This time 20 years ago the 1998 World Cup was taking place. Today we recall some of the TV coverage in the UK for France ’98, with a particularly emphasis on England’s four matches…
When reminiscing upon TV coverage of the 1998 World Cup – even though it was only 20 years ago and during the Premier League era – it’s hard not to think of it as a bygone age. Tony Gubba, Jimmy Hill, Brian Moore and Fantasy Football‘s Jeff Astle all made regular appearances on our screens that month and are sadly no longer with us. Other prominent figures of the period including Barry Davies, Des Lynam and Bob Wilson – plus John Motson following the end of last season – have called time upon their football broadcasting careers, while several regular 1990s co-commentators and pundits have long since moved on.
France ’98 represented the end of an era so far as TV was concerned. Not only was it the final World Cup of the 20th century but it would also mark the last act of Moore’s long commentary career with ITV; Hill was saying goodbye to the BBC after 25 years; it would be the last time Lynam presented coverage of a major football tournament with the BBC before his shock switch to ITV; Davies would commentate live on an England World Cup match for the final time; and never again would Wilson hold the lead presenting role during a major tournament as he did with ITV out in France.
At the same time, there were hints of a new dawn. Gary Lineker was hosting the BBC’s highlights shows as he established himself as Lynam’s successor-in-waiting; Clive Tyldesley was ITV’s number two commentator as he prepared to step into Moore’s shoes; and Martin O’Neill – then of the BBC – would be a standout pundit (even on one bizarre occasion taking studio guest Robbie Williams to task over his musical abilities!).
This was a memorable footballing summer and today we pick out a few memories of how it was covered on TV back in the UK.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Think of the BBC and football in the 1990s and the face that springs most readily to many minds is Des Lynam. The presenter’s smooth and confident manner made him a hit with viewers, along with his ability to pull off one-liners. He didn’t have to wait long to come up with one that sticks in the memory. As the opening credits featuring Pavane by Faure faded out ahead of England’s first match against Tunisia on a Monday lunchtime, Lynam got straight to it. “Shouldn’t you be at work?” Des quipped, knowing full well just how important the match was to millions of people.
The game would turn out to be the last time Barry Davies commentated live on England at a World Cup (he covered a couple more such matches for highlights). He at least got to describe a fluent England display with the 2-0 win clinched by Paul Scholes curling in a fine finish, greeted by a customary “ohhhh yessssss” as the ball hit the back of the net.
“Only one team can win this now”
A week later it was ITV’s turn to have live coverage of England, for the match against Romania. The channel had taken a kicking for its World Cup output in 1994 when fronted by Matt Lorenzo, but Bob Wilson was now anchoring the coverage and helping ensure it was better received than before – if still a little overshadowed by the BBC. Although Ron Atkinson tended to be considered ITV’s main co-commentator, former England captain Kevin Keegan would often get the role for high-profile matches and he was sat alongside Brian Moore for this one as Michael Owen came off the bench to equalise in the closing minutes.
“Only one team can win this now – England,” declared Keegan, as the nation he would be managing a year later looked to be in command. It was a fair enough comment at the time, but then Dan Petrescu took advantage of defensive hesitancy to score Romania’s winner in the dying moments. Keegan would now be mocked for getting it wrong – and it wouldn’t be the last time in the tournament.
“That is not an idiotic idea”
After a quarter of a century, Jimmy Hill was being given a free transfer by the BBC when the World Cup concluded. Despite his 70th birthday approaching he wasn’t retiring and would soon be snapped up by Sky Sports. The BBC were increasingly turning to younger pundits such as David Ginola, Alan Hansen and Martin O’Neill, but dear old Jimmy would still play his part out in France – complete with donning a bow tie containing the cross of St George (imagine Alan Shearer doing this today!).
During England’s final group stage match against Colombia, Hill was on the BBC panel. It proved unusually comfortable for England, as John Motson described excellent goals by Darren Anderton and David Beckham which give them a 2-0 half-time lead that was held for the rest of the game. But Hill was to make his mark that night over what was happening in the other game taking place simultaneously.
