match of the Day turned in desperation to the FA Cup. And in wasn't until 1992, when the Premier League was formed, that Match of the Day got its Saturday night highlights back.

And there it remains, still pulling in five million viewers a week despite frequent complaints about its staid format, smug host and semi-literate pundits.

But that's Match of the Day for you: everyone likes giving out about it, but nobody really wants it to go away.

Gaffe of the Day

Put a group of TV hacks and ex-footballers in a studio and you're bound to come a cropper now and then, and down the years Match of the Day has produced some hilarious bloopers.

Among the show's early hosts was the inimitable David Coleman, who once memorably summed up Nottingham Forest's poor form by saying, "they've lost six matches without winning".

John Motson was well known for his malapropisms, and it was he who came out with the immortal line, "for those of you watching in black and 
white, Spurs are in the yellow strip".

He also described the World Cup as "a truly international event", and rather unfortunately celebrated "England's finest victory over the Germans since the war!"

During his 22-year tenure on MOTD, Alan Hansen was suaveness itself for the most part, but also had his 
moments. During a 2011 broadcast, he twice used the word "coloured" to describe 
the Premier League's black players. They were not amused.

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