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England on TV – The Saint & Greavsie days

This has been a memorable year for English football. But it has also been tinged with sadness, following the deaths of a number of prominent individuals associated with the sport. They have included the celebrated on-screen duo of Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves. Today we look back at their partnership on Saint & Greavsie, with particular emphasis on their years covering England…

Go back 30-odd years and you could enjoy football on many weekends in the company of the three Jimmys. On BBC radio there was Jimmy Armfield, whose considered summaries were both a joy and an education; on BBC television there was Jimmy Hill, who was not exactly short of opinions nor afraid to offer them; and on ITV there was Jimmy Greaves.

Unlike the other two, Greaves had never dabbled in management. Nor did he claim to be some tactical guru who was going to provide an in-depth insight into the virtues of applying zonal marking. But his impact as a pundit was no less significant than his contemporaries. He was one of the few people who could talk from experience of what would be going through the mind of a world-class striker. He would speak from the heart and, through his involvement in the cherished Saint & Greavsie, celebrate the heart and soul of football.

And it would be done with humour. Lots of it. He isn’t the only pundit to make wisecracks, but few have seemed to do so as effectively and naturally as Greaves. Little quips and plays on words added to the appeal of his appearances and meant that, a couple of decades after being a prolific goalscorer, he was now enjoying a second life as ‘Greavsie’, the game-for-a-laugh TV personality who would even find himself in demand for roles that had nothing to do with football. But he could do serious as well, as clips of him declaring his support for Swindon Town when they were denied promotion to the First Division in 1990 and remonstrating with Gary Newbon about the use of TV evidence confirm.

But Greaves was only half of his own TV story. His success owed much to his partnership with the straight man from what Greaves would call “chilly Jocko Land”. Greaves and Ian St John had never played together at club level and had been on opposite sides in England against Scotland matches. But they were to strike up a wonderful pairing that pulled the viewers in to ITV on Saturday lunchtimes for the best part of a decade.

A taste of things to come

The seeds for the partnership would be sown as early as the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, even though their paths didn’t cross. Both men were still playing at the top level, but evidently eyeing other interests that would help in their long-term future. St John was narrowly beaten by Idwal Robling in a BBC competition to go to the World Cup as a commentator. How different the course of broadcasting history could have been had Sir Alf Ramsey’s casting vote been in his favour.

Meanwhile, Greaves was also following an unusual path for a footballer as he served as a co-driver in the London to Mexico World Cup Rally. Four years on from the heartache of missing out on playing in the World Cup final, Greaves was now putting his life on the line by taking on this challenge. St John wasn’t going to become a commentator – although he would go on to perform plenty of co-commentary work – and Greaves would not spend much more time in rally cars. But St John had shown he was serious about working in broadcasting and Greaves had further grown as a personality, who was willing to get out of his comfort zone.

These were qualities that ITV would recognise when they turned to both of them a few years later, finding that they would blend perfectly together. By the time that the World Cup was next held in Mexico on 1986, they were a fully-fledged partnership.

Seeing the funny side

We will pick up the story at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. By now St John, having tried his hand at football management, was establishing himself within ITV’s football output and hosting the Saturday lunchtime On the Ball preview and round-up show. Greaves had overcome alcoholism to start working as a pundit in the Midlands for ATV and then its successor, Central. He had been on the panel with St John on ITV’s networked live coverage of the 1981 League Cup final replay between Liverpool and West Ham. But this World Cup would be what really elevated him back into the national spotlight.

He would quickly demonstrate that he was as naturally witty in this role as he had been prolific on a football field. When England’s Paul Mariner was quoted as saying he had got the decisive touch on what was clearly a Czechoslovakian own goal, Greaves quipped: “I’m delighted that he’s claimed it because I’ve now revised my goal tally. I’ve added another 273 league, 48 cup, 37 internationals, 132 others – 1,003, beating Pele’s total by three.” Brian Moore, Brian Clough and George Best all laughed in the studio and evidently the viewers were doing the same thing that World Cup. Greaves brought something different to the table and ITV wanted more of it in its football output.

On the Ball would provide the outlet. An initial link-up from the Midlands soon became a fully-fledged pairing in the studio every Saturday lunchtime. By 1984 the partnership between St John and Greaves was in full flow and so too was their wish to eschew the usual protocols of football broadcasting. During ITV’s live coverage of Scotland against England in May 1984, the two men donned the rosettes of their respective nations. It would be the sort of thing they did for big games such as cup finals, even in which they had no obvious allegiances. It was fair to say that Jimmy Hill was doing no such thing over on the BBC.

