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…


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.

England on TV – Watching with Jimmy Hill

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In the latest in our occasional series looking back at past TV coverage of England matches, we recall the contribution of one man who became an almost ever-present fixture when the BBC broadcast the Three Lions from 1973 to 1998. Whether it be provoking angry reactions from the manager, howling with joy as Gary Lineker scored in the World Cup, arguing with punditry partner Terry Venables or wearing a bow tie containing the cross of St George, there was rarely a dull moment when Jimmy Hill was on our screens when England played. Whatever you thought of Hill, you couldn’t really ignore him…

Always something to say

The most common tribute paid to Hill today is “he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but…” There were plenty of people who couldn’t stand him in the days when he presented Match of the Day and he often seemed to attract impersonations which portrayed him as a rather tedious bore with a big chin. But hindsight at least has generally earned him greater respect in terms of having had courage in his convictions and trying to give a proper assessment of what he had seen. If many football experts are criticised for not appearing to truly tell it like it is, it was not a charge that could be made against Hill. It wasn’t his worry if most viewers were going to disagree with his opinion as he believed he was right anyway.

Although he had never been good enough to play for his country, Hill’s later career in television saw him cover many England matches from the mid-1960s through to the late 1990s and he was seen as a leading voice on their fortunes. In the same way as he performed multiple roles within football, Hill also proved a utility man in television. Provided the BBC had the rights to an England match – and ITV in the few years before he switched channels in 1973 – you could almost guarantee Hill would be putting in an appearance as a presenter, pundit or co-commentator (sometimes doing more than one role on the same broadcast!). He was never short of an opinion, nor was he afraid of who he might upset by making it.

Covering England – and the other home nations – is just about the one instance where pundits can be forgiven for showing clear bias in favour of one team or for looking at things purely from that side’s perspective. Hill was not afraid to show pride in being English – but he would also willingly express his frustration as he witnessed the 30 years of hurt (and more) after 1966 at close quarters.

The birth of the panel

The 1960s saw Hill grow in national prominence, successfully fighting for the abolition of the maximum wage in his capacity as PFA chairman and then enjoying a successful stint as manager of Coventry City. Hill had – by his standards – a fairly minor role in the BBC’s 1966 World Cup coverage. When England met Argentina in the quarter-finals, Hill was alongside Kenneth Wolstenholme as ‘summariser’ (co-commentator in today’s money). The infamous moment when Argentine captain Antonio Rattin was sent off and all hell broke loose saw Wolstenholme quip to Hill: “Well they don’t get this at Coventry City, do they Jim?” Many would have simply chuckled but Hill wasn’t going to miss his chance to share a bit of expert knowledge and instantly replied: “Well as a matter of fact, an Argentine team did once play at Coventry City which ended at half-time because they walked off under similar circumstances…” Alas,such insights did not earn him a similar role for England’s semi-final and final.

Jimmy Hill and the famous ITV panel in 1970.

The following year he surprisingly quit Coventry after winning promotion and joined London Weekend Television full-time. He helped develop The Big Match as a strong competitor to Match of the Day and in 1970 took much of the credit for devising ‘the panel’. It was seen as revolutionary during that World Cup in Mexico to have experts debating the match in the studio at half-time (with things often getting quite heated), with Malcolm Allison, Pat Crerand, Derek Dougan and Bob McNab playing their part in ITV unusually beating the BBC in the ratings. The concept perhaps cemented Hill’s reputation as an innovator (he would later claim credit for the introduction of three points for a win).

Three years later, Hill was lured across to the BBC as MOTD host – becoming synonymous with the show. This role saw him continue to offer his views on England matches, although he would have to wait until 1982 to cover them at a World Cup while with the Beeb. Hill was in the presenting chair at Wembley the night they finally made it by beating Hungary in November 1981. “We’re so grateful we didn’t have to end off this programme saying England didn’t qualify,” he said with relief at the end of an emotional night. 


Jimmy Hill was Mr Match of the Day for many years.

Talking of trouble

One unfortunate issue during the Hill years was the frequency of crowd trouble, often rearing its ugly head when England travelled abroad. Where some pundits may have not seen it as their duty to provide an analysis of the problem and would have wanted to simply discuss the football, Hill assessed it to a great extent – and would look at it from beyond just a footballing perspective. He would express his disgust but you could almost guarantee he would be describing it as “a society problem” and coming up with what steps he thought should be taken to help resolve it. For example, his analysis of England’s match in Ireland in 1995 due to crowd trouble saw him call for identity cards to be worn by everyone.

