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England on TV – Our summers with Des

Twenty years ago one of the biggest footballing transfers of the summer did not involve a player, but a broadcaster. Des Lynam made front page news as he switched from BBC to ITV and today we look back at his years fronting coverage of England matches…

Irish blood, English heart

Smooth; confident; relaxed; charming; assured; witty; versatile; perceptive. However most people chose to describe Des Lynam’s broadcasting style, it would usually be positive. A hit with viewers, both male and female, Lynam’s stature was such that he joined the select band of celebs who became almost universally known by their first name. He was a familiar face in millions of lives and had spells hosting the BBC’s big three of regular sports shows at the time – Match of the Day, Grandstand and Sportsnight – as well as Wimbledon, the World Cup and European Championship, Sports Review of the Year, the Olympics and plenty of other events. This was a man for the big occasion.

Given how synonymous he became with British sport, it’s easy to forget Lynam hails from the Republic of Ireland. Only he can say where his international sporting loyalties really lie, but having lived in England since a young age he forged an attachment to his adopted homeland and embraced the big tournaments involving the national team. He wrote in his autobiography that, in the infancy of his broadcasting career, he “suffered with the rest of the nation when England lost to West Germany” in the 1970 World Cup.

And in the years that followed, it would often fall to Des to host such major occasions and convey the sense of disappointment as England’s dream died.

Asking the questions

Lynam may have offered a more laid-back approach than David Coleman, but he was no less determined to pose the questions that needed asking. His first World Cup as host was 1986 and it ended with him being told off by Lawrie McMenemy while live on air for daring to ask Terry Venables and Gary Lineker if they were to soon be pairing up at Barcelona. After England’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup was confirmed, he put Venables on the spot over whether he fancied the job. In neither case did he get a straight answer, but crucially there was no denial and both moves would happen soon enough.

That 1986 World Cup saw Lynam – who just four years earlier had been a fairy low-ranking member of the BBC commentary team in Spain – host the BBC’s coverage from London, dissecting the ‘Hand of God’ with Venables and Emlyn Hughes after England’s exit against Argentina. But it was his appointment as presenter of Match of the Day in 1988 that elevated his standing as a football host, now covering matches beyond those that fell under the Grandstand banner.

Des Lynam during the 1986 World Cup.

Italia ’90 was to be the next World Cup, when Lynam played his part as the BBC had little trouble beating off ITV in head-to-head battles. He would claim some of the credit for the BBC’s inspired choice of Nessun Dorma as theme tune. Lynam was relaxed and on form as he anchored coverage from London, telling it like it was. “I bet you viewers are thinking ‘what a load of rubbish’ in that first half,” he said after a turgid opening 45 minutes between England and Egypt in the group stage. But England’s quarter-final against Cameroon in Naples would see Lynam host from the stadium and the presenter’s worst nightmare would come true…

Lost for words

Inexplicably, Des would find himself lost for words during his introduction that night and he feared his career was collapsing around him as he struggled to regain composure. He typically soon got back into his stride and the incident was over in a matter of seconds, but it left a lasting impression on Lynam and he would take it badly. He would feel little pleasure as England triumphed in dramatic style, instead spending the night trying to work out why he had slipped up and dreading a public backlash.

“My brain got stuck between what I had been going to say and what I now intended to say,” he wrote in his autobiography. “As I stumbled, the producer in London tried to help me, giving me my original words in my ear. It did not help. I froze. I stared at the camera for what seemed like a lifetime. My career was going up in smoke in front of me. I was horrified. My brain would simply not engage.”

In the present era of social media his slip-up might well have made headlines, but back then few were talking about anything but England progressing in the competition. Just three nights later Lynam was back presenting from London for England’s semi-final against West Germany. And he was his old assured self.

“There are only three teams left who could win the 1990 World Cup,” he said at the start. “Argentina, West Germany… and England.” If that helped convey the magnitude of the occasion, then Lynam intensified the night’s significance after Nessun Dorma had played by saying: “Good evening. This, of course, is the most momentous day for English football since July 30th, 1966 and it’s estimated that more than half the entire population of the country will be watching tonight’s semi-final against West Germany. What the other half are doing we’ll leave up to them.”

Lynam pictured with Jimmy Hill and Ray Wilkins during the 1990 World Cup.

Des was back on form, naturally merging humour with emphasising the sense of occasion and finding the right words for it. And what an occasion it was. “If you’re not having a good time then we want to know why,” he quipped at half-time after England had taken the game to the West Germans. It would end in shoot-out heartache, but Lynam urged viewers to feel pride afterwards rather than anger. It was the closest England would come to World Cup glory during his broadcasting career.

The end of an era

The next few years brought only a barren Euro ’92 campaign for England and a failure to reach the 1994 World Cup, but Lynam’s move to Sportsnight during this period meant he regularly presented highlights of England games – usually in the company of Venables and Jimmy Hill. There was never any shortage of debate and entertainment when this established trio worked together – with Hill and Venables always set for a disagreement – but it remained in perspective. “It is only football, it’s not war,” said Des at the end of an inquest into England’s failure to make the 1994 World Cup. Soon the trio would be broken up as Venables took over as England boss, leading the side on home soil during Euro ’96.