At this point ITV covered half of England’s matches outside major tournaments as they split coverage with the BBC, with Greaves and St John regularly called upon to provide analysis. As would later happen with Andy Gray and Alan Hansen, St John found himself in the slightly awkward position of being a Scot regularly analysing England games. Give the impression you don’t want them to do well and you are a bitter Jock; show any sense of pleasure when they deliver and you may as well be a Sassenach who has forgotten his roots.

Going for the neutral viewpoint is therefore probably the safest approach, the one seemingly adopted by St John – a man not afraid to voice his opinions, at times seeming less cuddly in the role of pundit than as presenter. “I think he gives away too many fouls and he’s a lucky boy to be getting picked,” he snarled about Terry Fenwick at the start of the 1986 World Cup – a view arguably borne out by the player being booked three times at the tournament.

Greaves, while not adverse to saying things as he saw them and regularly having his say as a newspaper and magazine columnist, tended to shoot from the hip less and favour humour and succinct summaries when working for ITV. “You can’t criticise England on a night like this,” he declared proudly after the famous 2-0 away win over Brazil in 1984. “I was a bit disappointed with Peter Shilton,” he joked after the goalkeeper had been untroubled during a dominant 8-0 win in Turkey later the same year.

Things were starting to look up for England and it mirrored the rise of the partnership between St John and Greaves in the same period. World in Sport was dropped in 1985, but On the Ball continued as a stand-alone show under its new name of Saint & Greavsie. The name change was largely superficial, but underlined the impact the pair were having together. That seemed to be further evidenced by what the BBC started to do in this era, with Emlyn Hughes playing the Greaves role as he joined Bob Wilson on Football Focus and the pairing of Des Lynam and Gerry Williams on Wimbledon coverage carrying a strong whiff of S&G. What is it they say about imitation and flattery again?

England qualified for four successive major tournaments from 1986 to 1992, with St John’s Scotland making it to three of them. All of these competitions saw special episodes of S&G broadcast, with the pair also involved in providing analysis during ITV’s match coverage. The clash with Argentina in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final was huge, with the significant subplot of how recent the Falklands War was. Greaves wasn’t going to ignore the subject, nor be diplomatic about it. Referring to “the Argies”, he joked: “They know what a small taskforce did to them four years ago.”

Greaves and St John were left to try and put a smile back on English faces when they hosted their show the following afternoon in the company of Jim Davidson. But where England’s exit from Mexico ’86 was mired in controversy; their pointless showing at Euro ’88 was considered a humiliation. Calls for Bobby Robson’s departure were widespread; but Saint and Greavsie sought not to add their names to the list of vultures.”We happen to believe that he is the best man for the job,” declared Greaves in October 1988.

‘Let the Bull loose’

1988 marked the end of the days of BBC and ITV sharing coverage of pretty much every televised football competition as they went it alone. ITV got the prize it most wanted by seizing exclusive Football League rights, with the BBC countering by striking a deal for the FA Cup and most England games. It meant ITV did not cover England at all between their swift Euro ’88 exit and the start of Italia ’90. The channel was even now usually precluded from showing the goals from England’s qualifiers and friendlies on S&G, but the show would play a vital role in preserving a direct link between ITV and the England team.

In October 1989 an episode came live from England’s team hotel ahead of the vital World Cup qualifier in Poland. “I thought this was Gary Lineker’s house,” joked Greaves as he observed the plush surroundings. But once again he would display he had the capacity to be serious as well as a funnyman, as he discussed with Lineker whether he had fully recovered from hepatitis. Greaves was speaking from direct experience of being struck down with the condition in his prime.

He also wasn’t laughing later in the month when news broke that England were set to be seeded for the World Cup finals despite it being questionable if they met the criteria, with the decision reportedly made to help control the hooligan fraternity by sending the team to Sardinia. Far from being some little Englander delighted at his team being given a helping hand in their bid for World Cup success, Greaves spoke out about how they had not deserved seeded status in this manner: “The World Cup’s about football teams, not about supporters.”

The pair headed out to Italy for the draw in December and saw what awaited England and Scotland the following summer. It would be their last World Cup together and a memorable one. In what was very much an approach of its time, Greaves donned t-shirts throughout the tournament filled with plays on words such as ‘LET THE BULL LOOSE’ and ‘BETTER LEIGHTON NEVER’. St John had to once more watch on as Scotland crashed out early, while England came so close to going all the way amid a renewed sense of interest in the game. The pair’s faith in Robson had been repaid and now the side was in the hands of a man they worked closely with during the World Cup – Graham Taylor.

