England on TV

Barry Davies – the England years (part one)

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Hearing the evergreen Barry Davies commentating during Wimbledon recently in his 80th year, we became nostalgic for his days covering football. In the first of a two-part look back at his years commentating on England matches, we cover the period up until 1986…

We liked Barry Davies during his football commentary days, but not everyone did. Most commentators tend to divide opinion but Davies really did seem the ultimate ‘marmite’ broadcaster. In his commentating heyday there were plenty who practically worshipped the man, believing he was the ultimate wordsmith with a great turn of phrase and an air of authority about him. They felt he should get far more big matches than came his way. And at the same time there were some viewers who loathed him, considering him pompous, schoolmasterly and over-critical of what he was watching.

His willingness to speak his mind would go down well with his fans, but also lead to at least two England matches arguing with him over comments he made. His disappointment over being continually overlooked for major finals that went the way of John Motson would be totally justifiable in the eyes of his fan club, unnecessarily bitter to the anti-Davies brigade. The high number of other sports he commentated on made him wonderfully versatile in the eyes of admirers, not an out-and-out football man like Motson to the haters. He was a broadcaster who certainly split opinion, but had plenty of fans. “One man’s commentator is another man’s irritation,” he perceptively wrote in his autobiography. 

But whether one loved or loathed him as a commentator, there was no question that Davies became one of voices of football for decades. He first came to attention with ITV during the 1966 World Cup, before switching to the BBC in 1969 and remaining a football commentator until 2004 (making a one-off return in 2014 to mark Match of the Day’s 50th birthday). By anyone standards that’s a lot of matches and major tournaments, his England commentary years beginning when the likes of Bobby Charlton were still playing and ending after Wayne Rooney had burst onto the scene.

The whole ‘Davies v Motson’ saga is one we will come to later, but one area where Bazza could feel of something approaching equal standing to Motty concerned the selection for big England games at major tournaments. For such famous matches as England’s clashes with Argentina at the 1986 World Cup and Germany during Euro ’96, Davies was the man holding the microphone for the BBC. We begin our look back at his England broadcasting career today (such was his longevity that we are splitting this into two parts).

Davies would express feelings from an English viewpoint when the side played, as could be told from his “ohh noooooo” reaction when Gareth Southgate had his effort saved in the “penalty competition” – to use a Davies-ism – against Germany in Euro ’96. But Davies was a professional who respected England’s opposition and would give out praise when he felt it was merited. Watching the 1966 World Cup final from the back of the ITV commentary box, he was accused by a colleague of being unpatriotic for telling a West German counterpart he felt they deserved to be level after 90 minutes. When Sweden scored the winner against England at Euro ’92, his instinctive reaction while commentating was to hail the “brilliant goal” rather than focus on the shortcomings of Graham Taylor’s men. His often-recalled words immediately after Diego Maradona’s second goal against England in 1986 contain no reference to Bobby Robson’s side facing elimination.

Seeking further to convey at least some sense of impartiality, he would write in his autobiography that referring to England as “we” or “us” was wrong – despite knowing he was guilty of it during his career – when working for the British Browdcasting Corporation, with plenty of non-English viewers watching. “Getting the right balance between objectivity and looking at the contest through English eyes can be difficult,” he wrote.

Sadly football would not offer him a chance to mirror one of his most famous commentary lines (“Where were the Germans? And frankly who cares…”) from when Great Britain’s men’s hockey side won gold at the 1988 Olympics. Had Paul Gascoigne turned home THAT chance in extra-time during Euro ’96, we can only wonder if he might have been tempted…

“And England are out of the World Cup”

As mentioned above, Davies quietly watched the 1966 final at Wembley as Hugh Johns commentated for ITV and it would be the closest he would ever come to describing England winning a major tournament. Although behind old hands Kenneth Wolstenholme and David Coleman in the pecking order after moving to the BBC in 1969, Davies was picked to commentate on highlights of England’s friendly win over the Netherlands in November. It began a long relationship between Davies and the national team in his years at the Beeb.

The 1970 World Cup would pass without him commentating on England, but he would occasionally cover them in the ensuing years and in October 1973 he was handed a major match – the decisive World Cup qualifier between England and Poland at Wembley. “Win or bust,” Davies correctly stated at the start of his commentary. He was only describing the action for highlights while ITV showed it live, but his commentary would become well-remembered as England unsuccessfully peppered the Polish goal. Then came the sucker punch. “Hunter’s got to make that… and he’s lost it,” Davies accurately called, as Norman Hunter’s infamous mistake let Poland though to take the lead.

Although Allan Clarke’s penalty restored parity, the winner would not come as Jan Tomaszewski performed heroics to keep England at bay. “Why did he punch?”, Davies asked on one occasion as the goalkeeper’s unorthodox style came under scrutiny. But Davies was not the sort to go down the Brian Clough route of labelling the Polish goalkeeper a “clown”, recognising the talents of both the man and his side. The quality of the Poles is often overlooked when England’s failure is recalled, but Davies had seen for himself during the 1972 Olympics the ability they possessed. He wrote in his memoirs: “The Poles were a fine side, and some of the observations made on that miserable night in October 1973, when what felt like a Silesian winter descended on Wembley, were well wide of the mark.”

As the whistle sounded, Davies simply proclaimed: “And England are out of the World Cup.” Two tournaments earlier they had won it, now they wouldn’t even be in the 16-team finals. It was not the last time Davies would say those words in his career. But never again would he commentate on an England World Cup exit that carried with it such disbelief and a feeling of emptiness as that October night. He would be going to the 1974 finals, but England wouldn’t.

“And here’s Hoddle… ohhh yes”

The 1970s were to be a barren period for England, their continual qualifying failures meaning Davies ended the decade having still yet to commentate on the side at a major tournament. The appointment of Don Revie in 1974 initially brought hope, Davies describing the new manager’s opening 3-0 win over Czechoslovakia. But Revie’s reign would turn increasingly unhappy and problems grew with a home defeat to Wales in May 1977. An unimpressed Davies would express criticism while commentating, his words being taken personally by an under-pressure Revie – a man he had previously worked alongside at the BBC – to such an extent that the manager remonstrated with him when about to be interviewed live after England lost to Scotland four days later. One thing was sure, Davies was not the sort of commentator to hold back for fear of upsetting key contacts.

As it transpired Davies would have little to do with Revie after that, as the manager controversially quit just weeks later. Ron Greenwood would take over and easily steer England to the finals of the 1980 European Championship. At last England were back at a major tournament and towards the end of the qualifying campaign optimism built further with the debut display by Glenn Hoddle against Bulgaria.


Glenn Hoddle’s England debut attracted words of delight from Barry Davies.

The commentator may have hidden his support for Tottenham Hotspur for many years but he never masked his admiration for Hoddle, a man who had a tendency to pull the spectacular out of the bag when Davies was holding the microphone. Hoddle duly did so here with a memorable finish to seal a 2-0 win, as Davies purred: “And here’s Hoddle… ohhh yes! Well you won’t believe this but he said to me before the match ‘it could be I’ll get one’.”

Davies was hardly sticking his neck on the line when he predicted on air that Hoddle would be a star of the 1980s, with the flair player delivering again with a cracking volley for England against Spain in March 1981 as Davies commentated. “Oh I say. He’s done it again,” said Davies, joyously. Describing the goal was some compensation for a disappointing 1980 European Championship for Davies, where the only England match he covered was against Spain when the side were already unable to win the tournament.

A game against Spain would again be the most significant England match Davies covered at the 1982 World Cup. He was restricted to highlights of the three England games he commentated on – Czechoslovakia and Kuwait were the others – with the Spain match to decide whether England reached the semi-finals. “England come to their own private high noon. A semi-final place is England’s for the taking,” he said as the side entered the field for a game in which they would have to score at least twice. But it wasn’t to be. “The faces of dejection of the England players say it all,” he was left saying after the disappointing goalless draw. At least he was afforded more entertainment when he covered the captivating and controversial semi-final between France and West Germany three nights later.

