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England on TV – Life Before the Red Button

In the first of a series of nostalgic recollections of the experiences of millions watching England on television, we focus on when live coverage was a luxury rather than taken for granted. Without digital television available to offer multiple channels and sometimes for other reasons too, there were times when viewers couldn’t be assured of just sitting down and watching England’s full 90 minutes from their armchair…

You join us with John Barnes having just scored an amazing goal…


John Barnes celebrates possibly the greatest England goal you never saw live.

During the 1980s, there was an annoying trend for only the second half of some international matches to be broadcast live in the Uk. It happened a bit during the 1986 World Cup group stage (not for matches involving England) but probably the best remembered example came in June 1984. England travelled to Brazil for a friendly but the match would not be shown in its entirety. Instead, ITV would only broadcast the second half live as viewers were left to endure Surprise, Surprise instead of the first half action. 

As a result, one of the most famous goals England have ever scored was not seen live by almost all Englishmen (the exceptions being the lucky few in the stadium or in the ITV studio), as John Barnes went on his mazy run moments before the break and slotted home. There were plenty of instances of England matches being shown only as highlights rather than live (at some point most of us endured a Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? struggle to avoid the score before highlights of an England match were shown) but viewers wouldn’t even get to enjoy the goal as if watching live. The programme began and Jim Rosenthal told viewers England had just gone 1-0 up thanks to John Barnes’ wondergoal before very brief first half highlights were shown after a bit of a delay. The second half saw Mark Hateley score to seal a 2-0 win but there were further problems to blight the broadcast (more on that in the next blog).

England’s friendly win in Greece in February 1989 left viewers having to wait for Neighbours to finish before they could see the second half live, but it wasn’t just friendlies not afforded the full 90 minute treatment when England went abroad. Their decisive final qualifier for Euro 92 away to Poland saw the BBC only join the action at half-time, with a similar situation existing for their World Cup qualifier in Norway in June 1993. And going back to the 1966 World Cup, ITV made the ill-fated decision to join some games England played while they were in progress – playing into the hands of the BBC who showed them in full.

Inconceivable now, but not seeing big matches in full was accepted by past generations. Any live football at all felt like a bonus.

The worst of both worlds

Denmark go through and ITV’s hopes of big viewing figures for the second half of England’s match against Luxembourg are gone.

In November 1983 England were clinging to the slim hope of making the Euro ’84 finals. They would almost certainly win their final match in Luxembourg, but they had to hope Denmark would fail to triumph in Greece a couple of hours earlier to be able to qualify. ITV seemed caught in two minds as to what to show. They wanted to be there for the moment England got through to the finals if it happened in Luxembourg, but they also knew the match in Greece was what would really decide their fate. They made a decision to show the last half hour of the Greece v Denmark match and then later join the action for Luxembourg against England at half-time. 

The trouble was, all they showed in the first match was Denmark seeing out their 2-0 win to seal qualification and end English hopes – with the second match now a dead rubber that England were in little mood for. Viewers again watched a game pretty much already settled when live coverage started, with England 2-0 up at half-time. To England’s credit they put on a professional showing to win 4-0 in difficult circumstances, but it felt like a non-event. ITV’s decision to show the climax to both matches had logic to it and would have worked fine if Denmark had failed to win in Greece, but it had backfired and left viewers feeling they hadn’t really seen any gripping action during the night.

A decade later, ITV’s rivals at the BBC would try a different approach during the final round of qualification matches – but again fail to please everybody…

We interrupt this programme to bring you Wales v Romania…


Millions more see Paul Bodin miss his penalty for Wales against Romania than would have done a few minutes earlier.

In November 1993, England were away to San Marino in their final World Cup qualifier. To put it simply, they had to win by a big score and hope the Netherlands lost in Poland at the same time to make the finals. It was a tall order and as the night wore on it became clear English hopes were over, as the Dutch enjoyed a 3-1 win to seal their place in the USA and ensure Graham Taylor’s side wouldn’t make it. 

The BBC were showing England’s match live, but during the second half – with the Three Lions leading 4-1 and both the match and hopes of qualification effectively dead – a decision was taken to switch to live coverage of of Wales against Romania from Cardiff. The winner-takes-all Welsh match was on a knife-edge at 1-1, with Terry Yorath’s side the last hope of a British team making the finals. VIewers saw Paul Bodin miss a penalty and Romania get a late winner to leave Wales missing out, but at the same time they missed the final three England goals in their 7-1 win

It basically boiled down to if your main concern was seeing if any British side could make the finals or you were solely concerned about England as to whether you were bothered about the sudden switch of match – evidently plenty fell into the latter camp judging by the BBC switchboard being jammed with complaints. Still, they had at least shown San Marino’s infamous goal in the opening seconds which would be easily the most memorable moment of the night! Those with Sky Sports could see the match in full and England would not be shown live on terrestrial television again until Euro ’96.

How the Beeb must have wished digital television and the red button came along many years earlier…

Where’s the England match?

All told, England fans generally have it better than any English club side when it comes to watching them on television, with pretty much every much televised live (or quite often in extended highlights form until recent times). But this means it has been more noticeable when the coverage has been either very limited or non-existent. 

The BBC bills live coverage of their Euro ’88 match with the USSR, but things would turn out differently…

One such example came in Euro ’88, where the BBC faced a dilemma over whether to show England or another fixture. The Three Lions’ final group match against the USSR had a few days earlier been unsurprisingly billed as the live match (see above pic), but two defeats put Bobby Robson’s side out before the fixture took place. In the same group Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland were up against the Netherlands in a decisive match for both sides at the same time, with the BBC changing plans and opting to show that instead – the under-pressure Robson probably wasn’t complaining as it meant English viewers watched just a few minutes of a dreadful performance in losing to the USSR, rather than having to sit through the entire debacle! The emergence of multiple channels for the BBC and ITV has thankfully removed such dilemmas for them in major tournaments in the present day – would ITV have switched to Italy against Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup instead of England’s dead rubber with Costa Rica if they still only operated only one channel?

ITV was off the air for three months in 1979 and that meant England’s home Euro ’80 qualifier against Denmark went unscreened, with other games having not been shown over the years for a variety of reasons including friendlies in Portugal in 1974 and in Brazil in 1977. Granada viewers missed out due to a strike when England met Czechoslovakia in the 1970 World Cup, while Central opted out of ITV’s live coverage of the Euro ’92 qualifier away to the Republic of Ireland so they could show coverage of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Coventry Blitz in the Second World War. England’s trip to Australia in 1980 was not covered on these shores, with a three-match trip there in 1983 receiving better, but still fairly scant, coverage.

Since the early 1990s pretty much every England match has been shown live somewhere, although this hasn’t prevented complaints about subscription channels such as BSB, Sky Sports and Setanta holding the rights – there was plenty of debate on the latter having exclusive coverage of the 4-1 win for England away to Croatia in September 2008. 

The World Cup qualifier in Poland in May 1997 was controversially live only on the newly-launched Channel 5, which some parts of the country had problems receiving. Another qualifying match in Finland in October 2000 could only be seen on a pay-per-view channel, leading to Kevin Keegan speaking out on the issue and in October 2009 the trip to Ukraine was as close as we’ve come to a TV blackout in modern times – only being screened live on the internet. Things had certainly much changed from the days of Kenneth Wolstenholme!

In the next blog post on the subject, we will recall more frustrations for the TV viewer when England played – including dodgy camerawork and transmission problems blighting broadcasts.

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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