Not that such views were always appreciated by viewers of course. Thirty years on from the event, Hill has been receiving retrospective criticism lately in the letters pages of When Saturday Comes for his line of questioning when hosting the BBC’s live coverage of the Heysel Disaster as he probed Graeme Souness and Terry Venables on whether national service should be reintroduced. Controversy was something never far away from Hill in his broadcasting years and you could fill several blogs on the subject, including how some Scotland fans have never forgiven him for describing David Narey’s goal against Brazil in 1982 as a “toe poke”. But let’s keep reminiscing about his England years instead.

Taking the mic

Hill was never an out and out presenter. Even during his 15 years hosting MOTD he would usually appear only as a pundit on Sportsnight, often popping up to analyse England matches (imagine Gary Lineker appearing as an analyst on another BBC show today?). He also frequently took on the role of co-commentator, usually performing that role at major tournaments until the late 1980s rather than hosting from the London studio. Probably his most memorable contribution as a co-commentator came when England took on Poland in a do-or-die match in the 1986 World Cup and it did not involve any pearls of wisdom or controversial views. 

As Gary Lineker put England into a crucial early lead, Hill could be heard chortling with delight as he sat alongside Barry Davies. His reaction fitted the mood of the English nation at that moment and showed that for whatever criticisms he aired, deep down he wanted his country – and his old mate Bobby Robson – to succeed.

Lineker scores and Jimmy howls with joy.

Although Hill stopped short of becoming a lead commentator, he came pretty close to it when England took on Scotland in the Home Internationals at Wembley in June 1983. While analysing a previous incident, England bore down on goal. Rather than follow the usual protocol of handing the mic back to John Motson, Hill decided to keep talking and describe what was happening. “And here’s Trevor Francis now on the edge of the box… He shoots… And he’s scored….” Motson sounded almost relieved the goal was disallowed, pointing out “the whistle definitely went while Jimmy was talking” as if to stress his irritation that he hadn’t been able to perform his usual role. Like so many others, he found trying to shut up Jimmy Hill wasn’t the easiest task in the world.

No quarter given with El Tel

From 1988-89, a beardless, bespectacled and greying Hill was now just a pundit as he ended his presenting and co-commentary duties. In some respects punditry suited him more naturally than presenting as it meant he could express his views without being responsible for making sure the show finished on time or rushing to the next link. Hill just loved talking about the game and England’s fortunes were central to this. And he had good company. Over the next five years or so he would often be joined for England matches by Terry Venables, a man who was not afraid to disagree with Hill. Although they would occasionally be together for domestic games, Venables’ club commitments meant he was more frequently available for internationals and that was when their partnership thrived.

They were the proverbial old married couple, seemingly unable to agree on anything and almost not wanting to either. This half-time analysis of England away to Sweden in 1989 is an example of that, as the pair disagreed over whether Gary Lineker was at fault for missing a chance and then about if England should look for a winner or take the draw – Hill going against his usual stance of wanting to see flair from England by declaring he didn’t care what they did as long as they kept it at 0-0. There was less warmth on show when analysing England’s 6-0 win over San Marino in February 1993, with Hill visibly annoyed by how Venables had taken his contributions and looking willing to start a proper row while on air.

Hill and Venables – a disagreement was never far away.

It all made for good television and there was a crucial third player in helping the double act thrive. Des Lynam, who had replaced Hill as MOTD presenter and then also took over on Sportsnight, seemed to relish the fact that the pair would argue. He knew what questions to ask to get them going. His laid back manner complemented the duo well. Not that it was always easy for him. On several occasions he had to cut Hill off in full flow so they could finish the broadcast on time. And one sensed Lynam wasn’t overjoyed when Hill pointed out to millions of viewers during live coverage of England against the Republic of Ireland in 1991 that Des was born in Ireland, with all the subtlety of a young boy telling his parents where he had found his big brother’s dirty magazines.

But this was a fun time and, for me at least, probably the last era where the BBC’s football coverage really stood out with an aura about it. Recalling the Hill v Venables arguments in an interview earlier this year, Lynam said: “They actually liked each other very much off screen, but on screen they very often did have opposing points of view and it wasn’t something that we set up. They just did not see eye to eye on a lot of footballing matters. Consequently, it made compelling television. My job really was just to start them off and sit back to watch the argument.”