Romania were already through and for their game against Tunisia their players had all dyed their hair blond, creating a nightmare scenario for commentator Tony Gubba when trying to identify the players. One might have expected the veteran Hill to be scathing about the way modern football was going when he saw what the Romanians had done, but instead he would be extolling the virtues of a team adopting such a policy.
“That is not an idiotic idea,” he told his fellow panel members as he refused to be put off by their laughter, conveying his belief that it could give a team a fractional advantage picking out team-mates if they all had the same hair colour. Hill’s terrestrial TV years were ending, but true to character he wouldn’t be going quietly.
“Do you back him to score?”
Hill’s former LWT colleague Brian Moore had experienced his own 30 years of hurt commentating on England for ITV and after the World Cup he would be hanging up his microphone. Although the final would be his farewell, his last real hurrah in which a huge and exclusive audience heard his commentary was England’s dramatic second round match against Argentina.
It would be a great one for Moore to bow out with, bar England’s heartbreaking loss on penalties after a 2-2 draw. There was no shortage of memorable incidents to describe, including Michael Owen’s wondergoal, David Beckham’s sending off and Sol Campbell’s disallowed ‘winner’. But as with so often in the 1990s an enthralling England match would be settled by spot kicks and David Batty had to convert or the dream would be over. Moore connected in his mind that Keegan had managed the midfielder at Newcastle United.
Moore said to Keegan: “Now you know him better than anybody, probably. Do you back him to score? Quickly, yes or no?” Keegan could hardly give any answer other than yes (he would have got untold stick had he said no and Batty had scored), but barely had he said so then the penalty was saved and Kev would once be more mocked for calling it wrong.
Although it was a sad note to end on, Moore had been given a mesmerising match to describe that his long service deserved. Sadly, not only would this be Moore’s last World Cup as a commentator but it would also be the final such tournament he lived to see.
“Careful now, you might get a smack”
The 1998 World Cup marked the return to our screens of Fantasy Football, two years on from its last appearance during Euro ’96. It was now on ITV, being screened numerous times during the tournament and, unlike previously, going out live. The original premise of the show of the guests managing fantasy teams had gone and it was now purely about entertainment – and it proved very popular as the likes of David Mellor were regularly the butt of David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s jokes.
It has to be said that some of the guests that summer appeared to know very little about football. But being met with blank expressions over their gags was arguably easier for Baddiel and Skinner to deal with than the behaviour of some of the other guests. The opening show brought some bizarre antics from Brigitte Nielsen and a later episode saw John Lydon in Johnny Rotten mode, getting quite mouthy and then responding to a Baddiel gag by telling him: “Careful now, you might get a smack.” He didn’t appear again after the ad-break and a rather awkward – if memorable – episode was capped by fellow guest Sylvia Kristel construing a joke Baddiel and Skinner made as racist.
But despite the odd difficult moment this was overall a vintage series, and the last one until Euro 2004 (after which it never reappeared). In keeping with it being the end of an era it would be final time we heard the singing talents of show regular and former England forward Jeff Astle, who sadly died in 2002.
Without England the tournament continued with a few more memorable moments. The drama of Dennis Bergkamp scoring a late winner for the Netherlands against Argentina was captured superbly in Davies’ voice, but come the final neither he nor the Dutch would be involved. Motson was behind the microphone for the BBC as France beat Brazil 3-0. Motty’s night would forever be remembered for how animated he became pre-match over whether Ronaldo would or wouldn’t play for Brazil and the mystery surrounding his absence from the initial teamsheet.
The night included Hill ending his BBC years by becoming embroiled in an argument about Ronaldo with Martin O’Neill, Moore signing off from ITV by describing one of the better World Cup finals in modern times and Lynam, not untypically, having the final word. But as the BBC’s closing credits were played out to Lynam narrating Kipling’s If-, few could have imagined what the future held in terms of our summers with Des. A year later he would make the shock transfer move to ITV, sparking major headline news. Never again would he be the face of the BBC’s coverage at a major football tournament.
Incidentally, during ITV’s tournament preview show one pundit had forecast the final would be between Brazil and France with the French winning it. His name? Kevin Keegan. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad footballing forecaster after all…
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.