England were absent from the 1984 European Championship in France and unusually so too was Davies, who instead was sent to South America to cover Bobby Robson’s side on their three-match tour. Sadly the one memorable match of the trip would be the game not covered by BBC television against Brazil, but Davies was holding the microphone for radio duties as John Barnes scored his wondergoal. When Barnes next excelled for England on the big stage, Davies would again be commentating…

“You have to say that’s magnificent”

TISWAS or Swap Shop? Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet? Seb Coe or Steve Ovett? Blur or Oasis? FIFA or Pro-Evolution Soccer? In each case, expressing an equal preference was seen as somehow being wrong and they were built up as big rivals. And ‘Davies or Motson?’ would be viewed in exactly the same light. It was a professional rivalry that lasted so long that all the examples listed above coincided or at least overlapped with it. Like Formula One team-mates, Davies and Motson were officially colleagues but unquestionably competing to be top dog. From the moment Motson was controversially picked ahead of the older and more established Davies to cover the 1977 FA Cup final for the BBC, the debate would crop up with alarming frequency. “We are different animals,” Davies has since reflected, with the pair offering contrasting styles that tended to leave viewers preferring one or the other. Both men insist they have always got on well – as further suggested by them being interviewed together for a BBC documentary last year on Euro ’96 – but stop short of making out they have ever been big mates. Each man wanted to get the biggest games. Sadly for Davies, the majority of them fell Motson’s way.


John Motson and Barry Davies hold aloft the World Cup – something England sadly would not do in their many years as BBC colleagues.

But while Motson was continually picked for FA Cup, World Cup and European Championship finals (Davies being able to count on one hand such matches that came his way), there was a much greater balance of power on show when it came to England matches – including during major tournaments. This was seen on June 22, 1986, when Davies was commentating live for the BBC on England’s World Cup quarter-final against Argentina.

It’s not just retrospectively that this is considered a huge occasion in English football. This was viewed in the build-up as a major match, England up against the side containing the best player in the world in Diego Maradona and knowing they would stand every chance of winning the tournament if they could progress (the fact it was only four years after the Falklands War inevitably added to the hype). If Davies could be entrusted to describe it, then he must have wondered why he didn’t at least occasionally get the FA Cup final; equally, Motson probably felt a bit miffed at not getting matches like this when he was – effectively if not officially – the number one commentator (Motty would instead describe the gripping contest between Brazil and France the day before and was to get the final, so he could hardly feel deprived).

Davies had covered England’s nadir during the tournament when he commentated on what few highlights there were in the 0-0 draw against Morocco. “Disaster upon disaster for England,” he said with typical melodrama as Ray Wilkins followed Bryan Robson off the field and the side stared potential elimination in the face. They now had to get a result against Poland to stay in Mexico, with Davies to cover this one too – incredibly his first live England commentary at a major tournament. England started nervously and Davies vented his disgust as the Poles were almost gifted an early goal. “England just cannot afford to make crass errors like that. We’ve got away with it twice – we cannot tempt fate further,” he told viewers. It was as if the side listened to him, Gary Lineker netting a first-half hat-trick to seal victory as co-commentator Jimmy Hill chortled with delight. “Never mind the sunshine and the altitude – it’s raining goals,” was unusually a bit of a corny line for Davies, but it perhaps summed up the jubilant mood as England’s tournament at last got going. There was also a nice nod to the last meeting between the sides 13 years earlier. “Dare we call him the clown?” he quipped as the Polish goalkeeper’s fumble allowed Lineker to complete his hat-trick.

Six years earlier Davies had commentated when the English public was afforded its first real glimpse of Diego Maradona, when he almost scored a superb solo goal as England beat Argentina 3-1 at Wembley. Now Davies was seeing the sides meet again, with the player’s two much-talked about goals at the Azteca Stadium presenting Davies with a commentator’s nightmare for the first, the chance to wax lyrical over the second. We know what’s coming when we see the ‘Hand of God’ goal now, but at the time it took everyone by surprise – so unprecedented was it to English eyes. Davies, like the officials, would not spot it and believed Maradona had headed it in. Spotting the England players protesting, he would jump to the wrong conclusion. “They’re appealing for offside,” he told millions of viewers. He acknowledged in his autobiography that he got it wrong, first mentioning during the broadcast it may have been handball when told by his producer as replays – which Davies could not see – were being played of the goal.


Diego Maradona celebrates scoring one of the most famous goals described by Barry Davies.

But if Maradona’s first goal created a major headache for the commentator, his second would be a delight to describe for any wordsmith. “You have to say that’s magnificent,” was the memorable conclusion as the mesmerising run ended with the ball in the back of the net. “There is no debate about that goal. That was just pure football genius,” he added, emphasising the contrast between the two strikes.

Later in the game England brought Barnes on and he helped revive the side’s hopes as he set up Lineker to score. In the dying moments he looked to repeat the move as the ball came out to him out wide. “Every Englishman will surely be saying ‘go on, run at them’,” Davies said as Barnes duly beat his man and whipped over a superb cross towards Lineker. Davies had seen enough football over the years to instinctively know when a chance would surely go in. “Yessss,” he cried, only to almost immediately correct himself as the ball was somehow kept out. It was the last real chance and soon enough Davies would be repeating those painful words from October 1973: “And England are out of the World Cup.” Davies, like England, headed home from Mexico a few days earlier than he would have liked as Motson did the BBC’s live semi-final and then the final. But when people in England talk about Mexico ’86, two matches Davies commentated on involving Bobby Robson’s men tend to stand out.

In the next part of our reflections we will recall such dramatic matches covered by Davies as the Italia ’90 quarter-final against Cameroon and the semi-final of Euro ’96 against Germany.

Faces of ’66 – Hugh Johns

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This week sadly marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Hugh Johns, the man who commentated for ITV on the 1966 World Cup final. But there was far more to his career than simply being the answer to a pub quiz question…

On the afternoon of July 30, 1966, Hugh Johns completed his live commentary for ITV on England’s World Cup final win over West Germany. It had been job done. ITV were heavily beaten by the BBC in the ratings but Johns – so exhausted from describing the drama that he retired to bed early after a few gins – could feel satisfied at having described such a famous and dramatic occasion.

And then, at some point in due course, Johns would be made aware of what the BBC’s Kenneth Wolstenholme had said in the dying seconds of extra-time. “They think it’s all over. It is now…” would become immortalised and known by generations to come. It meant that whatever Johns had said during the afternoon became totally’ overshadowed by Wolstenholme’s words as Geoff Hurst completed his hat-trick. But not that Johns’ description of the moment has been ignored. A certain intrigue has built up over what was being said on ITV. And here it is:

“Here’s Hurst, he might make it three. He has, he has… so that’s it. That is IT!”

While the line may have lacked the impact of Wolstenholme’s, it still told the viewer what they needed to know (save for mentioning that fans thought the final whistle had already sounded) in just a few words. Simplicity and repetition – helping to emphasise the significance of what was happening – would be two of Johns’ trademarks and he utilised both to describe the much-recalled moment .

Hugh Johns in later years.

In the BBC’s shadow

ITV’s football coverage has, rightly or wrongly, come in for its fair share of stick down the years and in 1966 it was certainly not winning many plaudits. In 1962 they opted not to cover the World Cup in Chile at all – in fairness they could only have shown delayed coverage a couple of days later, but this did not deter the BBC – and then in October 1965 the channel missed Austria’s winning goal over England at Wembley, an error compounded by commentator Gerry Loftus offering the double entente of “Alf Ramsey will need to get his chopper out” when summing up the game. Then come the World Cup in England the commercial channel would allow the BBC to steal a match in securing viewers as ITV often joined big matches either later than their rivals or didn’t show them live at all – possibly fearful of alienating the non-football audience in the days when viewers had just the BBC and ITV to choose from. There was little to persuade football fans to switch over to ITV during the tournament.