One distinctive element of the Lynam/Hill/Venables era was they would award marks out of 10 to England’s performance at the end of each analysis. This wasn’t particularly important, but Hill took it most seriously. Whereas Venables would swiftly give a response of say eight, for Hill it was literally a case of no quarter given. Ratings such as “seven and three quarters” would be aired, along with other more convulted responses such as “I was going to say seven out of 10 but now I wouldn’t go above five and a half for that performance” as he reconsidered his view live on air. 

Bigmouth strikes again

Jimmy Hill had played at club level with both Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson and retained a good rapport with them. This didn’t though prevent Hill from criticising England and their management when he thought it necessary. But one sensed Hill felt far more affection for these managers than Graham Taylor, who replaced Robson in 1990. Despite England rarely losing in Taylor’s first two years in charge, Hill raised concern over the performances he was seeing and some of the players being selected (his attitude probably not helped by Peter Beardsley, a player he hugely admired, being axed).

Graham Taylor: Not a member of the Jimmy Hill fan club.

Hill’s opinions eventually prompted an angry reaction from Taylor. After England’s disappointing opening match against Denmark at Euro ’92, Hill expressed his view it was a case of players being paid a lot of money to show they were not masters of their craft. In the days that followed, Taylor gave it back with both barrels. “If it’s that kind of monster, what was your part in the early 60s in creating it?” snapped Taylor in reference to Hill having fought for the abolition of the maximum wage that paved the way for big earnings. Taylor then went on to ask of Hill, who was Fulham’s chairman: “Are you making sure your club are not paying players more money than they should, and making sure your players are going out, morning and afternoon, to work on the basics? Because if they’re not, you’ve got no right to be making this kind of comment.”

It wasn’t the first or last time Hill had talked his way into controversy, but Taylor’s reaction was over the top and summed up his tetchy mood during Euro ’92. One assumes Hill did not shed too many tears for Taylor when he lost his job the following year after failing to qualify for the World Cup – which paved the way for someone he knew very well to lead his country.

The double act ends

In November 1993, England’s slim hopes of making the World Cup finals ended after their 7-1 win over San Marino proved academic. On Sportsnight that night it was time for a proper analysis by Hill and Venables of England’s failure to get there, as Taylor faced the axe. They did a good job, Hill making perceptive comments that still rang true many years later about the problems with the set-up of youth football in England and the lack of real talent available. Venables put his shift in too, while fellow pundit John Toshack was never asked for his opinion and didn’t dare to offer one. Venables was non-committal about whether he would want the England job if offered, but by the time England next took to the field four months later he would be in charge.

And so that proved the end of the Hill-Venables years when covering England, with Hill’s old sparring partner soon moving to ITV to end their double act altogether. Alan Hansen stepped up to the role for England matches and in many respects was a good replacement for Venables, not being afraid to express views which differed from Hill. But it was never quite the same. The age gap was bigger than between Hill and Venables, there seemed a bit less natural chemistry and Scotsman Hansen understandably did not share Hill’s passion for England. 

Jimmy Hill wears his infamous England bow tie alongside a new breed of pundits – Ruud Gullit and Alan Hansen.

Hill soon found his powers on the wane as a young generation of pundits emerged, effectively being relegated to third choice behind Hansen and Ruud Gullit at Euro ’96. At least when England played live on the BBC during the tournament he had a place on the panel, including for the semi-final against Germany. To the surprise of the watching millions, they tuned in to find Hill wearing a bow tie containing the cross of St George. No doubt Gok Wan wouldn’t have recommended such attire but Hill certainly couldn’t be accused of being unpatriotic – and he remained perceptive. “I think it’s 50-50 – you could toss a coin,” he said Hill prior to the semi-final and he was spot on, given just how close the match would be.

The sky’s the limit


The last hurrah: Hill and the other key BBC men from the 1998 World Cup.

