Barry Davies

Barry Davies – the England years (part two)

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Last month we began our look back at the England commentary career of Barry Davies, covering the period up until the 1986 World Cup. Now we focus on the years after that until he brought his football commentary career to a close in 2004…

“Thank you very much”

After the drama of the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, England’s next major tournament would bring far fewer memorable moments to commentate on. Davies may have been exclaiming “magic moments for the Republic of Ireland” as they beat England at Euro ’88, but there weren’t many from an English perspective as Bobby Robson’s side lost every game – Davies describing ‘highlights’ of two of their losses. The pressure was mounting on Robson, with Davies seeing that in person after a much-criticised 1-1 draw away to Saudi Arabia in November 1988. In the previous part we recalled how Don Revie remonstrated with Davies over comments he made in 1977 and now Robson would do likewise, taking exception to what he had to say surrounding Brian Marwood only being brought on for the closing minutes. “Impertinent,” was the term Robson called Davies afterwards, even the wordsmith commentator admitting in his memoirs he hadn’t heard the term since his schooldays.

But Robson would ride out the storm and take England to Italia ’90, Davies commentating on the unconvincing 0-0 draw in Poland in October 1989 that sealed qualification. The following April he was at Wembley for the friendly against Czechoslovakia in which Paul Gascoigne turned it on to book his place on the trip to Italy. “Thank you very much,” said Davies as Gazza capped the night with a well-taken finish in the closing minutes to seal a 4-2 win. Now all eyes turned towards Italy and what would turn out to be one of England’s most memorable tournaments…

“Never a more vital penalty for England”

Italia ’90 would see Davies commentate live three times on England, the first being the group stage win over Egypt that took them through and the last seeing him cover the third-place match against Italy in which he melodramatically howled “oh no, oh no” as the Italians were awarded the decisive late penalty. But the England match at Italia ’90 which saw Davies saw leave a lasting legacy was the quarter-final against Cameroon. On a night that presenter Des Lynam unusually fluffed his lines, Davies was on top of his game.

Davies saw England go ahead, then watched on as Cameroon took control and went 2-1 up. But in the closing minutes England were awarded a penalty, one which Gary Lineker realistically had to score to keep Robson’s side in the tournament. For Davies, a man who was masterful at conveying sport as theatre, this was his moment. “Never a more vital penalty for England,” said the commentator, almost whispering the words to stress the tension like Ted Lowe would at the Crucible. Then Lineker converted and the joyous relief followed. “It’s all square,” Davies exclaimed, later going on to describe another Lineker penalty as England won 3-2.

“Brilliant, brilliant goal”

Two years after the drama of following England at Italia ’90 came the tedium of covering them at Euro ’92. Davies was holding the microphone for BBC highlights of England’s second game against France. Not that there were many. “The most sterile defensive international I’ve ever covered,” was his damning assessment in his autobiography of the bore draw. Three days later he commentated live on a more memorable England game, but not a happier one as the side surrendered the lead against hosts Sweden to exit the tournament. He would watch on with surprise as Graham Taylor hauled off Gary Lineker, then wax lyrical as Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin linked up superbly for the former to score the winner. “Brilliant, brilliant goal,” he proclaimed, as the ball was deftly placed out of Chris Woods’ reach.

The tide was turning against Taylor and the ill-fated attempt to qualify for the 1994 World Cup followed. Davies covered a rare highlight with the 3-0 win over Poland in September 1993, as he mused over the passage of 20 years since THAT match between the sides in the same stadium. But the victory only kept England in with a chance rather than giving them the advantage and defeat to the Dutch the following month effectively ended hopes. On the last night of qualifying Davies unexpectedly found himself performing a live commentary, as the BBC turned away from England’s increasingly meaningless win in San Marino to the closing stages of the vital match between Wales and Romania which he was covering.

It would symbolise a changing of the guard, as the balance of power finally tipped towards Davies and he was given the 1994 World Cup final as well as the two subsequent FA Cup finals. The Euro ’96 final would go to John Motson, but it says much for the esteem Davies was held in at the time that he would get to cover both England knockout games during a momentous tournament on home soil.

“This is unbelievable stuff”

There was a long wait for England fans to see competitive action between November 1993 and June 1996, Davies at least getting to enjoy Graeme Le Saux’s screamer against Brazil and Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick save when Colombia visited Wembley in 1995. Come the tournament, Davies covered four of England’s five matches – the only one he missed being the win over Scotland. During the group stage he commentated for highlights on the frustrating draw with Switzerland and tremendous win over the Netherlands.

But it was the knockout phase where he got his big chance. The quarter-final against Spain was his and exclusively live on the BBC. What threatened to be after the Lord Mayor’s Show as England rode their luck just to stay in the game ended with national joy as they won a “penalty competition” (as Davies liked calling them). The shoot-out would forever be remembered for Stuart Pearce’s reaction after he scored. “Oh yes, what a penalty. And the relief belongs not only to this championship, but to the World Cup of 1990,” proclaimed Davies as he applied words that went well with the pictures. Who would have thought that more than 20 years later this would remain England’s only penalty-shoot-out success?