But for the minority who did opt to watch the World Cup on ITV, Johns would become the most familiar voice over the three weeks. He was joined by Wales manager Dave Bowen as summariser (co-commentator in today’s money) to cover the opening match against Uruguay and the same partnership would remain in place for the rest of the tournament. It was one compensation for Welshmen after seeing their country fail to qualify.

Over on the ‘other side’, Wolstenholme was the lead voice and synonymous with football coverage. Johns knew that trying to directly take on the broadcasting great by mimicking him would not work; he would have to develop his own distinctive style. “There’s no doubt about it, he was great. And so if you were going to do it you had to find a way of beating Ken, or doing something Ken hadn’t thought of,” Johns said many years later. He would offer affectionate respect rather than resentment towards his BBC counterpart, despite the national obsession with Wolstenholme and his “they think it’s all over” line.

Over the years, when the BBC and ITV have gone head-to-head and shared live coverage the latter has usually come off well-beaten in the ratings war. As a result, the nation tends to recall more readily Barry Davies describing Argentina against England in 1986 than Martin Tyler; John Motson’s on England’s Italia ’90 semi-final against West Germany more than Brian Moore; and Davies describing the epic Euro ’96 semi-final between England and Germany instead of Moore. It generally applied in the days they both showed the FA Cup final live too. For example, Motson’s description of Ricky Villa’s amazing goal in the 1981 replay for Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City is still regularly recalled. Few seem to reel off Moore’s words at the same moment.

And so in that respect Johns – whose name led to him being affectionately known as  ‘Huge Ones’ – was always going to struggle to make a lasting impact with his commentary on the 1966 World Cup final. Indeed, hypothetically speaking had Johns been the one to come out with the “they think it’s all over line” it’s questionable if it would have passed into national folklore like it has thanks to Wolstenholme. We will never know. But watching the 1966 final with ITV commentary is a bit like seeing a film remade – the outcome is the same, but yet it also feels very different to what you are used to. A fair chunk of the nation can recite at least a couple of Wolstenholme’s lines from that day; sadly, the same does not apply to the work of poor old Johns.

So good he said it twice

It has to be said Johns did not give a faultless display on the final. Prior to kick-off he said England had won the cup when he meant the coin toss (he chuckled on air over that one); he bemusingly spoke of “Harold Ramsey” as England’s manager came into view ahead of extra-time; and he erroneously identified the England player bearing down on goal in the dying seconds as Martin Peters, but quickly corrected himself as he realised it was Geoff Hurst. It wouldn’t be the last time in his career he mixed up the duo.

One trademark of Johns’ commentary on the final was to repeat himself, stressing the significance of what had just happened.  “A goal. A goal,” was the simplistic description of West Germany’s opener; “It’s there. It’s there,” he roared as Hurst equalised: “It’s Martin Peters. Martin Peters,” came the cry as Peters put England 2-1 up. “It IS a goal. It IS a goal,” he proclaimed as the third England goal was eventually given. And so on, including his description of Hurst completing his hat-trick (“He has. He has.”). It was parodied when Martin Peters appeared on Fantasy Football during Euro 2004 in a Phoenix from the Flames sketch. “He said bloody everything twice,” joked Peters.

For all the differences with Wolstenholme’s commentary, there were similarities too. The words offered by Johns over Hurst’s ‘did it cross the line?’ goal followed the same pattern as those of Wolstenholme, switching between it being a goal to not being so and back again before it was finally awarded. And Johns would also refer to the Jules Rimet Trophy as being “only 12 inches high” as Bobby Moore went up to collect it from The Queen.

Covering the decline

Despite his strong Welsh heritage, war veteran Johns was actually born in England and like many of his contemporaries served as a print journalist before landing his broadcasting opportunity. The nation of his birth would continue to feature prominently in his TV career beyond 1966.

Unlike Wolstenholme, Johns would commentate on England matches at the 1970 World Cup – a tournament where he enjoyed increased exposure thanks to ITV unusually winning the ratings war amid the popular studio panel back home. Johns seemed to have grown as a commentator in the four years since 1966, although the tournament saw him again confuse Hurst and Peters – this time crediting the former with putting England 2-0 up against West Germany before quickly realising it was Peters! Johns was left to describe England’s shock collapse in the same game, a week after covering the iconic match against Brazil. “And that’s a fantastic save by Banks,” he proclaimed after that unforgettable save was made.

Three years later, Johns found himself covering the antithesis of the 1966 World Cup final. England had to beat Poland to qualify for the World Cup and it was being shown live on ITV. As is well-known. England were held to a 1-1 draw and failed to make it. Johns was left to provide the words as the nation watched with disbelief when the final whistle sounded. “It’s over. It’s all over,” he uttered, as he again used repetition to emphasise the significance of what was happening. “And for England, one of the blackest days they’ve ever had.” In a broadcast best remembered for the comments of Brian Clough about Jan Tomaszewski, Johns had also played his part.

With lead commentator Brian Moore continuing to stay at home to present the tournaments, Johns remained ITV’s choice to cover the World Cup Final in 1974 and 1978 – competitions which England were sadly absent from. They were there in 1982 but by then Johns had made way for Tyler as lead commentator at the finals and he was restricted to just covering highlights on a few games, as he slipped well down the pecking order.

1982 also saw Johns turn 60 and make way for Peter Brackley as ITV’s man in the Midlands, but the ensuing years saw him still regularly hold the microphone. He would work for more than a decade for HTV Wales and in the mid-1990s he was still regularly covering matches involving Cardiff City, Swansea and Wrexham for the station’s Soccer Sunday programme, with the nation catching glimpses of the veteran’s efforts on Football League Extra – a show which broadcast the delightful feature below about him. In an era where Sky Sports, the Premier League and “a whole new ball game” were taking hold, it was refreshing to hear there was still room on our screens for an old-school commentator who could utter an “oh, good gracious me” after a goal was scored.

And in September 1994. Johns was called upon to commentate on highlights for regions including Central and Granada on Port Vale hosting Manchester United in the League Cup. It was a night that saw a new generation of English players really start to come to the fore, with youngster Paul Scholes scoring twice and others including David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville all starting. Having Johns covering it seemed as much an unlikely generational crossover as it would be to hear Clive Tyldesley commenting on members of England’s 1966 side in action. But on a night otherside about the future, Johns was rolling back the years with the disctinctive and charming style still there. It was a bit like watching football with your grandad – one who freely admitted to smoking more than 20 fags a day for decades and who loved drinking Banks’s Bitter. He even managed a trademark “one-nothing” when Vale took the lead that night. Memories of his heyday came rushing back.

Johns was now in his 70s and would end his commentary duties later in the decade, but he had left a fine legacy. Dismissing him as simply the ‘other’ commentator on the 1966 World Cup final would be unfair. He covered the next three as well and his years working for ATV (and briefly Central) coincided with Midlands football thriving, with Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa being First Division champions and the latter two lifting the European Cup – plus such characters as Brian Clough and Derek Dougan were operating in the region and there was the celebrated West Bromwich Albion side under Ron Atkinson. It was certainly a far greater era for the region than the ensuing 35 years.

Johns provided the soundtrack for that and other famous moments in that era such as Manchester United winning the European Cup in 1968. He wasn’t Wolstenholme, he didn’t claim to be. He was Hugh Johns and he had the honour of describing England winning the World Cup for ITV (something to elude successors such as Moore, Tyldesley and Tyler). He did. He did.