Hill remained with the BBC for two more years, a period which included the corporation losing the rights to highlights of most England matches to ITV. By France ’98 he was clearly on the way out. But he finished his 25-year stint with a flourish by arguing with Martin O’Neill over a clearly unfit Ronaldo being picked to play for Brazil in the final, having earlier in the tournament extolled the virtues of Romania all playing with blond hair. It’s testament to Hill that Sky Sports then offered him a role as he turned 70, spending a few years presenting the Sunday Supplement show. When Malta played England shortly before Euro 2000, it was a nostalgic surprise to find Sky using Hill as their studio analyst – showing much the same enthusiasm for the role as he had years before. If only Des and Terry had been with him…

Sorry this has been a long blog but it seems fitting when writing about Jimmy Hill, a man renowned for talking away at length. During his many years in the media Hill, who sadly now has Alzheimer’s, certainly was not universally loved. But he was synonymous with football and television in this country and, by association, with the England team. He joined the BBC while Sir Alf Ramsey was still managing England and left it while Glenn Hoddle was at the helm, working on countless games they played. England matches seemed to bring out the best of him as a football analyst. Although he wasn’t afraid to be very critical of what he saw from England – even having a moan sometimes if they ground out a decent-looking result if he felt they had looked inferior technically – he cared about them. I can’t really think of an equivalent to him in today’s football in England. He certainly was something of a one-off, proving a jack of all trades by performing so many different roles within the game. Hill probably considered himself a master of many of them too – and who are we to argue?

TV Memories of Italia ’90 (Part One)

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There’s currently a fair bit of nostalgia around for Italia ’90 as the tournament took place this time 25 years ago. Our next few blog posts will focus upon that competition and we begin by recalling what it was like to watch ‘on the box’ in the UK, focusing mainly today on the early stages of the competition.

“You’ll be humming it soon”

Mention Italia ’90 to anyone who watched it in the UK and there’s a fair chance Nessun Dorma will soon crop up in nostalgic discussion. The BBC made a fairly bold choice to start each broadcast with Luciano Pavarotti’s operatic recording – there was a risk the stereotypical football fan would loathe it, while the opera buff could resent seeing it used for a sport which had developed a poor image in recent times – but it couldn’t have worked out better all-round. Pavarotti developed a new-found success, the BBC’s coverage was lauded thanks to the tune and there was now a greater and wider appreciation for opera thanks to millions hearing it every day. Given the simultaneous success of World in Motion, football and music have rarely seen so intrinsically linked as they were in the summer of 1990.

Presenter Des Lynam certainly could see the potential in Nessun Dorma. “You’ll be humming it soon – you’ll know the words to it by July 8,” he said as the first BBC broadcast began on June 8. And he was right. The situation was parodied in an early episode of the Channel 4 comedy Drop the Dead Donkey a few weeks later, where the equivalent of a swearbox was installed in the newsroom for anyone humming it. You couldn’t go far without hearing Nessun Dorma that summer and Pavarotti would soon be presented with a platinum disc by the BBC’s Bobby Charlton as sales rocketed.

Pavarotti could forever be grateful for what the BBC had done to further enhance his career and popularity. Reaching number two in the British singles chart in 1990 probably wasn’t something he anticipated when he recorded Nessun Dorma 18 years earlier anyway! In a tournament that was defined more by memorable images than classic matches, the song fitted perfectly over any montage of Italia 90’s standout moments.

But the song’s association with the competition could easily have never happened had BBC’s senior sports editor Brian Barwick not stuck to his guns. In his book Are You Watching the Match Tonight? Barwick recalled being called by a bigwig from the record label a couple of days before the tournament began, informing him they were having second thoughts about the song’s use. Barwick made clear they would not be backing down and stressed they would soon see the success of the song being heard day after day. How right he was.

A summer with Des

By 1990, Lynam was peaking as a broadcaster and he was in his element hosting the BBC’s coverage from the London studio. He had fronted the BBC’s coverage of Mexico ’86 and Euro ’88 and his reputation in football circles had grown further by presenting Match of the Day from 1988-89 onwards. His mixture of charm and confidence and a laid-back manner proved a winning formula with both male and female viewers and he was helping bring the best out of his pundits. They included Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables, who were starting to develop their routine as the proverbial old married couple who would constantly argue. One thing they did reach agreement on was they believed John Barnes had correctly been flagged offside when he scored for England against Belgium, with Lynam taking great delight in presenting television evidence which he believed showed they were wrong.

Des Lynam at home in the BBC studio, joined by sparring partners Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables and the injured England skipper Bryan Robson.