Four nights later came a huge match. England against Germany in the semi-final must surely be the biggest and most talked-about game played on English soil in the last 50 years, such was the interest in it across the country. Davies wasn’t to get the final, but his disappointment over that was significantly offset by the fact he described a far more memorable and highly viewed semi-final. It was a night when he said it best by saying little, letting the pictures tell their own story as fans sang before kick-off and simply but effectively saying “ohhhh noooo” as Gareth Southgate had his decisive spot-kick saved. “You can have nothing but sympathy,” he said of Southgate after a few moments of silence.

But it was perhaps in the enthralling first period of extra-time that Davies really stood out during the contest (to use another of his terms). Both sides refused to be inhibited by the golden goal rule and went for it. “How unlucky can you get?” Davies exclaimed as Darren Anderton struck the post, before at the other end Germany had a goal disallowed. “A country’s pulse rate must be beyond natural science,” the commentator observed as viewers across England breathed a major sigh of relief.  And then came the often-recalled moment when Gascoigne just couldn’t get a touch with the goal at his mercy. “This is unbelievable stuff,” Davies said, almost laughing as he dwelt upon the mesmerising events occurring before his eyes. It was a heartbreaking night for England, but one in which Davies could feel pride over his commentary.  

Two years later Davies covered England’s live opening match of the World Cup against Tunisia, with Paul Scholes producing a delightful curler to seal the win in the closing minutes. Davies was purring over that one but admitted he was lost for words a week later as Romania netted a late winner past David Seaman when he was describing highlights. That proved to be his last involvement on England matches out in France, as he was left to make his mark elsewhere – most memorably with his reaction to Dennis Bergkamp’s late winner for the Netherlands against Argentina.

“An utter shambles”

Euro 2000 would really mark the final real hurrah for Davies. It was to be the last time he would describe the semi-final of a major tournament, although by then England were long departed after crashing out in the group stage as Davies commentated live on their shortcomings in losing 3-2 to Romania. At the 2002 World Cup his England involvement was restricted to highlights of the forgettable 1-1 group stage draw against Sweden, as it became increasingly apparent Motson was the clear number one. “ITV were live, and welcome to it,” Davies wrote tersely of the Sweden game, as he understandably reflected on how he’d have preferred a much better final match commentating on England at a major tournament. During commentary he would brand England’s display “an utter shambles”. Davies’ last World Cup as a commentator would be mostly remembered for his castigating of the Italians as they lost to South Korea in the second round.

England’s 2-0 away win over Liechtenstein in March 2003 was hardly the most memorable game, but it turned out to be the last time Davies would commentate live on the Three Lions – even though the Beeb now held the rights to most qualifiers. By Euro 2004 Davies was increasingly on the fringes. He wrote in his autobiography: “The fact that I was not invited to commentate on a single one of England’s matches, not even recorded, made my position absolutely clear.” Davies was becoming increasingly frustrated with both his diminishing status – his place in the Beeb’s 2006 World Cup squad was not guaranteed – and the way he felt fooball broadcasting was going as Match of the Day moved away from its traditional two main games format. He rejected the BBC’s offer of a new contract and brought his football commentary career to a close when covering highlights of Manchester City against Arsenal 13 years ago this week for MOTD. Coming just days after the death of Brian Clough, it really did feel like the end of an era. 

But if they thought it was all over, then it wasn’t. Thanks to his versatility, Davies remained in demand covering a variety of other sports and even this year – just months before turning 80 – he could be heard on the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon. But his legion of fans still wished to hear him commentating on football again and in 2014 they got their wish when he was brought back by MOTD for a one-off appearance to mark the show’s 50th birthday. Even some who weren’t particularly fans of his during his heyday welcomed him back, as social media became awash with nostalgia.

But the days of Davies being one of the leading voices of football were long over.  The joys of YouTube mean it isn’t hard to find footage of his commentary, including plenty of major England matches. He covered England matches for almost 40 years. He’d described them beating West Germany in 1966 – not that one, but the friendly in February – for ITV and was still active with the BBC a few years after the Millennium as various national team managers came and went during his career. It was a long period of time by any standards. Davies provided the soundtrack to many memorable footballing moments. And sometimes you had to say it was magnificent.

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.

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.

When England had a chance of third place…

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When Brazil crashed to their astonishing 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany on Tuesday, the last thing they probably wanted was to have to stick around for another four days for the formalities of a third-fourth place play-off. Judging from Louis van Gaal’s comments that it “should never be played”, it seems the Dutch aren’t enthralled about tonight’s contest either. But has it always been like this? In one World Cup, England found themselves in the play-off when they came up against hosts Italy in 1990…

There are two main problems with the ‘consolation match’. The first is both teams are heartbroken, having just missed out on a place in the final. The last thing anybody wants to be doing when the dream has gone is to have to wait several days for another match which has no influence over the destiny of who wins the tournament. The second issue is the prize for winning this match isn’t really big enough to motivate anybody. While third place sounds a bit better than fourth, there is no glory in it and it isn’t what any team strives for. One can see the significance of the Olympic bronze medal match, but the World Cup does not work like that. The European Championship copes without such a match and so do English and European club competitions. There was an odd flirtation with it in the FA Cup for a short time in the 1970s, but that was unsurprisingly binned off.