England on TV – The Brian Moore Years

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Next week will sadly mark the 15th anniversary of the death of football broadcasting great Brian Moore. His long career would include covering England on many occasions and it is that element of his work we will focus on today…

Like just about ever commentator, Brian Moore attracted the odd critic who did not like the style of his commentary. However, he had a much higher number of admirers. And Moore the man was almost universally appreciated. His affable manner and dignity meant he was well-liked by ITV colleagues; BBC counterparts Barry Davies and John Motson appreciated that Moore was supportive rather than competitive (Motson was handed a ‘good luck’ note by Moore before his first FA Cup final in 1977, despite him commentating in direct competition); the public found him a friendly face and voice who was a part of their lives for many years; and people in football appreciated his respectful manner. In Moore’s obituary in The Guardian in 2001, Brian Glanville wrote: “He remained modest, affable and unaffected, well-liked not only by his colleagues in the media but by football players themselves. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that he remained a fan at heart.”

Although Moore may be synonymous with ITV’s football coverage, he was employed by the BBC as a radio commentator before he moved into television. During the 1966 World Cup final he was one of the radio commentators, being behind the microphone for Geoff Hurst’s controversial ‘did it cross the line?’ goal. Two years later he moved to ITV, helping front London Weekend Television’s football coverage on The Big Match as well as commentating for it.

The panel is born

The first major tournament for Moore with ITV was the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. But he would be staying in London, hosting the coverage rather than commentating. If he felt any disappointment at not doing commentary then it would be softened by the rave reviews the station received for its revolutionary panel. Jimmy Hill took much of the credit for the concept, but Moore fully played his part as Malcolm Allison, Pat Crerand, Derek Dougan and Bob McNab debated matters in entertaining fashion with ITV unusually winning the ratings war against the BBC.

For Moore, it set the trend. When World Cups came along he would stay at home, posing the questions to resident motormouths such as Brian Clough while Hugh Johns and then Martin Tyler voiced the biggest games instead of him. And the pattern would spread into other football coverage, particularly for midweek matches. When England played Poland in their never-to-be-forgotten qualifier at Wembley in October 1973, Moore was presenting the programme live on-site as the nation watched Sir Alf Ramsey’s side agonisingly fall short. Clough was one of the pundits and Moore eventually ran out of patience with him continually labelling Poland’s Jan Tomaszewski a “clown”, pointing his pen towards him as he reminded the outspoken panelist how the goalkeeper had made several vital saves to keep his side in the game. Clough didn’t agree, but the two Brians made for a good pairing. They may have seemed quite different as people but they worked well together and, by all accounts, enjoyed each other’s company.

Brian Moore takes Brian Clough to task over calling Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski a “clown”.

For Moore, England commentaries were a treat as his presenting duties quite often denied him the opportunity to perform the role. He did though usually get to describe the annual jousts with Scotland (shown in World of Sport hosted by Dickie Davies) among other matches each year. It was puzzling though that if Moore could be freed from presenting to go and commentate on the 1980 European Championship in Italy, why couldn’t he do so for at least part of the 1982 World Cup? And if he was allowed to fly out to Mexico to commentate on the 1986 World Cup final, then why wasn’t he able to do so a week earlier for England’s huge match against Argentina?

Perils of broadcasting abroad

When Moore did get to commentate on England, he would occasionally get a match to remember. One that would stand out was the great 2-0 win away to Brazil in June 1984, but it would be tinged with disappointment. ITV would only start showing the match at half-time, meaning the incredible goal John Barnes scored in the dying seconds of the first-half was not seen live. But Moore’s commentary of the goal for brief highlights shown at half-time has become well known. “John Barnes now… He might go all the way for England… Barnes… He’s scored and England, amazingly, are into the lead.” How cruel it wasn’t seen as it happened.

Foreign ventures could at times prove fraught. In 1985 Moore was in Mexico to see England play Italy as part of preparations for the World Cup a year later. But as his commentary began he sounded like a man commentating from deep inside a cave, eventually being cut off for 20 minutes as Martin Tyler filled in from London while attempts were made to solve the problems. Moore was then left to commentate down a telephone from the back of the commentary box. Sometimes a commentator’s life isn’t as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be!

Focusing on commentating

Moore was relieved of his presenting duties with Midweek Sports Special in the summer of 1986 and he was now free to focus on commentating (a reduction in his workload which he believed may have helped save his live after he was diagnosed with heart trouble). For the next two years he regularly described England matches – ITV tended to alternate games with the BBC – including the 4-1 win away to Yugoslavia that took them through to Euro ’88. While there, England flopped and Moore was commentating live for their opening defeat by the Republic of Ireland.

Two years later, the only England match ITV exclusively showed live at Italia ’90 was a poor 1-1 draw against the Irish with Moore commentating. But he would also commentate live on England’s three nerve-jangling knockout matches, hailing the “fantastic finale” as David Platt volleyed in a dramatic late winner against Belgium before telling us that “England sad, sad, sadly are out” after Chris Waddle’s penalty was missed against West Germany. In between he would try to talk Ron Atkinson out of trouble when his regular co-commentator made a remark that some might have considered racist during England’s win over Cameroon. Although Moore’s work had gone unappreciated by many due to England’s knockout matches also being live on the BBC, he could feel pride that he had finally commentated on them for ITV at a World Cup – and it had been their most epic adventure since 1966.

“He’s gonna flick one”

In October 1993 England visited the Netherlands for a vital World Cup qualifier. With Norway out in front, one of the two traditional heavyweights in the group would fail to make the finals as runners-up. ITV had secured the rights to the match, arguably the biggest England had played since the Italia ’90 semi-final. For ITV it was a rare opportunity to show England outside of a major tournament, the BBC having secured the exclusive terrestrial rights to the FA Cup and most England matches in 1988.

Moore and Ron Atkinson described the gripping and controversial contest, being adamant Ronald Koeman should have been red carded when the Dutchman hauled back David Platt. A few minutes later the Dutch were awarded a free-kick at the opposite end, to be taken by Koeman. “What an irony it would be if he scored with this when he should have been off the field,” said Moore. If that seemed perceptive given what was to follow, then his line as Koeman strode up for a retake (after his initial effort was charged down) has gone into legend.

Sensing Koeman was lining up differently to how he struck his trademark powerful free-kicks, Moore told viewers: “He’s gonna flick one now. He’s gonna flick one. He’s gonna flick one. And it’s in.” It was a moment of despair for England, but one of pride for Moore. He had been confident over what Koeman was about to do, so much so he said it three times. As an England fan he hadn’t wanted the ball to go in (he said “come on England, let’s see if we can hold it up again” just seconds beforehand), but the line would recalled for years to come. “He was breaking all the rules of broadcasting in anticipating something that might not happen,” wrote ITV colleague Clive Tyldesley after Moore died in 2001. “But he was spot on.”

Moore next commentated on England during Euro ’96, covering all their five matches including two ITV showed exclusively live. The following year ITV took over the contract for terrestrial coverage of England and the FA Cup, with Moore commentating for delayed coverage on England’s famous 0-0 draw with Italy that took them through to the 1998 World Cup. The tournament would mark the end for Moore after three decades with ITV as he prepared to hang up his microphone.

A dramatic ending

Although the 1998 World Cup final would be his last match, perhaps his true finale would be the momentous second round match between Argentina and England. Unlike the final this was exclusively live on ITV and it attracted a huge audience, with the watching millions experiencing a night of high emotion. He provided fitting words for Michael Owen’s brilliant goal (“it’s a great run by Michael Owen and he might finish it off… It’s a wonderful goal”) and summed up the agony over David Beckham’s sending off with a simple “oh no”.