But the England team remained largely out of ITV’s grasp going forward, with the only match shown until Euro ’92 being the away game against the Republic of Ireland in November 1990. Greaves was in the commentary box, but technical problems dogged the start of the broadcast. “Brian Moore forgot to put 50p in the meter,” he joked on the following Saturday’s S&G. In an era when recognition of a person’s stature was being mimicked on Spitting Image, St John and Greaves regularly appeared. When Greaves was indisposed at Christmas 1990 his puppet would memorably deputise for him on S&G, voiced by Peter Brackley (another respected broadcaster who is sadly missed).

Greaves was soon back at work and a year later the pair headed out to the United States to preview the World Cup qualifying draw, in an episode remembered for them conducting the League Cup draw with a certain Donald Trump. Back home plans were now finalised for the creation of the Premier League. The final Saturday of the 1991-92 season marked the end of the four-division Football League, as S&G packed up before returning for the European Championship five weeks later. In the interim the programme would effectively have its final whistle sounded.

The last time?

The announcement late in May that Sky had won the live rights for the new Premier League, with the BBC securing a deal for highlights, left ITV out in the cold. The last rites were already being administered for S&G and fans feared the worst. Not everyone mourned its likely demise. Humour is subjective and some critics had long been unimpressed by the endless jokes about Scottish goalkeepers. “At least there should be no more S&G,” observed one scribe in The Guardian when assessing the impact of the Sky deal.

S&G was far from an exclusively top-flight football show and it had also soldiered on during the TV blackout in the first half of 1985-86. But the writing now seemed to be on the wall. When the programme resumed ahead of the start of the Euros, Greaves set the tone for the remaining shows with his opening gambit: “Oh, we’re still here.” Like a man trying to make light of his impending divorce, Greaves would spend the next month cracking numerous gags relating to the situation and Sky now holding all the aces. England’s dismal performances would do little to lift his mood, with St John for once the happier man after Scotland at least exited with honour and a win to their name.

Both nations had long returned home when the S&G finale took place on June 27, the day after Denmark had surprisingly lifted the trophy. A frank discussion with fellow ITV mainstays Ron Atkinson and Jack Charlton about the tournament, some impressions by Kevin Connelly and a clip of St John bungee jumping embodied the nature of S&G – football as both a serious and laughing matter. Uncertainty remained about the show’s future and it meant there was no grand farewell or montage celebrating its glorious years.

But Greaves and St John – who had gone out to Sweden for the finals – sensed what the end result was going to be, as they rode off at the end singing “This could be the last time”. Would it be the last time? Well it was and it wasn’t. S&G would not return, but Saint and Greavsie the double act did. The following season they would resume their partnership for Champions League preview shows. Same time, same place, but no longer showing the Friday night goals from Tranmere or Stockport or anything else that didn’t relate to the Champions League. It wasn’t quite the same.

The pair came together on Sport in Question and for ITV’s live coverage of the 1992-93 First Division play-off final, on the same weekend that the channel showed England’s World Cup qualifier in Poland with St John hosting. But he would soon make way for Matt Lorenzo and the end was clearly in sight, even though both Greaves and St John continued to find TV work for a few more years.

The 2002 World Cup saw Greaves revive his old role to some extent when he made contributions to Johnny Vaughan’s late-night World Cup show on the BBC. Greaves claimed that the demise of S&G owed much to the creation of the Premier League and a wish for a more serious take on things, but shows had emerged celebrating the funny side of football – most notably Fantasy Football. It effectively succeeded S&G as cult football viewing, but St John was certainly no lover of it as he and Greavsie were repeatedly on the receiving end of various sketches by David Baddiel and Frank Skinner.

The two shows collided when Saint and Greavsie were guests on Fantasy Football during Euro 2004. The pair were reverently described as “the godfathers of football comedy” and Greaves had featured in a Phoenix from the Flames segment during the series. But Saint seemed to find spending time with Baddiel and Skinner about as enjoyable as sitting down for dinner with a traffic warden who had just slapped him with a hefty parking fine. “I didn’t like that they were making a living on the back of football, taking the piss out of football. We didn’t do that. We laughed with football, which is a different thing,” St John said a few years later.

They would get another chance to laugh with football on FA Cup final day in 2009, when Setanta brought the pair back to perform their old role in the build up. Some 17 years had passed since S&G last went out, yet the popularity remained undimmed. YouTube has enabled fans to relive a good number of episodes from the show’s heyday and the deaths of both men this year were met with sadness, but also happy memories of the pair bringing laughter during a difficult time for English football.

It really was a funny old game when Saint and Greavsie were in tandem.

englandmemories View All

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

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