But despite its limited reputation, the play-off match rarely fails to provide entertainment. Since 1982, every World Cup third-place match bar one has contained more goals than the following day’s final (the exception was 1998, when both matches had three goals). It has often helped players towards the Golden Boot prize and allowed others on the fringes to be rewarded for their patience with a World Cup finals appearance, as well as usually being an open contest and providing a couple of historic moments. The brilliant curling goal by Nelinho for Brazil against Italy in 1978 was one, the competition’s fastest ever goal from Hakan Sukur for Turkey against South Korea in 2002 being another (I will always regret switching my TV on about a minute into this one and missing it when it happened).

The end of an era for England
For England, the third-place match in 1990 against Italy is often forgotten amid the more famous memories of their best World Cup on foreign soil. When any documentary tells the story of that English summer, it seems somewhat anti-climatic to go from recalling the drama of the match against West Germany to the limited significance of whether England were the best of the losing semi-finalists in Italy. But we shouldn’t forget that this match marked the end of an era for two men synonymous with the England set-up.

Bobby Robson went out to the World Cup knowing his eight-year reign as manager was about to end and with his reputation still having not totally recovered from the horrors of the 1988 European Championship. England rode their luck a bit along the way, but they had gone on to reach the last four and Robson’s popularity suddenly soared. They had played with passion and produced one of their best displays in years during the semi-final against West Germany. Although it had ended in a heartbreaking penalty-shoot-out loss, England’s reputation back home was the highest it had been for a long time. Robson was left filled with a mixture of pride and regret by England coming so close, I think most of us had. But he was determined to end with a good showing against Italy.

Also coming to an end would be the England career of Peter Shilton, after 125 caps. I seem to recall his international retirement wasn’t confirmed until after the game, but it was no surprise. It was the right time to go at the age of 40. While the third-place game has been known as a chance to give fringe players a runout, Robson’s loyalty to Shilton and private knowledge he was about to retire meant he was given his final cap rather than a runout for deputy Chris Woods. The tournament would also mark the end of Terry Butcher’s England career, although he would not play in the third-place match. Both Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle were absent from the starting line-up after missing penalties against the Germans and Paul Gascoigne was suspended, as Tony Dorigo, Steve McMahon, Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens came into the side. Neil Webb would come off the bench, leaving Steve Hodge as the only England outfield player not to feature during the finals.

It was quite common in this era for the third-place match not to be shown live on British television, but in 1990 it was covered by both the BBC and ITV. This meant Barry Davies and Alan Parry would both enjoy commentating on a live England match at the World Cup far later than they might have expected, with John Motson and Brian Moore saving themselves for the final between Argentina and West Germany 24 hours later. There were some comparisons between Italy’s positions and that of Brazil now, as a World Cup host with strong football heritage who had fallen short of winning the World Cup relatively recently after doing so abroad. But Italy had, like England, suffered penalty-shoot-out heartache in the semi-final; this time around Brazil have been well and truly humiliated as hosts.

Outshining the World Cup Final
The match wasn’t a classic, but it was a reasonable, enjoyable contest between two sides wanting to end on a high. It certainly outdid the following night’s abysmal final in every positive way. The atmosphere may have been fairly low-key, but the Italians played with determination and tried several long-range shots in the first-half including a Roberto Baggio half-volley. Shilton dealt with them, appearing to justify Robson’s faith in him. At the other end Gary Lineker uncharacteristically fired in a shot from about 25 yards out as he sought to retain the Golden Boot he won in 1986.

All the goals came in the final 20 minutes. A harmless-looking backpass from McMahon saw Shilton caught in two minds between picking it up and clearing it. As he hesitated, Baggio dispossesed him and appeared to be fouled by the goalkeeper. The ref played on and Baggio capped a good tournament by putting Italy ahead. “Well that’s a terrible mistake by Peter Shilton,” said his former international team-mate Trevor Francis, co-commentating on ITV.

Summing up their battling tournament, England refused to throw in the towel and levelled as a tremendous Dorigo cross was met with a bullet header from David Platt. Bobby Robson was up off the bench and urging his players to go on and win it. But five minutes from time he was left disappointed as Toto Schillaci was adjudged to have been felled in the area by Paul Parker. “Oh no, oh no,” howled Davies in bemusement at the decision, as Robson waved his arms in disgust. Looking for his sixth goal of the tournament, Schillaci took the spot-kick and restored Italy’s lead.

England sign off from the 1990 World Cup

There was still time for an excellent looping header by Nicola Berti to be dubiously disallowed. But it didn’t affect the outcome, while the defeat wouldn’t impact on how England’s World Cup was remembered. At the final whistle, they joined their opponents for the presentation and performed the Mexico Wave together.

England were treated as heroes when they arrived back home the following day. As well as their first semi-final appearance in the World Cup overseas, they collected the Fair Play trophy. The European ban on English clubs was about to end. This was a good time to be an England fan. And nobody seemed bothered they’d lost the third-place match…