Unfortunately Moore’s last act commentating on England would see him come in for some criticism. David Batty stepped forward to take England’s fifth kick in the shoot-out, needing to score to force sudden death with Moore sounding anxious about the fact Batty had never netted for his country. Connecting that his co-commentator Kevin Keegan had managed Batty at Newcastle United, he decided to put him on the spot just seconds before the penalty was taken as he sought reassurance. “Now you know him better than anyone, probably. Do you back him to score? Quickly, yes or no?” Keegan said yes, but he’d been backed into a corner where it was the only answer he could really give (imagine the slagging off he’d have got if he had said no and Batty then scored). Almost instantly Batty saw his effort saved as Moore described England’s third shoot-out exit from a major tournament in the 1990s. Moore’s England years were over, but it was an enthralling match to end with.

Sadly, Moore would not get long to enjoy his semi-retirement (he continued to perform some broadcasting duties but was no longer commentating). He died on September 1, 2001, the day when England memorably beat Germany 5-1. Tributes poured in for Moore and many would reflect on how much he would have enjoyed the match. One could certainly imagine him giving it the trademark “and it’s in there” as Michael Owen equalised; saying “and England go into the lead and what a way to do it” when Steven Gerrard drove in the second goal; and proclaiming it as “a truly wonderful night for England fans everywhere” as the goals continued in the second half.

While with ITV, Moore endured 30 years of hurt so far as covering England was concerned as they failed to win a major trophy or even reach a final. But there had been plenty of memorable moments along the way, getting to commentate on two epic semi-finals. His successor Clive Tyldesley has never even got to do that. Moore was a friend of the people and is sadly missed by many.

Six of the Best – Recent England nostalgic documentaries

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The year 2016 hasn’t been on to savour for England fans, with the team performing dismally at the European Championship and crashing out to Iceland. But while contemporary matters have made for painful viewing, there has been far more fun to be gained from a plethora of fresh documentaries concerning memorable times in England’s history. Today (in no particular order) we look at six we’ve enjoyed recently…

The Boys of ’66 (Sky Sports)

Kicking off a year full of documentaries concerning 1966 nostalgia was Sky Sports with its The Boys of ’66 programme. Although the broadcast was overshadowed by the companion Monday Night Football show claiming to prove Geoff Hurst’s second goal really did cross the line, this documentary was well worth acclaim in its own right. Sky Sports may be synonymous with football in the Premier League era, but a strong number of personnel from 1966 were interviewed – several of the players, plus others such as singer Chris Farlowe who occupied the number one UK singles spot with Out of Time when England won the World Cup

Martin Tyler, who lived through the triumph, proved a good choice as presenter. He would revisit places associated with the tournament such as England’s base of Hendon Hall. “It was a great time to be alive. It was a fantastic time to follow England. And 50 years on there’s never been anything like it,” he said during his intro to the programme while standing outside Wembley. Sadly, it’s an ever-decreasing percentage of the population who can recall the day – and it may be some time yet before such glory is repeated.

  • The programme can be viewed here via DailyMotion.

Alfie’s Boys (BBC)

One of the most enjoyable documentaries lately was Alfie’s Boys, another programme celebrating the 50th anniversary of England’s triumph. With any 1966 retrospective there’s a danger of going over the same old ground and offering little fresh insight, but the BBC made excellent use of its archives and included some footage probably not seen anywhere in the past 50 years. It helped make for a far more enjoyable 90 minutes than many of the matches at Euro 2016.

As the title suggests the programme celebrated those who helped England to their greatest triumph under Sir Alf Ramsey, but the focus was not just on the XI who played in the final with the likes of Jimmy Armfield and Ian Callaghan frequently contributing their memories to this Sunday night nostalgia-fest. Although there was some criticism of the choice of Sir David Jason (a man with seemingly limited interest in football) as presenter and his rather theatrical approach at times, this was still an enjoyable watch that did justice to the 1966 triumph. It was probably the most comprehensive BBC look back at the 1966 glory since its Summer of ’66 series in 1986 – and as we shall see with our next two entries, celebrating tournaments 20 years earlier remains in vogue today…

When Football Came Home (BBC)

The build-up to Euro 2016 saw a sudden surge in nostalgia for Euro ’96 held in England 20 years ago. The BBC certainly seemed to want to pay homage to the tournament by showing England’s matches against Scotland and Germany in full on the red button. But its main celebration of the competition – or at least England’s involvement in it – was Alan Shearer’s documentary When Football Came Home, as the tournament’s top scorer met up with several other key English personnel from 20 years ago to share their memories.

He visited former manager Terry Venables at his hotel in Spain, was reunited with Paul Gascoigne, enjoyed a round of golf with old striking partner Teddy Sheringham and went for a stroll with David Seaman. For those old enough to remember them in their prime, perhaps the most welcome sight was former BBC commentary rivals Barry Davies and John Motson being interviewed together. A companion radio show of the same name, hosted by Mike Ingham on 5 Live with Shearer one of the studio guests, was also enjoyable.

The Summer Football Came Home (ITV)

ITV also looked back 20 years with The Summer Football Came Home. It’s a shame so many enjoyable ITV sport documentaries are broadcast on ITV4 after the watershed, meaning they go unappreciated by the mainstream audience. This one would be scheduled the same way and also have the misfortune to go out a few days after the BBC had looked back at Euro ’96. But it was still good to watch, with several England players from the tournament sharing their thoughts including Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce (who both for whatever reason did not contribute to the BBC show). Those who don’t buy into the Euro ’96 love-in may have found England’s achievements a little overplayed in the documentaries, but ITV did at least question if errors were made as they lost out to Germany on penalties.

Pearce was full of praise for Venables but believed a mistake was made when it came to Southgate being first up for England when the penalties went to sudden death. “Football should be more than just practising penalties,” he told presenter Gabriel Clarke. “At the end of it it should be a case of knowing full well who are the best penalty takers from one to 23 and we never done (sic) that.” One senses Venables too would not be putting Southgate up to take it with the benefit of hindsight.

The Hand of God – 30 Years On

In a year of landmark anniversaries for England fans, the World Cup of 1986 has tended to be overshadowed by the World Cup glory of 1966 and near-miss of Euro ’96. But the 30th anniversary of Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal for Argentina against England certainly did not pass unnoticed, with ITV4 screening an excellent documentary looking back at the match. Gary Lineker’s production company Goalhanger Films was behind it, with Lineker joined by former team-mates Terry Butcher, Glenn Hoddle, Steve Hodge, Kenny Sansom and Peter Shilton to relive the tournament and this match in particular. Excellent use was made of the ITV sport archives, with clips played of studio coverage from 30 years ago such as from Saint and Greavsie.


“He cheated us but I’ve forgiven him,” said Lineker, a man who has enjoyed time in Maradona’s company since the incident. But others are less forgiving. “He’s a horrible git ‘cos he cheated,” snapped Sansom, while Butcher – who has never seemed to be the forgive and forget type – would label Maradona a “flawed genius”. Butcher recalled asking Maradona afterwards, while being drug tested, if it was a handball or header and being told handball – a revelation which surprised his former team-mates. But this contradicts what Butcher said in the 2000 documentary ‘Three Lions’, in which he claimed Maradona indicated to him he had used his head. Irrespective, it’s fair to assume Maradona isn’t on Butcher’s Christmas card list. The officials also came in for their fair share of stick. Lineker believed the linesman saw something but still kept his flag down, while the debate continues to rage over whether the referee was suitably experienced to be in charge of such a match.

The camaraderie among the group was still there three decades on along with visible affection for Sir Bobby Robson, in a programme that did justice to England’s campaign and that one match in particular.

  • UK viewers can currently view the programme at the ITV Hub.

