John Bourn looks back at ITV's neglected trump card, its regional coverage
When ITV’s outgoing director of programmes, David Liddiment, criticised the BBC in a newspaper interview on August 19, their response was cutting: Liddiment was accused of “having presided over the most disastrous period in ITV’s history”.
One cause of that disaster has been ITV’s near-abandonment of a regional system that, despite its current unpopularity within the boardrooms of Carlton and Granada, has served the network well. It is a format that at the time of writing seems likely to win them back the rights to screen Nationwide League highlights at a cost of little more than £2 million a year. Most club chiefs, despite their fury over the ITV Digital fiasco, recognise that ITV’s network of 15 regional franchises offers a degree of local coverage that other stations cannot match.
Although ITV was established in 1955, the present regional boundaries stem from 1968. In that year, ITV Sport was revamped and a director of sport was appointed for the first time. World of Sport became a Saturday afternoon mainstay and, most importantly for football fans, a pattern of regional coverage was introduced that would endure for almost 15 years.
With the BBC holding the rights to Saturday evening football coverage (having launched Match of the Day in 1964), ITV’s programmes were screened on Sunday afternoons. The most famous and widely seen was London Weekend’s The Big Match. (Insomniacs can catch replays of some of the more memorable games covered by the programme in a current Tuesday late night slot on ITV.) With LWT’s deep pockets behind it, The Big Match enjoyed better production values than its regional rivals, enabling its host, the late Brian Moore, to present a slick mixture of three games, interviews and analysis. At Christmas, a special celebrity version would be broadcast, excruciatingly hosted by the likes of Elton John or Kevin Keegan. As well as its London and south-east base, The Big Match was also screened in smaller ITV regions that had no league teams of their own to cover (like Ulster and Channel Television) or in regions that had too few teams to justify their own show (like Border and Westward).
Second in the ITV football pecking order was ATV’s Star Soccer. Each week, the sheepskin-clad Hugh Johns, who always reminded you of a slightly raffish uncle, would present a main match featuring a midlands team, plus one or two other games from around the country. Johns was one of the most durable of ITV commentators and, for many years, their lead choice for the World Cup. Granada’s football coverage was associated with the slightly plummy tones of Gerald Sinstadt until 1980, when he moved to the BBC and was succeeded by the upwardly mobile Martin Tyler.
Tyler had started work as a commentator for tiny Southern Television in the early Seventies, before moving to Yorkshire Television, where he succeeded excitable rugby league man Keith Macklin. In turn, John Helm followed Tyler when the latter was promoted to the national network. With a large number of sides in their area, Yorkshire’s Football Special programme probably visited more different grounds than any other ITV broadcaster, although Leeds tended to predominate, to the regular annoyance of fans from rival teams.
Anglia was the fifth ITV region to screen a regular Sunday highlights show. With fewer league sides in their area than other stations, their Match of the Week programme focused largely on Ipswich and Norwich. Their first commentator was pipe-smoking John Camkin, a director of Coventry City. In the late Sixties he was followed by Gerald Sinstadt, before his move to Granada. But the commentator most associated with Anglia was Gerry Harrison, who spent more than 20 years with the station, becoming their head of sport before his departure in 1993 to join an American-owned TV company.
The last of the “Big Six” stations producing regular football highlights programmes was Tyne Tees. They were by far the smallest and, compared to the glitzy Big Match, their football coverage was a shoestring operation. Not until 1975 could Shoot!, their Sunday lunchtime show, afford on-screen graphics or slow-motion replays. Programmes usually featured just one match and whether the game was a classic (like Middlesbrough 4 Coventry 4 in October 1974) or a bore (Darlington 0 Barnsley 0, one week earlier), it received the same amount of airtime.
However, Tyne Tees did achieve something of a coup by employing Kenneth Wolstenholme as their chief commentator in 1974. Despite his World Cup fame, Wolstenholme had fallen out with the BBC in 1970 when they began to groom David Coleman as his replacement. At the time, the veteran mike-man made clear his distaste for the phoney hysterics of modern-day commentators, and his commentaries for Tyne Tees had a charmingly laidback, retro quality.
Nothing fazed him, not even the assignment of covering Hartlepool v Workington on a cold November day in 1974. It must have seemed a long way from the Maracana. My favourite bit of Wolstenholme commentary came when the station screened a 4-2 away win for Jack Charlton’s effervescent young Middlesbrough side at Newcastle in January 1978. As Boro’s promising striker Stan Cummins broke away to grab the fourth, Ken reached back into his distant childhood for an appropriate schoolroom metaphor: “That gives him ten out of ten and one for neatness!”
Leaving aside STV and Grampian, who had their own arrangements with the Scottish League, two other ITV regions also broadcast football on an irregular basis. Southern Soccer’s periodic screenings focused mainly on Southampton and Portsmouth and employed a variety of commentators, including the youthful Martin Tyler, David Bobin and tennis man Gerald Williams, while HTV would occasionally cover a local match involving Cardiff, Swansea or the Bristol clubs, with Roger Malone commentating.
But by 1983, ITV bosses were becoming disenchanted with recorded football. From now on, the mantra was to be “live and exclusive”. They particularly resented the obligation to screen Third and Fourth Division games, requiring Hugh Johns to head for unfamiliar Shrewsbury or Wolstenholme to shelter from the icy North Sea blasts at Hartlepool. Occasional regional coverage did limp along for a few more years, but it was marred by dull, lifeless presentation and increasingly ludicrous screening times – by the late Eighties, Tyne Tees’ infrequent highlights shows were appearing close to midnight on Saturday nights and LWT’s at 9.25 on Sunday mornings.
Whatever may transpire under the new deal for Nationwide League coverage, it is unlikely to compare with the halcyon days that ended in May 1983. For the last time, World of Sport would display a caption listing a series of games and Dickie Davies would announce; “Wherever you are in the country, you’ll see at least one of these matches.”
From WSC 188 October 2002. What was happening this month