Others to grace the BBC studio included Kenny Dalglish and Ray Wilkins (plus Bryan Robson after flying home injured after the group stage), while Bob Wilson was the patient understudy to Lynam and mainly hosted highlights shows. He would even end up appearing as a pundit on occasions. This would become a decade in which Wilson would have further cause to curse Lynam, who seemed right at the heart of Italia ’90 despite being based in London. But even for Des there was no guarantee that every broadcast would run smoothly, as we will see in the next blog post on this subject…

Two heads aren’t better than one

Apart from Lynam venturing to the stadium for the BBC’s live coverage of England against the Dutch, the BBC presented its coverage of the group stage and second round from London. But ITV seemed caught between wanting to be there and the comfort of presenting from back home and they came up with an awkward mix. Nick Owen was in the London studio and Elton Welsby was in the stadium, without an on-site studio to protect him from the noise around him. Often Welsby seemed to be quite frantically pressing his finger against his earpiece to catch whatever was being said from London.



The two-man ITV presenting team of Nick Owen (top) and Elton Welsby.

Both men would suffer by comparison with Lynam and struggle to match his on-screen authority, although the pair got off lightly compared to Matt Lorenzo four years later. In keeping with the rather ‘Marmite’ nature of the 1990 World Cup, ITV’s theme tune and opening titles divided opinion. Some loved it, others felt what they saw and heard had no right to compete with the BBC’s Nessun Dorma. Again, what the Beeb did was ITV’s main undoing. Although not without faults, this wasn’t so much a tournament when ITV’s coverage was hideously bad but more one when it was never going to come close to matching a rampant BBC.

Brian Moore was finally commentating on a full World Cup tournament, bravely carrying on describing West Germany’s 5-1 win over the United Arab Emirates amid fears he and co-commentator Trevor Francis could be electrocuted as a thunderstorm took hold in the San Siro. But Moore’s presence was missed a bit in the studio. Indeed, ITV’s coverage was perhaps most defined by who wasn’t there rather than who was. The ever-opinionated Brian Clough was the most notable absentee from the punditry team, while Martin Tyler – who had commentated on every England match at the last two World Cups – had been lured away to satellite television where he remains today. 

Jimmy Greaves spells it out.

ITV had brought in Emlyn Hughes and Rodney Marsh as opinionated pundits and England manager-in-waiting Graham Taylor played a fairly prominent role. But right in the middle of the coverage sat Jimmy Greaves, who in each broadcast would wear T-shirts containing ‘witty’ slogans such as ‘Better Leighton Never’. In this episode of Saint & Greavsie he even changed shirts at half-time as if to press home the value of the plays on words. Whoever’s decision it was, the fashion statement for Greaves that summer did little for the credibility of ITV’s reputation as a serious football broadcaster (but this blogger remains a big fan of Greavsie’s – get well soon). Not that it was all jokes and laughs for Greaves that summer, becoming quite outspoken on the punishment dished out to Swindon Town over irregularities.

Other distinctive elements of ITV’s coverage included phone polls and the coverage being “in association with National Power”, with this advert seen over and over again. Although the tournament felt less commercialised than today, there were certainly hints it was going that way with a major tournament sponsor even given some publicity in this interview with Bobby Robson as he enjoyed a can of Coca-Cola.

Missing the match

Television was becoming increasingly powerful in football by 1990, but it wasn’t quite the great god it now is. During the World Cup group stage, there were 11 instances of two matches being played at the same time. In the pre-red button era, this meant the other match could not be seen live (unless you were in a minority with access to Eurosport for some of those matches). The problem in Britain came to a head on June 16, when England and Scotland played matches at the same time; then due to being in the same group England and Ireland played matches simultaneously five days later (that would still be the case today, but in such circumstances now the other match can be accessed far more easily). I never understood why on certain occasions like that agreement could not be reached for the BBC to show one match and ITV the other, particularly as seven of the last nine matches in the knock-out rounds ended up being screened live by both of them so the channels were not afraid to go up against each other.

There were also some instances of football not totally dominating the schedules, with hosts Italy’s primetime group stage match with the USA not shown live by either the BBC or ITV despite it not clashing with any other match. The same would happen a few days later when there were two matches in Group E played at the same time but not screened live, while the BBC only joined live coverage of West Germany against Colombia at half-time. That was the only time any of Colombia’s group games were live on terrestrial television in the UK, while the talented Yugoslavia were not afforded any live coverage on the BBC and ITV during their opening three matches. Hard to imagine today.

More to follow on this subject soon, as well as other memories of Italia ’90…