Bo66y (out on DVD and blu-ray)

The only one of our six documentaries not to have been screened on television and also the sole choice not specifically about England, the release of the new Bobby Moore movie Bo66y represented good timing – marking the 50th anniversary of England’s World Cup triumph and also with West Ham United this summer leaving Upton Park, where he so often played during his career. The story is fairly familiar, but that didn’t prevent this making excellent viewing as former colleagues and relatives paid homage to Moore. A combination of still being the only captain to lift a major trophy for England and having sadly died at the age of just 51 means there is an enduring fascination with Moore.

But the later years of his life will never make for happy memories, as the question continues to be asked of why he was so overlooked for desired roles within the beautiful game – his managerial pinnacle would be a stint in charge of Southend United. There remains the great ‘what if?’ over missing out on the Watford manager’s job to Graham Taylor, having believed the post was his after meeting chairman Elton John. It was a bitter blow.

Yet such disappointments pale into insignificance compared to his battles with cancer, the last one tragically cutting his life short in 1993. Commentator Jonathan Pearce was moved to tears as he recalled having to tell his regular radio sidekick Moore – at the request of his family – that he shouldn’t come with him to a match just days before his death, having to live with Moore telling him he was disappointed with the decision (they never spoke again). As with a previous in-depth Moore documentary Hero, the viewer is left with the feeling that English football only truly began to appreciate and want to recognise the former captain after he died. For Moore it was too late, but his legendary status continues to grow.

Have you seen these documentaries? Which ones have you particularly enjoyed? Please feel free to share your views below…

TV Memories of Mexico ’86 (part two)

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Last week we looked back at British TV coverage during the opening stages of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico 30 years ago. Today we focus on the knockout rounds, including a match involving England that will never be forgotten…

“Negrete-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e”

The 1986 World Cup was the first to introduce a last 16 knockout phase and every match from this point on – bar the third place play-off – was shown live on British television. Highlights in the second round included an epic 4-3 win for Belgium over the Soviet Union, the Euro ’84 winners France beating World Cup holders Italy 2-0 and the much-fancied Denmark being surprisingly crushed 5-1 by Spain.

But the standout moment arguably involved the hosts, as Mexico defeated Bulgaria 2-0 and Manuel Negrete scored with a spectacular scissors kick. BBC commentator Barry Davies was so in awe of the goal that he would cry “Negrete-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e”, prolonging the final syllable of the player’s name. “I gave a passable imitation of a Latin American commentator,” he wrote rather proudly in his autobiography.

The generic caption shown around the world after Manuel Negrete scored for Mexico against Bulgaria.

Despite failing to win their group, England were up against one of the weaker surviving nations in the last 16 in Paraguay and duly beat them 3-0 as excitement grew about their chances. The match was screened live by both the BBC and ITV, the latter enjoying unusually high ratings in a head-to-head fight after going on air straight after a high-profile episode of Coronation Street in which the Rovers Return burnt down.

But attention quickly turned to what next lay in store for England – a Sunday showdown with Argentina. Just four years on from the Falklands War, the political connotations of the fixture would be frequently raised at press conferences. England’s new goalscoring hero Gary Lineker simply said in a TV interview: “We’re footballers, not politicians.” But there was no doubting this match would attract a particularly high level of interest.

They’re appealing for offside”

On June 22, England met Argentina in the Azteca Stadium for a match that would never be forgotten. Once again the BBC and ITV were both showing it live, as millions back home tuned in for the 7pm kick-off (BST). There wasn’t much to get excited about in the first half, but in the infancy of the second period the game turned on Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal. Davies spotted England players protesting and jumped to the wrong conclusion over why they were complaining.

How the team line-ups were presented during Mexico ’86, with this being England’s side against Argentina.

“They’re appealing for offside,” he told viewers, still concluding that was the source of England’s annoyance until action replays showed it wasn’t. ITV’s commentary team were quicker on the uptake. “Everyone knows,” said co-commentator David Pleat. “HE certainly knows,” responded Martin Tyler, as Maradona celebrated the goal being given.

In his autobiography, Davies held his hands up for calling it wrong and reminded us of the lack of technology he had at his disposal in the stadium. He wrote: “It was a match of magnificence and malevolence, marred for me not only by the manner of the first goal but by the fact that, like the referee and linesman, I didn’t spot the handball. Some of the replays were cut in, unseen by me, for me to commentate, with the voice from London in my ear saying ‘They’re going up for the ball now, there’s the hand’, and so on’.” Viewers were certainly given plenty of chances to see it again, this being a World Cup where the goals would be replayed from three different angles (this was considered quite an advanced move at the time).

TV replays helped confirm Diego Maradona had handled the ball.

Within minutes, Maradona scored another unforgettable goal after a mesmerising dribble that began in his own half. Davies redeemed himself with his celebrated line of “you have to say that’s magnificent”. Few would argue with that, as Davies proclaimed the goal as “pure football genius” to emphasise the contrast from Maradona’s first. Over on ‘the other side’ (as people would still say at the time), Tyler was immediately proclaiming it as one of the World Cup’s great goals.

After this the game threatened to fizzle out until substitute John Barnes provided a perfect cross for Lineker to score. But it would be a near-replica move with time ticking away that stuck in the mind more. As Barnes won the ball, Davies said: “Every Englishman will surely be saying ‘go on, run at them’.” Barnes whipped the perfect cross into the box where Lineker lay in waiting. Davies and Tyler both instinctively proclaimed it was a goal before abruptly realising Argentina had somehow kept the ball out. And that was just about that, those painful words we hear every four years of “and England are out of the World Cup” duly uttered by Davies at full-time.

Graphics shown at the final whistle as England were eliminated.

For Bobby Robson the World Cup dream was over, as he digested Maradona’s first goal being given when he believed he had clearly seen a hand used. “Maradona handled the ball into the goal, didn’t he?” he asked rhetorically during a televised press conference, as his anger grew. “DIDN’T HE?” It was a debate that would continue for years. But England departed after a quarter-final weekend in which the match between France and Brazil had proved particularly enthralling.

An awkward ending

The quarter-finals were generally more memorable than the semi-finals, which were less dramatic than in some World Cups. West Germany’s 2-0 win over France lacked the sparkle of their classic meeting four years earlier and Argentina were fairly untroubled in beating Belgium 2-0. But Maradona’s two goals again got everyone talking, particularly about another superbly taken second. “Fantastic goal. Unbelievable. World class,” purred John Motson, commentating live for the BBC.

ITV bill the 1986 World Cup final.

The final was as usual screened live by both the BBC and ITV, with Brian Moore at last commentating for ITV on a World Cup match from the stadium as he went out to Mexico just for the final. It was a bit of an odd idea. Moore had stayed in London due to being the lead presenter but it seemed he could be spared this role for the showpiece occasion of the final, yet not for the Argentina-England match a week earlier. It also meant Tyler, who commentated on the final four years earlier and had covered England’s matches during the finals, was denied the opportunity to describe the 1986 final. For Moore it was a taste of things to come, as he was axed from his role as host of Midweek Sports Special this year and he was now left to focus on commentating.

There was also the delicate situation for ITV of having both Bobby Robson and Kevin Keegan on their final coverage at the stadium after they infamously fell out shortly after Robson became England manager. Moore recalled in his autobiography that the pair were based in different parts of the ground, meaning they would not have any contact during the broadcast (Robson claimed in his World Cup Diary the pair had shaken hands a few days earlier when they bumped into each other, perhaps suggesting they could have worked together on the final).

No such problems over on the BBC, where John Motson was commentating with Jimmy Hill accompanying him in the commentary box. Des Lynam was joined by regular pundits Lawrie McMenemy and Terry Venables along with Lineker, who was hoping to end the night as top scorer in the World Cup. Prior to kick-off, viewers could enjoy the top 20 goals from the finals with Maradona’s second against England topping the bill.