It was to be another memorable tournament for England and Lynam and once more a semi-final against Germany had the nation hoping and praying. As with six years earlier, he made an instant impact on proceedings by saying: “Hello again, glad you’ve tuned in. You’ve obviously heard there’s a football match on tonight. England against Germany in the second semi-final of Euro ’96, sporting history waiting to be made.” And that’s how it panned out, with the game going the distance before England once more felt shoot-out despair.

Lynam ended the broadcast by telling viewers to remember where they watched the match as somebody in 30 years would probably ask them. We haven’t reached that point in time yet, but it’s fair to say he’s going to be right. The game will forever be talked about, given how close England came to glory. There was to be no home victory, but Lynam had made his mark on the competition sufficiently to be the inspiration for the comedy-drama My Summer With Des.

Euro ’96 was to be a career highlight for Lynam.

What turned out to be the last BBC hurrah for Des was the 1998 World Cup, when he would again prove adept at providing memorable opening lines. England’s first game at the tournament was to be played on a Monday lunchtime, sparking concern about absenteeism back home. Lynam seized his moment as the show began, jokingly asking: “Shouldn’t you be at work?” It was to be another classic Des-ism and it still gets quoted now.

But when England played Argentina in the last 16 he was wishing he was at work, given ITV had exclusive live coverage. Having written to his BBC bosses imploring them to push hard in negotiations to get the World Cup’s top games, it was a real frustration for Lynam that his channel missed showing such a major match live. It would be the last time England ever played in a major tournament while he was at the Beeb.

Switching channels

Five days before the start of the 1999-2000 season, the news broke that Lynam was leaving the BBC for ITV. Plenty of broadcasting personnel have moved between the two channels over the years, but few have made headlines in the way that Des did. There was plenty of intrigue regarding his new salary and what his real motivation was for the shock switch, despite his claim at the press conference that he had been “getting a little stale” and was in need of a new challenge. ITV sport chief Brian Barwick, who had himself switched from the BBC, would take much of the credit for making the deal happen.

Lynam’s move certainly represented a coup for ITV. There would be welcome reunions with Barwick and Venables, but one former BBC colleague would be less pleased about the news. Bob Wilson had made the same move five years earlier to become ITV’s lead football presenter and would now understandably feel his nose was being pushed out of joint by once more having to play second fiddle to Lynam, while the new arrival would note an initial coolness towards him from ITV stalwart Ron Atkinson. In his most recent memoirs, Big Ron would state that when Des was at the BBC “he was so convinced of how superior the corporation was to ITV” (they would, in due course, strike up a good relationship).

The years Lynam spent on ITV can tend to be unfairly remembered as worse than they actually were, mainly due to the criticism The Premiership highlights show received when the channel held the terrestrial top-flight rights from 2001 to 2004. But, while he could still turn on the charm, it never felt like his natural habitat. The constraints of ad-breaks seemed to cramp Lynam’s natural presenting style, while even when he used wit it didn’t always work out as well as before. When Paul Gascoigne said after the opening game of the 2002 World Cup that he’d never even heard of Senegal before, Lynam pointed out that it had been in West Africa for some time. It was only meant as a joke, but he knew the second he’d said it that he’d probably been a bit too sharp and it could knock Gazza’s confidence as a pundit.

Des gets behind England during his ITV years.

And fate seemed to conspire against Des. Presenting live Champions League football was one of the big selling points for the role, but in the five years Lynam spent at ITV no English club would make the final; to rub salt into his wounds, Manchester United and Liverpool would win it in dramatic circumstances the season before and after he worked there. There would also not be an England match exclusively live on ITV in the Lynam years to really compare with that epic clash they screened against Argentina in 1998. The two standout England matches from the period were the 5-1 thrashing of Germany in 2001 and the 1-0 victory over Argentina at the 2002 World Cup, which both fell the way of the BBC. If he’d stayed put, then he would probably have been fronting coverage of those games rather than Gary Lineker.

Euro 2004 was to mark the end of Lynam’s years at ITV and as a football presenter, although he was not retiring from broadcasting and he later had a spell as Countdown host. It was a tournament that perhaps encapsulated Lynam’s years hosting England matches in major tournaments, as the side gave the nation hope before bowing out on penalties. That quarter-final exit against Portugal was not live on ITV, with Des instead witnessing the shoot-out misery as a spectator. The channel had though still got to cover English drama during the tournament, after victory was turned into defeat in the dying seconds against France in the group stage.

Disappointment was never far away when it came to England and major tournaments, with Des Lynam so often left to find the words in such circumstances. But that was his gift as a TV broadcaster, being able to convey what the viewer was feeling. His worth was such that ITV smashed its transfer record to snap him up 20 years ago this month. As TV sport broadcasters go, there have been few to compare with Des.

englandmemories View All

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

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