M is for MOTD…
English football hardly wants for institutions, but even in this era of glib Alan Shearer anti-analysis, Match of the Day stands out as one of the most beloved pillars of the national game.
Since 1973 the programme has been pumping football highlights, punditry and opinions into homes up and down the country, seeing off every adversary that has risen to challenge it.
Jimmy Hill was the original anchorman, taking up the role of main presenter in 1973, but the show itself began almost a decade earlier in August 1964 when highlights of a match between Liverpool and Arsenal was screened to just 20,000 viewers. That was less than half the number of those who attended the game itself.
Offside’s Mark Leech remembers the arrival of Match of the Day as a regular fixture on the TV schedule:
“Match of the Day didn’t come on until I was a bit older. Apparently, Match of the Day came in as a tester to get their cameramen used to covering the World Cup, as they had to show the whole world. You couldn’t have people being on their first day on the job, so the BBC brought Match of the Day in to train the guys up, which is amazing looking back now.”
The letter M could have so easily just been left for the one and only John Motson: the sheepskin-wearing voice of Match of the Day for many. Although his time as a TV commentator has largely come to a close, his presence lingers over the show and all football broadcasts in the UK due to his idiosyncratic phrases, imitable tone of voice and status as a semi-national treasure. He is a living link back to the golden age of past commentary greats such as Barry Davies, under who he worked as a bright young thing and understudy back in the early years of Match of the Day.
Yet the show’s place as the primary terrestrial TV outlet for football in England has long been contested. ITV have historically been their main rivals, and at various points in their histories the “other side” did manage to gain the upper hand.
ITV’s The Big Match arrived in 1968, causing Match of the Day to bolster their offering by increasing the number of games covered each episode to two. What a time it was to be alive!
By 1971, the usurpers had won the exclusive rights to show football. An Office of Fair Trading ruling forced the two channels to share the rights. The two sides battled for supremacy throughout the following years, with international tournaments and the First Division becoming key battlegrounds.
In 1997, ITV finally snatched away the rights as part of their doomed ITV Digital masterplan, with terrestrial highlights of the Premier League exclusively shown on their new programme The Premiership. It’s host of presenters and strange new formats—Andy Townsend’s Tactics Truck, anyone?—led to The Premiership failing to win the hears and minds of its audience however. In the meantime, Match of the Day kept going on the scraps of FA Cup matches and whatever else they could get their hands on.
Today, Gary Lineker has taken on Hill’s mantle and led the BBC’s flagship football show into a new era of flashy sets, fancy CGI graphics and increasingly divisive pundits. Yet regardless of the criticism, Match of the Day is stronger and more popular than ever.
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