The final saw Argentina lead 2-0, be pegged back to 2-2 before Jorge Burruchaga scored a late winner as they won the World Cup for the second time. “The world’s greatest player receives the world’s most important football prize,” said Motson as Maradona collected the trophy. It was a tournament Maradona had owned, although his failure to score in the final meant Lineker won the Golden Boot.

Lineker’s stock was rapidly growing and there was increasing speculation he would be off to Barcelona, managed by Venables. With both men in the studio, Lynam couldn’t resist asking if the deal would be going ahead. After Venables had expressed his hopes for the move proceeding, McMenemy grumpily told the others “I think you’re all out of order” for bringing the subject up – telling Lynam he should have been asking Everton manager Howard Kendall instead. 

McMenemy’s outburst meant the conversation now felt pretty awkward and any Evertonians watching would have not felt assured that Lineker planned to stick around when he simply told Lynam: “I shall be playing for the team I want to be playing for next season.” To the surprise of few, Lineker duly completed his move to Barcelona. It had been a life-changing tournament for him, setting him on the way to later hosting Match of the Day.

Do you have any favourite memories of the TV coverage from the 1986 World Cup? If so, please feel free to share them below.

TV Memories of Mexico ’86 (part one)

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The end of this month will mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. In the first of a few blog posts recalling that tournament, we reflect on the TV coverage as seen in England during the early stages of the competition…

Striking (Aztec) Gold

There seems to be something about World Cups in Mexico that brings out the best in ITV. In 1970 they famously enjoyed great popularity with their celebrated expert panel and now, 16 years later, their theme tune would be a winner. A good measure of how successful ITV’s tournament theme tunes were in this period was how much they were heard thereafter. If that is the barometer then Aztec Gold by Silsoe was certainly a winner. The catchy tune went on to be used by ITV for their live domestic coverage in the next two years and again during Euro ’88, before serving the opening titles of Saint & Greavsie until 1992. But its main association would always be with where it all began – Mexico ’86.

ITV’s opening titles for the Mexico ’86 coverage.

The BBC went for a similar title for their theme tune, with Aztec Lightning by Heads. The song would fail to make the impact Nessun Dorma did four years later, although the opening titles seemed quite advanced at the time. This was the first major football tournament hosted by Des Lynam, whose laid-back style had already won admirers on Grandstand. He presented from London in a studio surrounded by pot plants, with Emlyn Hughes, Lawrie McMenemy and Terry Venables among the regular summarisers plus a pre-Sky Sports Andy Gray. George Best was billed as a pundit, bus alas was a no-show.

Des Lynam was the host of BBC’s live coverage of Mexico ’86.

Not getting off to a sound start

As England prepared to begin their World Cup campaign against Portugal on June 3, there was hysteria in the press that the match could go untelevised back home. This wasn’t due to a contractual dispute like the one that had led to a blackout of Football League action in the first half of the 1985-86 season, but because of serious transmission problems that blighted the opening couple of days of the competition.

“We can only keep our fingers crossed,” said BBC editor Bob Abrahams, no doubt fearing the barrage of calls to the switchboard if there was a loss of picture or sound when England played. The match between Brazil and Spain on the second day had brought the most noticeable technical problems, to the extent that Brian Moore and Brian Clough ended up commentating for ITV from the London studio in place of the on-site commentators. But the UK could be grateful for small mercies. We could at least see the pictures, for some other countries the consequences of the technical problems were such that viewers couldn’t even enjoy that luxury.

Terry Wogan’s chat show was considered a bigger ratings winner than live World Cup action.

The England match went on air as planned and soon enough the coverage of the tournament was resolved for everyone to enjoy. However, it would not quite be a case of wall-to-wall football. In the early stages of the competition there were usually two matches played simultaneously at 7pm (BST), yet British audiences were frequently afforded just live coverage of the second half of one and brief highlights of the other. Shows such as Wogan (BBC) and Coronation Street (ITV) took precedence over the first half of these matches, with exceptions such as when UK sides played at that time. The 11pm kick-offs proved less of a burden to programme controllers, World Cup action probably seen as a welcome audience puller at that time of night. But less than half the group stage matches were shown live in full in the UK, which perhaps reminds us where football stood in its dark days of the mid-1980s.

Chortling with delight

England’s participation in the group stage proved fraught, as the millions of viewers who stayed up for three matches at 11pm – only one of the games being at a weekend – went through a wide range of emotions. They lost 1-0 in the first match against Portugal, prompting BBC pundit Emlyn Hughes to be very critical in his post-match analysis and sparking a war of words with England manager Bobby Robson.

The second match against Morocco brought more disappointment with a 0-0 draw and the loss within minutes of injured captain Bryan Robson and red carded vice-captain Ray Wilkins. “It’s problems upon problems for England,” said ITV commentator Martin Tyler, cutting off co-commentator David Pleat in full flow as he saw Wilkins receive his marching orders. The BBC’s Barry Davies typically ramped up the melodrama at that moment in his highlights commentary, describing it as “disaster upon disaster for England”. Whatever the scale of one’s concern, England were in trouble.

Things certainly looked bleak, but England could still make the last 16 as long as they achieved a result against Poland in their final group game. It was the BBC’s turn to show it live and in the opening minutes Davies was castigating England’s defending as they almost fell behind. But soon that would be forgotten as Gary Lineker gave them the breakthrough, accompanied by millions of viewers hearing co-commentator Jimmy Hill chortling with delight. It was a pivotal moment as England’s campaign at last got into swing. Hill could be heard again celebrating as Lineker put England 2-0 up, with his hat-trick completed before half-time as they won 3-0. Davies had been on form, save for his corny line of “never mind the sunshine and the altitude, it’s raining goals” as Steve Hodge put the ball in the net – only for the goal to be disallowed. But England were finally up and running.

“Even educated bees do it”

ITV employed a decent range of pundits for the tournament in their London studio, including former England colleagues Mick Channon and Kevin Keegan. Channon would leave his mark on the competition with his amusing inability to say Lineker correctly. “Linacre” was one effort; “Lyneacre” was another. It seemed almost as if he had been hypnotised into not being able to say the player’s name correctly! “We’ve got a month to get you to say Lineker properly for a start,” joked host Brian Moore during ITV’s preview show. It became a running joke during the coverage.


Mick Channon (right), pictured with Kevin Keegan.

Channon would also feature during another memorable moment in ITV’s tournament coverage. Brian Clough was again on the panel during this World Cup and as unpredictable as ever. During one discussion, Channon was offering his view that: “The Irish have done it. The French do it. The West Germans do it. We don’t.” The opportunity was too good for Clough to miss. “Even educated bees do it,” he quipped, to great laughter from Moore.

St John gets the blues

Scotland had the misfortune to be placed in a group with 1982 runners-up West Germany, highly-rated Denmark and Uruguay, who were tipped by some beforehand as a potential winner. The Scots, under caretaker boss Alex Ferguson after Jock Stein sadly died suddenly the previous year, lost to both the Danes and Germans but the new format of the competition meant they still stood a chance of progression going into their match against the Uruguayans. A win would do it.

Hopes that Scotland could get the win intensified when Uruguay were reduced to 10 men within the opening minute, setting the trend for a physical 90 minutes. Scotland had the numerical advantage but couldn’t make the breakthrough, leaving ITV pundit Ian St John a frustrated man as he watched in in the studio. Secretly he was being recorded and clips showing his anguish were played for the amusement of viewers a few days later to Elton John’s I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues. At least the footage reminded us that many pundits are in essence just like us while the match is on, feeling the same emotions and frustrations if things don’t go the way they want.

