TV

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.

England on TV – Life Before the Red Button

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In the first of a series of nostalgic recollections of the experiences of millions watching England on television, we focus on when live coverage was a luxury rather than taken for granted. Without digital television available to offer multiple channels and sometimes for other reasons too, there were times when viewers couldn’t be assured of just sitting down and watching England’s full 90 minutes from their armchair…

You join us with John Barnes having just scored an amazing goal…

  

John Barnes celebrates possibly the greatest England goal you never saw live.

During the 1980s, there was an annoying trend for only the second half of some international matches to be broadcast live in the Uk. It happened a bit during the 1986 World Cup group stage (not for matches involving England) but probably the best remembered example came in June 1984. England travelled to Brazil for a friendly but the match would not be shown in its entirety. Instead, ITV would only broadcast the second half live as viewers were left to endure Surprise, Surprise instead of the first half action. 

As a result, one of the most famous goals England have ever scored was not seen live by almost all Englishmen (the exceptions being the lucky few in the stadium or in the ITV studio), as John Barnes went on his mazy run moments before the break and slotted home. There were plenty of instances of England matches being shown only as highlights rather than live (at some point most of us endured a Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? struggle to avoid the score before highlights of an England match were shown) but viewers wouldn’t even get to enjoy the goal as if watching live. The programme began and Jim Rosenthal told viewers England had just gone 1-0 up thanks to John Barnes’ wondergoal before very brief first half highlights were shown after a bit of a delay. The second half saw Mark Hateley score to seal a 2-0 win but there were further problems to blight the broadcast (more on that in the next blog).

England’s friendly win in Greece in February 1989 left viewers having to wait for Neighbours to finish before they could see the second half live, but it wasn’t just friendlies not afforded the full 90 minute treatment when England went abroad. Their decisive final qualifier for Euro 92 away to Poland saw the BBC only join the action at half-time, with a similar situation existing for their World Cup qualifier in Norway in June 1993. And going back to the 1966 World Cup, ITV made the ill-fated decision to join some games England played while they were in progress – playing into the hands of the BBC who showed them in full.

Inconceivable now, but not seeing big matches in full was accepted by past generations. Any live football at all felt like a bonus.

The worst of both worlds

  
Denmark go through and ITV’s hopes of big viewing figures for the second half of England’s match against Luxembourg are gone.

In November 1983 England were clinging to the slim hope of making the Euro ’84 finals. They would almost certainly win their final match in Luxembourg, but they had to hope Denmark would fail to triumph in Greece a couple of hours earlier to be able to qualify. ITV seemed caught in two minds as to what to show. They wanted to be there for the moment England got through to the finals if it happened in Luxembourg, but they also knew the match in Greece was what would really decide their fate. They made a decision to show the last half hour of the Greece v Denmark match and then later join the action for Luxembourg against England at half-time. 

The trouble was, all they showed in the first match was Denmark seeing out their 2-0 win to seal qualification and end English hopes – with the second match now a dead rubber that England were in little mood for. Viewers again watched a game pretty much already settled when live coverage started, with England 2-0 up at half-time. To England’s credit they put on a professional showing to win 4-0 in difficult circumstances, but it felt like a non-event. ITV’s decision to show the climax to both matches had logic to it and would have worked fine if Denmark had failed to win in Greece, but it had backfired and left viewers feeling they hadn’t really seen any gripping action during the night.

A decade later, ITV’s rivals at the BBC would try a different approach during the final round of qualification matches – but again fail to please everybody…

We interrupt this programme to bring you Wales v Romania…

  

Millions more see Paul Bodin miss his penalty for Wales against Romania than would have done a few minutes earlier.

In November 1993, England were away to San Marino in their final World Cup qualifier. To put it simply, they had to win by a big score and hope the Netherlands lost in Poland at the same time to make the finals. It was a tall order and as the night wore on it became clear English hopes were over, as the Dutch enjoyed a 3-1 win to seal their place in the USA and ensure Graham Taylor’s side wouldn’t make it. 

The BBC were showing England’s match live, but during the second half – with the Three Lions leading 4-1 and both the match and hopes of qualification effectively dead – a decision was taken to switch to live coverage of of Wales against Romania from Cardiff. The winner-takes-all Welsh match was on a knife-edge at 1-1, with Terry Yorath’s side the last hope of a British team making the finals. VIewers saw Paul Bodin miss a penalty and Romania get a late winner to leave Wales missing out, but at the same time they missed the final three England goals in their 7-1 win

It basically boiled down to if your main concern was seeing if any British side could make the finals or you were solely concerned about England as to whether you were bothered about the sudden switch of match – evidently plenty fell into the latter camp judging by the BBC switchboard being jammed with complaints. Still, they had at least shown San Marino’s infamous goal in the opening seconds which would be easily the most memorable moment of the night! Those with Sky Sports could see the match in full and England would not be shown live on terrestrial television again until Euro ’96.

How the Beeb must have wished digital television and the red button came along many years earlier…

Where’s the England match?

All told, England fans generally have it better than any English club side when it comes to watching them on television, with pretty much every much televised live (or quite often in extended highlights form until recent times). But this means it has been more noticeable when the coverage has been either very limited or non-existent. 

  
The BBC bills live coverage of their Euro ’88 match with the USSR, but things would turn out differently…

One such example came in Euro ’88, where the BBC faced a dilemma over whether to show England or another fixture. The Three Lions’ final group match against the USSR had a few days earlier been unsurprisingly billed as the live match (see above pic), but two defeats put Bobby Robson’s side out before the fixture took place. In the same group Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland were up against the Netherlands in a decisive match for both sides at the same time, with the BBC changing plans and opting to show that instead – the under-pressure Robson probably wasn’t complaining as it meant English viewers watched just a few minutes of a dreadful performance in losing to the USSR, rather than having to sit through the entire debacle! The emergence of multiple channels for the BBC and ITV has thankfully removed such dilemmas for them in major tournaments in the present day – would ITV have switched to Italy against Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup instead of England’s dead rubber with Costa Rica if they still only operated only one channel?

ITV was off the air for three months in 1979 and that meant England’s home Euro ’80 qualifier against Denmark went unscreened, with other games having not been shown over the years for a variety of reasons including friendlies in Portugal in 1974 and in Brazil in 1977. Granada viewers missed out due to a strike when England met Czechoslovakia in the 1970 World Cup, while Central opted out of ITV’s live coverage of the Euro ’92 qualifier away to the Republic of Ireland so they could show coverage of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Coventry Blitz in the Second World War. England’s trip to Australia in 1980 was not covered on these shores, with a three-match trip there in 1983 receiving better, but still fairly scant, coverage.

Since the early 1990s pretty much every England match has been shown live somewhere, although this hasn’t prevented complaints about subscription channels such as BSB, Sky Sports and Setanta holding the rights – there was plenty of debate on the latter having exclusive coverage of the 4-1 win for England away to Croatia in September 2008. 

The World Cup qualifier in Poland in May 1997 was controversially live only on the newly-launched Channel 5, which some parts of the country had problems receiving. Another qualifying match in Finland in October 2000 could only be seen on a pay-per-view channel, leading to Kevin Keegan speaking out on the issue and in October 2009 the trip to Ukraine was as close as we’ve come to a TV blackout in modern times – only being screened live on the internet. Things had certainly much changed from the days of Kenneth Wolstenholme!

In the next blog post on the subject, we will recall more frustrations for the TV viewer when England played – including dodgy camerawork and transmission problems blighting broadcasts.