The Scots once more went out after falling just short in their final group game, with Uruguay a new enemy for those north of the border. One particularly despondent fan told a TV interviewer: “I hate England. But if England get to play Uruguay I’ll support England, because that’s how much I hate Uruguay.” The Scot was no doubt cheered up in the next round when Uruguay lost to Argentina, saving him from having to cheer on the Sassenachs in the quarter-finals!

Also sadly making an early exit with Scotland were Northern Ireland, unable to repeat their heroics of four years earlier but still putting up a decent fight in the Mexican heat. Their World Cup was probably best remembered for Pat Jennings (on his 41st birthday) conceding a stunning goal to Brazil’s Josimar. “Oh what a goal,” screamed BBC commentator John Motson, as the world briefly got all excited about Josimar before he faded into obscurity.

When we return to this subject shortly, we will recall TV coverage of the knockout rounds including that unforgettable match between England and Argentina.

Faces of ’66 – Kenneth Wolstenholme

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In the second of our posts focusing on individuals who had life-changing years in 1966 thanks to the World Cup, we look at the man who became known as the ‘voice’ of the tournament – Kenneth Wolstenholme. The BBC commentator’s immortal words as Geoff Hurst completed his hat-trick in the final will be forever recalled and earned Wolstenholme lasting fame, but they failed to stop the clock soon ticking on his days at the BBC…

We have previously wondered how differently things might have been if West Germany hadn’t equalised in the dying seconds of the 1966 World Cup final. There would have been no hat-trick for Geoff Hurst, no ‘Russian’ linesman (more on him in the near-future) and these magical words would almost certainly never have been uttered by Kenneth Wolstenholme: “Some people are on the pitch… they think it’s all over… it is now.”

The phrase has become known by millions, footage of Hurst’s third goal to make it 4-2 in the 1966 final not seeming right if it isn’t accompanied by Wolstenholme’s commentary. Wolsteholme had been saying: “And here comes Hurst, he’s got…”. Suddenly his attention was drawn from the forward bearing down on goal to fans running onto the playing surface. Although there was nothing particularly exceptional about pointing out that some people were on the pitch thinking the final whistle had sounded, the timing of the words as Hurst then scored and Wolstenholme uttered “it is now” meant they fitted perfectly. 

For Wolstenholme it was a line that would earn him lasting fame and he became almost as synonymous with England’s triumph as their 11 players in the final (poor old Hugh Johns was left to simply be the answer to the quiz question of ‘who commentated for ITV on the 1966 World Cup final?’). “He was one of us,” said England’s Martin Peters when talking about Wolstenholme.

Wolstenholme followed it up with another famous set of words as Bobby Moore went to collect the Jules Rimet Trophy. “It is only 12 inches high… solid gold… and it means England are the world champions.” It was simple but telling and Wolstenholme later said he felt greater pride over this phrase than “they think it’s all over”. But the latter line would be the one he would forever be known for. If the BBC quiz show Pointless asked 100 people to name a Kenneth Wolstenholme commentary moment, it’s fair to assume the vast majority would give that as their answer.

At the time he said it, nobody could have envisaged just how celebrated the phrase would become in decades to come – least of all the commentator. “I never realised my 1966 words would have such an impact,” he recalled years later. “They didn’t at the time, all the talk was about winning the World Cup and nobody gave a tuppeny stuff what anyone had said on television or what the coverage had been like. But BBC2 repeated the match later in the year and it was after that, when people were watching it already knowing the result, that the words came out and hit them.”

War hero turned commentary star

Wolstenholme could quite feasibly have not lived to enjoy his commentary fame, having put his life on the line serving as a bomber pilot in the Second World War. He thankfully emerged unscathed and with the Distinguished Flying Cross to his name. After being demobbed he established himself as the BBC’s top football commentator and covered the World Cups of 1954, 1958 and 1962. In August 1964 he both hosted and commentated on the first edition of Match of the Day but the following January he was hospitalised after a health scare.

Mercifully he pulled through and, after a period of absence, returned to the commentary box. He was back to full form long before the 1966 World Cup began. He covered all England’s matches, including the controversial quarter-final win over Argentina when Jimmy Hill was alongside him as ‘summariser’. Paying tribute after Wolstenholme died, Hill went so far as to say: “It was like, for me, sitting there with God.” That perhaps gives some indication of just how highly regarded Wolstenhome was at his peak.

Despite this new-found acclamation from beyond his regular MOTD viewers after 1966, Wolstenholme’s days as the BBC’s top football man were soon under-threat. So much so that he never commentated on another England World Cup match. As black and white coverage gave way to colour television in the late 1960s, Wolstenholme’s face – or more appropriately his voice – no longer seemed to fit at the Beeb.

David Coleman, already well-established as a sports broadcaster, was in growing demand as a football commentator and at the 1970 World Cup he was to describe England’s matches. Given that England were the defending champions and the big ratings winner back home, that says much about how the balance of power was tipping away from Wolstenholme just four years on from his greatest day.

Wolstenholme was due to commentate on the final, but there was a potential collision course if England were involved in it as Coleman would then be the wanted man. For Wolstenholme it was time to act. “I paid for counsel’s opinion,” he later recalled. “They read my contract and said if the BBC wanted to give the commentary to anybody else I could have had an injunction, which would have been very nasty.”

England’s collapse in the quarter-final against West Germany meant the anticipated row never erupted, but the die had been cast. Wolstenholme waxed lyrical about the “sheer delightful football” Brazil played in beating Italy in the final, but when it came to renegotiating his contract a year later he found the BBC wanted to remove the clause that he covered World Cup and FA Cup finals. It proved the last straw and Wolstenholme left the corporation just five years on from 1966 and shortly before his 51st birthday. His BBC days really were all over.

Life after the Beeb

In the present day, a commentator of Wolstenholme’s stature would almost certainly have been snapped up by a satellite broadcaster. But there was no such option in an era when viewers had just the choice of BBC or ITV. He was later to commentate on weekly highlights for the ITV’s regional North-East channel Tyne-Tees. There were worse gigs to have than covering matches in a football-mad region, but he was hardly being heard across the nation every week. In the rest of the country the match would be afforded brief highlights or nothing at all. Wolstenholme left Tyne-Tees in 1979, but when Channel 4 began covering Italian football in 1992 his voice returned to our screens on a regular basis as he rounded-up the latest Serie A action.

In the 1990s Wolstenholme’s most famous line became the title for BBC comedy quiz show They Think It’s All OverWolstenholme complained about its use and it wasn’t the only time he would get protective over the phrase being applied. Its presence in a dog food advert particularly rankled. “I just can’t see what the phrase has to do with dog food,” he argued. “I am pretty proud of that phrase and it annoys me to see others pinching it and living off it.” It was surprisingly immodest stuff from Wolstenholme, although criticism could often be found coming from his lips in later years regarding the way he believed football commentary was going.

Tributes galore

Wolstenholme died in March 2002, aged 81. The tributes flooded in, particularly from the England stars of ’66. Sir Bobby Charlton said: “He loved the game and he was good at what he did. He had a marvellous voice which everybody remembers, and of course, those very famous words. He created the picture. 1966 was not just about the players, it was about Kenneth Wolstenholme as well.”

Criticisms of present-day commentary did not stop many of Wolstenholme’s successors paying tribute, including Barry Davies. Speaking of the commentary great, Davies said: “He had a great voice and knew when to use it and when to remain silent. He produced the definitive line of commentary at the most important moment in the history of English football – ‘They think it’s all over, it is now’.”

Wolstenholme’s commentary career was about far more than just one line, covering numerous memorable matches at both international and club level. But it was ultimately what he would be defined by. Wherever you looked after his death, a single piece of commentary on a July afternoon 36 years earlier was being talked about. And being synonymous with his own nation’s most glorious football moment wasn’t a bad way to be remembered.